Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner
The Four Myths Your Muse Desperately Wants You to Believe, Part 4
by Karen S. Wiesner
Based on FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE (formerly titled FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS)
This is the final of four posts dealing with how writers can get their muses to work with rather than against them.
In Part 3 of this article, we talked about the third myth your muse desperately wants you to believe. Let's continue.
Myth Four: Outlines and setting goals stifle a writer’s creativity.
I went online and conducted an informal poll with authors about the use of outlines in order to see an interesting slice of the writing life. I asked participating writers if they use outlines to write novels. The majority of the 76 authors who responded to this poll were published. Thirty-eight percent of them said they always use an outline, 38 percent said they sometimes use an outline, 28 percent said they never use an outline, and one percent said they’d like to use one.
Then I asked authors how many drafts they write to get to a final, polished, salable novel. Forty-seven writers voted, 98 percent of whom were published. Forty-seven percent of the authors said they had to write four or more drafts of each book, 15 percent had to write three drafts, 30 percent had to do two drafts, and only eight percent need a single draft.
These poll results, while obviously not conclusive, nevertheless astounded me. Thirty-eight percent of published and unpublished authors said they do use outlines in some form; 28 percent said they never use outlines. In contrast, 47 percent of mostly published authors said they have to write four or more drafts to get a final, polished, salable novel! Only eight percent of them do one draft to get the same results. Based on the many interviews I’ve read in writing magazines with published authors, I believe my informal polls do show a fairly accurate picture of writers these days. It seems that even the household-name authors follow a spiritual journey of manuscript writing rather than an organized system or solid road-map. How can this be?
I think we can all agree that the publishing market these days is in a major state of chaos. Even more thwarting is if those authors can only write one book a year. In this current state of publishers folding, changing hands, and concentrating mainly on their prolific, best-selling authors, it’s absolutely essential that writers learn how to finish quality novels and to do it fast enough to keep the momentum of their careers rolling steadily. Published authors who want to compete in a totally chaotic market need to learn to write fewer drafts because they can sell a proposal “on spec,” which generally translates into selling more in less time.
I’m not suggesting in any way that authors should crank out inferior novels simply to sell. Too many writers already do that. I’m suggesting that the best time to learn to create a fantastic novel fast, to learn to “write tight”, is during a writer’s unpublished years. As soon as you finish your first novel and submit it to a publisher or publishers, start a second because you never know how much time you have once "the call" comes. For the published writer, the ideal way to keep rolling along is to write at least one or two projects ahead of your contracts. (If you’re unpublished and still in the formative stage of being a writer, don’t let this scare or intimidate you—let the creative process take you where it will.)
I would venture a guess that the authors who are selling like hotcakes and making the New York Times Bestseller List are using outlines in some form, they’re writing more than one novel a year, and they have specific goals that encompass years in advance.
There is no wrong way to write a book. I’ll be the first to state that emphatically. I’ve talked to hundreds of authors, published and unpublished, and all of them have their own, unique ways of working. There’s no wrong way, but there are very ineffective ways of writing, especially after you’re published.
John Berendt says, “Don’t make an outline; make a laundry list. The very idea of an outline suggests rigidity; items on a laundry list can be shifted around. Don’t lock the structure in too early. A piece of writing should evolve as it’s being written.” Never mind the fact that I don’t have a clue what a “laundry list” is (something like a grocery list?). The point is, I hear the same thing from almost every writer I talk to, whether or not they’re published: Writers like outlines about as much as a homeowner likes termites. The word can actually make some writers cringe and do a full-body shudder. The idea of an outline doesn’t inspire them, sounds like too much work, seems too confining, absolutely unappealing, necessitates the ability to see far ahead in a novel, I can’t possibly work that way!
Now I can hear the questions arising in a tumult: Is it possible for an outline to be flexible? To take into account my individuality as a writer? Can I continue to be creative using an outline? Can I use an outline for writing any fiction genre? Can using an outline reduce the number of re-writes I have to do? Can it really take me less time to complete a project from start to finish using an outline?
Many authors are seeking something to give them direction and embrace their individual way of working without robbing them of the joy of creating. They want something that will streamline the process in order to make them more productive, so they’re not digging up endless, empty holes. They want something that will help them work more productively before they ever start writing a word of an actual book, and do it in a way that won’t rob them of the joy of their craft. They aren’t aware that a full outline can achieve all this because someone has, however sincerely, led them to believe a writer’s job has to be an ethereal, intuitive journey, which means they have to stay firmly under their muses’ controlling thumb.
An outline can be flexible, can be so complete it may actually qualify as the first draft of a novel. An outline can also make it possible that writers, in fact, do less work, not only reducing the number of drafts they have to do per project, but possibly even reducing it to a single draft. More books finished a year and quite likely more sales to publishers. The clearer a writer’s vision of the story before the actual writing, the more fleshed out the story will be once it makes it to paper.
We’ve already established that countless writers believe outlines are rigid, unmalleable creatures which hinder them in the quest of true and righteous creativity. But there is another way of looking at them. Instead of viewing an outline as an inflexible, unchangeable hindrance, imagine it as a snapshot of a novel. A snapshot that captures everything the novel will contain on a much smaller scale. A snapshot that can be “airbrushed” and rearranged until it’s smooth, strong, and breathtakingly exciting. Now, in the same vein, imagine revising 50 to a 100 pages instead of 250 to 400 pages. That, you must admit, my fellow writer, is an ideal place to begin.
Remember, anytime you as a writer gain control over an aspect of your writing, your muse is reined in, and—if you’re determined enough to succeed—eventually your muse will have to accept the task of being your assistant rather than being your master. Someday your muse will even realize it enjoys its role as an assistant and will rise to meet every challenge just as eagerly as you do because you’re a team who respects each other and the two of you have mutual goals. Just as children thrive under gentle yet firm direction from their parents or caretakers, so, too, will your muse.
Are you willing to take the risk of battling with your muse, author? Do you believe the benefits of taking that risk could be well worth it in the end if it meant becoming a productive writer with an assistant (your muse) to die for? Would you be willing to take the risk if it meant you could start a project and complete it, easily and quickly, without wasting time in possibly fruitless searches, meandering aimlessly as you wait for divine inspiration?
If you’re willing to take a leap of faith and commit yourself for the long haul, using an outline that tracks your novel from start to finish can be the very thing you need.
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of First Draft Outline
Volume 1 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series. Visit her here: