Over the many years I have been writing short stories, back before I even began writing fan fiction for EVE Online – though that was a starting point for more regular writing activity itself – I found I would always stick to a specific method of planning and fleshing out my works. I was not aware at the time, though I had a strange kind of determination to make the system work even when I should have seen it was clearly not. Well OK, to tell the truth, I suppose it was not all that bad. I do remember, a long way back, being able to rattle off large sections of a story at a time before the weight of the system pushed my productivity way down. Maybe having an eager mind full to bursting with ideas had much to do with breaking through the wall. But I am getting ahead of myself and should talk more about the system I stuck to for so long. The system that eventually burned me out for several years.
The first time I began writing longer stories, (as in, more than two pages), I would sit down and write out a detailed note-form of how the story would flow. And when I say ‘detailed’ I do mean down to the specifics. After all, there is nothing wrong with writing to some form of plan to keep you on track. I, however, would take this to another and entirely unnecessary level. I would add in what my character would say, who they talk to, what the place looks like, the sounds in the background, all kinds of stuff that could always stay in my head and flow out as needed when I get to writing actual paragraphs. This plan would usually end up almost a quarter or even a third of the final story length on its own. I would type almost anything I felt, at the time of plotting, would help the story come together when I got down to actually writing the main draft. Looking back I guess I felt this was more a mix of planning and brainstorming all rolled into one. And I would write down anything that sprang to mind there and then out of a fear of losing it later and forgetting to add it back in.
Once this plan was done I would read it through and ensure it all made some sense, sort of like proofreading the outline. (Yes I made a lot of work for myself back then). I would then set the font to grey text and begin writing, following the outline and turning what was a five line paragraph into ten or more, then delete the relevant chunks of the old plan as I go. In the end, I would have a full story I can then proofread and edit as required. And on occasion, as I followed the plan, I would make changes and deviate or rewrite a line in some way that adds something new. And here is where the system became more of a problem, as my stories progressed and became more complicated. If I felt I should change an entire series of events because I had a totally different idea, I would have two choices to make. I can either make the change, which required me to go back over the outline and rewrite everything that has changed, or I would somehow talk myself out of making the large change instead. The former choice came with the obviously added workload battling against my desire to just move on and keep writing, like the outline was a hurdle suddenly in the way between myself and the finish line. And the latter is… well, it is something I have come to realise no self-styled aspirant writer should contemplate doing. At least, not for that reason.
Sad to say that I have done this on occasion if only to avoid the strain of needing to change so much later in the plan and, in some cases, change what I have already written up to this point to provide a better lead-in. At the time I shrugged these choices off, whichever one I made, as just being a part of writing. I convinced myself this is ‘how it is done’, and all part of the process that I was sure many writers go through. I did not question it because it was, at least from my point of view at that time, working for me as a system. And then I hit the burnout.
During this phase, I would begin my outline, get part way through, and then give in for a week or two at a time. Coming back to my half-completed document after one or two weeks away felt more of a chore. I needed to get back up to speed on where I was. I re-read what I wrote previously. I don’t like it. I change a few things before moving along and, another couple of paragraphs in, my creativity and drive were spent again and would put it down. Eventually, I would force myself to get a move on and finish the outline, though I did not enjoy this as much as it felt more and more like hard work. ‘Am I not enjoying writing anymore?’ I would ask myself. Maybe it was the story itself, even though I was working to what I felt was the final wrap up of the fanfic’s major story arc, and I was eager to see it finally done. Completing a creative thing was rare for me and I wanted it done more for that feeling of accomplishment than just being done with it and finally putting it down. I wrote the last three parts of the series during this period of burnout and felt accomplished at the end. And all the way through I stuck to this same system, knowing it was a problem, and never thinking of how it could be done differently.
Even then the last three stories took a long time to get out and, after that, I did very little writing going forward. I was exhausted by the very practice I had adopted for myself. Though I had many plans for many stories, and they now sit on my hard drive untouched and unloved. When I got back to dabbling with them I still persisted in working to my old system of planning. Recently my motivation to write refreshed and I started this website with a desire to write something original. And, yes, you guessed it. I reverted to the old system once more and began half-writing the story in plan form before actually writing it. And it did not take long before the burnout was creeping back.
This revelation finally hit when I discussed this system with my friend, Shai, sometime last year and she was very confused why I did things this way. She suggested that, if I was finding this system restrictive and demotivating, I adopt a more organic writing style. All that creative energy being wasted on planning when it could burst out as fully formed content when it strikes you mid-flow. So I gave it a go.
I have, over the last few months, found this to be much better for my current writing process. I can be spontaneous and flexible at the same time without the dread of making such changes and the impact on work I have already done. I am also finding I do not fatigue as quickly when doing a long writing session. Maybe because I have not already half-written the story only to write it out in full later. As something comes to mind I can add it in.
This is still very much a learning process for me. I have gone through various means of tracking the plot up to now, some of which I went over in my previous blog where I discussed some of my experiments in worldbuilding. Keeping a cast list and making fact sheets for settings, considering the themes of naming and so on. All of this, of course, helps with plotting the overall final story. Beyond that, I am finding ways of keeping track of stories while keeping my outlines brief in comparison to my previous methods. I have found it helps to keep plot points to a couple of lines overall and, instead of expanding on the details there and then, I let questions linger about the specifics and note those down instead.
‘Why does his boss not tell him about that?’
‘Is this more important to her over her duty to the state?’
‘What would happen if this safe house was no longer safe?’
So far I don’t always act on all of these questions, and some of them become irrelevant over time as the plot advances. I have found it oddly liberating to simply delete something I have not used where before I felt like I had somehow failed to not include something in my plot. The same goes for coming up with something new while actively writing, and turning to my note sheet to jot down a question that has come up instead of trying to answer it there and then. Something to chew on later and look for a chance to answer. Currently, with my Ferum Republic story plan, I have questions that have arisen in both planning and writing that even I do not know the answers to. It is kind of exciting, really. Not only do I get to tell the story as I go, I also get to find out what is happening in this world as the story unfolds.
I kind of like this new way of writing. I do not dread picking up my unfinished works and poking and prodding them some more. I am still finding motivation a little bit of a struggle, but that is more now an issue of self over an issue of structure. When I do write, I feel more creative and less constrained. And that is a good thing for getting my writing groove back.