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Organization, self-discipline win the day for writers — or do they?


Careful organization combined with self-discipline are a must for successful writers, aren’t they?

Or, are they really?

Perhaps a better question would be: What works best for you when it comes to your writing career?

I recall some years ago, when I was aspiring to being the next Stephen King or Dean Koontz, or perhaps Lawrence Block or Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, I read everything I could find in the way of how-to books by successful novelists. I even bought a book (The Marshall Plan, perhaps, was the name of it? I don’t remember.) which claimed to show a step-by-step system for generating an idea, planning, outlining, and writing a best-selling novel.

The problem with all of that, from my standpoint, is that I would rather pull my fingernails out with pliers (well, maybe just one) than master all those methods, plans and schemes for writing a novel. I seem to recall the “plan” put forth in that I-think-it-was-named-The-Marshall-Plan-book was so complicated that it involved crafting tiered levels of index cards as plotting and outlining tools. After looking it over closely and giving it a start, I discovered the plan would actually create a pile of cards and other documents amounting to almost an entire novel in itself.

More significantly, I discovered as I began to read more recent how-to books by writers like King and Koontz that they only partially followed their own stated approaches to novel writing. In his excellent book published a few years ago, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” King admitted that he generally does his best work when he tosses out formal plotting and outlining and relies on his imagination to answer the “what if …” and “what happens next is …” situations that arise in writing a novel. Dean Koontz, who wrote a couple of “how-to” books for novelists in the 1970s and ’80s, takes much the same approach to structuring a novel. (I encourage everyone reading this to go to Koontz’s website and read some of his Q&A responses there. Though his works seems to flow magically when you read it, he says he often does 20+ revisions per page when he’s writing a novel.)

According to interviews he’s given on television, best-selling author John Grisham is one of the success stories of careful plotting and detailed outlining. He spends months doing all that groundwork, sometimes amassing hundreds of pages of material, before he starts actually writing a novel.

So what works for you? Do you write best when you’ve thought through plot lines and written outlines, back stories for your characters, etc.? Or do you write best when you move the story along scene-by-scene as it unfolds in your head, with little planning and plotting? If you do extensive pre-writing research, plotting, and outlining — why? If you don’t do all that groundwork, how do you actually move your story forward, i.e., how to you start “here” and go about getting “there”?

Leave us a comment and tell us about how you do the magic.