Session: Trusting The Creative Process: How To Write A Novel Without An Outline
Dean Wesley Smith is a prolific writer, multi-bestselling author and huge proponent of writing into the dark. In other words, writing without an outline. In this presentation, Dean delves into creativity, examines the myths that so many authors build up around their own writing and shows you that writing all of us can write fast and write quality prose.
Format: Video Interview
Audience: All Levels
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Question: Can you tell us a little about you and your writing career
Dean: I think I can do that under 30 minutes. So just, my name is Dean Wesley Smith and I’ve been in the publishing industry now for about 40 years, frighteningly enough. Sold my first short story back in 1974 and been full time since ’88 in the publishing industry, so 30 years full time at this. I’ve been an editor, I’ve written over 200 novels now and about the first hundred of those, 106 of those to the best of my count, were in traditional publishing, meaning, you know, with contracts and out of the big, big publishers. And then the rest of them have been indie published through my own company. My wife and I started a company, a publishing company. I’m a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and have written, you know, 7-800 short stories along the way too, as well as a whole bunch of nonfiction books and everything.
Dean: So I’ve been at this a long, long time. So
Question: Can you explain what ‘writing into the dark’ means for writers?
I wouldn’t recommend writing into the dark too much with the nonfiction because that takes more prep and you know, accuracy and stuff. But fiction, you’re just making it up. You’re just making up a story. I often will tell people, they say, what do you do for a living? And if I’m in a mood, I’ll say, “I sit alone in a room and make stuff up.” They look at me and I say “And people pay me enormous amounts of money for doing that.” And, and that always, you know, so my attitude is that, after a lot of years, I like to entertain myself and have some fun. And so the only way to do that as far as I’m concerned is to mimic the writing process like the reading process.
Dean: I love to read, all of us do. And you know, and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the book when you’re reading a book. If you do, you tend to not read it. And so the writing into the dark is basically with no outlines at all with no plotting note, character sketches, no trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. Nothing. It’s just exactly like reading. It’s the processes. It just mimics the reading process, the writing process, and therefore it’s a lot of fun because you get really excited. You have to keep your critical voice out of the way completely. The voice that says, “Oh, you can’t do that,” or “Oh, this is garbage” or whatever. You have to keep that completely dormant and you have to just let the creative voice, the little kid in you just play.
Dean: What occurs is it becomes like a roller coaster at that point. You have lots of fun. It kind of goes slow at times and then it goes really fast at times. And then there’s moments of terror where you don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next. And you don’t worry about it. You just write the next sentence and you write the next sentence and on it goes. So writing into the dark is basically meaning it’s mimicking the reading process for you as a writer. The good things about it, of course, is if you don’t know what’s going to happen next, the readers certainly don’t. So you’re not, you know, telegraphing subconsciously to readers if you have an outline and things like that. Outlines, I tend to think, are based in fear. I had to do hundreds of outlines in my traditional publishing days.
Dean: That’s how you sold books. And I did a lot of media work with Star Trek and Men in Black and things like that. And Spiderman, X Men, I wrote all of that stuff and one of the things you had to do is you had to do outlines for those novels. For those books. What I would always do is I would do an outline and then I would never look at it again. Once it was approved, I would never look at the outline again. I would just say, “Oh, that’s it.” And, just never glanced at it again. I would just write even those books into the dark. So yeah, I’ve been doing this a long time, mostly because I get bored easy. And if I know what’s going to happen, I get bored. I don’t want to do it.
Dean: I want to go do something else. A lot of my friends say, I haven an “Oh, shiny!” disease. If there’s something shiny over there, I’m going to go over there, you know? And so how I’ve managed to do over 200 novels, you know, with this “Oh, shiny!” disease is
Question: When you write into the dark, what is your process from inital idea to publication?
I sit down, I often start novels or short stories with a title. That’s my trigger, it’s just a title. I just make up a title. I’m usually, the titles are parts of other titles or you know, things like that I’ll take just or two phrases or I’ll go, “Oh, that would be a great title.” It never triggers an idea. I don’t have, ideas are to, you know, after all these decades, you know, ideas are just everywhere. And I gave up after the first five or six years even writing them down. If I can’t remember them with my bad memory, I have a very bad memory.
Dean: If I can’t remember an idea, it’s not worth me writing. It’s not worth the time to write it, because that means my creative voice isn’t interested that much. So it’s only the idea, but even anymore, I don’t even have those. It’s, I just sit down and put a character, start with a character and you know, where the characters at and everything and then just see where it goes and tend to get them in trouble. They always get in trouble fairly quickly or they’re trying to solve something if I’m writing a mystery they’re, you know, there’s a crime involved in some form or another, or if I’m writing one of my science fiction novels, there’s some things going on that way. But I just start with character. It never occurs to me to have ideas. It never occurs to me anymore to worry about where it’s going at all because we have, as humans, we have incorporated, story since our parents read it to us.
Dean: You know, when we were babies, they were always reading and we were reading early and, and television and movies and all that. That’s all story. And so we have incorporated story into our very being and the problem we have as writers, especially starting off, is that we don’t trust that. We don’t trust that we have it and that it’s part of who we are, that we can tell stories without even thinking about it because we get really fearful of, “Oh, it might not be right or someone might laugh at me or it may not sell” or what, you know, all those fears and it’s all fear based. And that brings in the critical voice, which is the surface voice. The voice right along the front of our brains. Surface voice doesn’t know how to write. It’s awful. And that’s why when people rewrite, they make it worse almost uniformly. If they just trusted their first draft, wrote it clean, don’t write sloppy, just write clean, meaning, you know, don’t leave anything or don’t get in a hurry. Just write it. Maybe cycle, cycle back.
Question: Can you explain the concept of ‘cycling’ and how you edit a bit further?
Dean: What cycling, I thought when I started off, you know, and got going and became a, you know, into the 80s, late eighties when I was going full time at this, I thought I was weird and we were still on typewriters back in those days. And, you know, and I thought it was weird because I would go in, go about four or 500 words and then go back and fix stuff and add stuff. And so I would go about 400 words. I would literally write it again into the typewriter and it got easier once we’ve got computers into, you know, into their late eighties, early nineties is when I got my first computer. And then it got real easy because I would go back about 500 words and then just kind of touch it, clean it up, add stuff that got left out, and then go another 500 words and then come back again and then just do it again.
Dean: So it looked like, see when readers read a book, it’s a straight line. They start it on word one and they end on the last word of the book and you can just draw a straight line. I call that the timeline of the book. That’s just, you know how a reader reads it. And we, as beginning writers, we think we have to write that way, but we don’t because we’re the god of our own books. We can do anything we want. So you can write the last chapter and then write the first chapter and then write middle chapters. It doesn’t matter as long as the reader has an experience of reading from word one to the last word. So what I do is I kind of look at it as I go about 400 words along the timeline and then I jump out of the timeline and cycle back.
Dean: If you watch or read a book by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse Five, and it was also a movie Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim the, the main character of that book and that movie was unstuck in time in his own life. He can go to his birth, he could go to his death, he could see all of the events of his life and he could move around in them. And, you know, it was a tremendous piece of writing by Vonnegut. But, that’s how I look at novels. I look at that novel, that timeline that the readers are going to do, but I can write at any point in that timeline at any point. You know, I can jump around anywhere I want to.
Dean: My wife is a writer, her name is Christine Catherine Rush and she often will write books out of order, where she’ll have chapters this and chapters that then she has to puzzle them together to get that timeline in there. And it’s very frustrating to write that way. I’ve had to do that about two different books out of the 200 because that’s very frustrating to go, “I wrote this, I wrote that. Where does that go and how does that hit here and where does that hook together?”
Dean: And you know and to try to get that reader experience of the timeline of the book, that straight line reader experience. I tend to now right along that reader experience, but I jump out all the time. I’m tending to write, because I grew up reading 40 and 50,000 word novels. That’s all they used to be before the late eighties, middle eighties. You know, it was publishing that caused novels get longer, it wasn’t readers, it was publishing because they needed to charge more for their books.
Dean: And so readers started making writers write a little longer. And I was in that, my first novel was only a 60,000 word contract. And by the time I was done, you couldn’t get a novel under 90,000. And you know, in traditional publishing, that was in a 14 year, 15 year period there. And, because they had to charge more for the book, so they had to have the books be thicker. Well, what occurs for me is I have 40 or 50,000 word novels. They just sorta come out that way because that’s what I grew up on back in the fifties and sixties and seventies. That’s all I read. And they were all that same length. And so my natural inclination is to go that way. Now, writers who are younger, like you probably have a natural inclination to go to the 90,000 word lengths and the 100,000 word length, and you know, and you think, “Oh, only 50,000, how would I get it all in?”
Dean: But to me that’s the right length for a novel. Now, there’s no right answer. I mean, everybody’s different. So I tend to have that. But what occurred in when I was in traditional publishing is I’d be going along and if I wrote the book I wanted to write, it would be 50,000 words, but I had an 80,000 word contract. And so what I would do is I would take the characters on little side trips, like little loops. They would go up and it’s like you’re headed for, you know, across the country on a drive and you think, “Oh, there’s a side road let’s just go up there and then you end up coming right back to the main road. But you know, you take the readers on that little side loop and along. That’s how I wrote those longer books in Star Trek and all the other books that I wrote in traditional.
Dean: Now I just, I cut those out when I go off that way. You know, I literally will be going along and I’ll look back at the end of the book and go, “Oh, I’ve got a loop there that makes no difference to that timeline.” So I will take those chapters and just discard it. And you know, cause words aren’t special, they’re not precious. Writers need to learn how to practice. And it’s like everything you write is just practice. I’m still practicing to this day. I’m still practicing stuff all the time. And so I’m trying to get better, trying to get better at storytelling, but that cycling allows you to clean up. And so when you do hit the end, what I recommend and a number of us were talking one day who write this way, they’re long term pros.
Dean: And we were laughing at the time in our life where we learned that we had to do that, that we had to cycle right at the end because you get to the end and you’re excited about being done. So you forget that last cycle to clean up the last 5-600 words. You know, you get to the end and you stop. And people were saying, “Dean, your ending was a little bit” and I’m like “Oh yeah, I never cycled.” And so all of us long term pros had this, there was three or four of us that had this conversation of, “Oh yeah, I learned that about this point because people were saying this about my endings.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you have to learn if you’re cycling all the way through to clean up, clean up that last bit too. Don’t get excited when you get to the end.”
Dean: I never know when my endings are going to arrive. They just, I’m just going along and then I’m like “Oh, it’s done.” Like, “Oh, cool. Okay. Remember cycle a little bit.” Yeah. I never reread anything I’ve written ever. I just don’t. What I do is I have, you know, I’ll reach for one here, I have a yellow notebook, you know, these legal pads. And what I do is I outline as I go. So I will write a chapter and then I’ll spend literally 15 seconds or so saying “Chapter five. Such and such character was the viewpoint. This happened in this chapter and they were wearing this” if I introduced them in that chapter because that way at a glance I can look back at my yellow pad and go, “Oh, that character was wearing that, good, you know, and back up.”
Dean: So I outline as I go. So by the time I get near the end, I’ve got an outline of the entire book, but I never outline ahead. I only outlined what I have done. So I write the book and then outline so that I can keep track of it. And this helps when you’re doing multiple viewpoint books and stuff, you can say, “Oh, I haven’t visited that character in three chapters or four chapters. I better get back to that character.” You can see it at a glance what you’ve done. You don’t have to hold it all in your head. If I don’t do that, I will change the character’s name right in the middle of book, go from Harold to Canning or whatever.
Dean: It’s horrid that way. All of us have those little flaws that we do in our own writing and you’re, you know, I do have a first reader, it was done and so my process is very simple. I write once through the book, you know, doing the cycling all the way through and I get to the end, I give it to my first reader and their job is to tell me, number one, are there typos and number two are, you know, is something not making sense somewhere or do I have an antecedent problem or you know, is this not clear to the reader? Because my job is to be clear to the reader, not to be arty, just to be clear. And you know, cause I’m an entertainment writer, I write entertainment and I’m very clear on what I’m doing on that.
Dean: And so, you know, and so if I’m not clear, they can’t be entertained because puzzling a reader does not, you know, not in that way, anyhow. And so that’s my, and so what I do at that point is it will take me maybe 30 minutes for an entire novel to put in the corrections that I agree with from my first reader. And then it’s off to the publisher. I never look at it again. And I have somebody that I have trained in my publishing house to do a very light copy edit and I don’t need, you know, my publisher looks at the copy edits and goes, “No, Dean wouldn’t want that. No. Leave that alone. Or yeah, Dean’s fine.” I never look at the books again, ever. Never. I got other books to write. That’s why I write. My job is to tell the story.
Dean: This publishing stuff is, you gotta do it to get it out to readers. But at the same time, I never, I never read my own book, because I know what happened, it’s dull. You know, to me it’s still, I’ve read it, I wrote it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that I’ve written. What I do is I’ll go back, I have entire piles of these notebooks like this and I’ll go back and say, “Oh, I’m going to do like another Cold Poker Gang mystery. And I’ve got eight or nine now in that series. And so I’ll go back and look at it like, “Oh, that character’s this. Oh yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s that character.” I’ll never really have to read the book again. I just look at my old outlines that I did as I wrote and go, “Oh yeah, that’s that character. Okay, I got that. Oh yeah, they’re sat here. Okay, I got that. Oh, they’re wearing this the last time I left out. Okay, good.” You know, or “They wear this kind of stuff.”
Dean: And that’s why these little notebooks, when you outline as you go, that’s where a lot of early writers get lost in the writing in the dark is they literally get lost in what they’ve done. And I do too. My memory is literally nothing. And so if I don’t outline as I go, I don’t outline it ahead. I don’t ever say, “Oh, I’m going to do this.” It’s like, “Oh, I did this. Okay, I’ll write that down, what I did.” And that also leaves my creative voice to keep having fun and playing because it knows it’s not controlled by a roadmap. It’s just going where it wants to go.
Question: What tips would you give authors who want to write into the dark?
Dean: So I would very much attempt to not worry about what’s happening next. I never do, I’ve trained myself to never think about it. This is what the problem is, what happens with any novel, whether it’s outlined or not, about the one third point or somewhere in that middle area, the book turns kind of in your vision it turns to garbage and you don’t want to write anymore and there’s a lot left to do and you’re not really sure what you’re gonna do. And so that’s where most writers stopped writing is right at that one third point. They just, they just stop. And even us old timers, we still get stuck in that middle stuck.
Dean: You know, we can get stuck there. And so your first reaction is, “Well, I better figure out what’s going to happen next.” And you go to your critical voice and make your critical voice, that thing that doesn’t know how to write, doesn’t know anything, it’s learned from your classes in school. It’s learned from, you know, critics. It’s learned from bad reviews. That’s where all that critical voice comes in and you, and so you suddenly engage the critical voice to figure out what’s going to happen next creatively. And that never works and it’s always a disaster. And cause you, then you’ve forced your creative voice into a place that doesn’t want to go. And usually very shortly after that, 90% of books stop right there. They never get written, right in that center point. And you know, and I talked to lots and lots of beginning writers and they all have books that have, “Oh, I started a book and I got 50 pages in or a hundred pages in and I can’t finish it and I don’t know what to do and can you help me?” And I’m like, “Well, my suggestion is forget about what you thought about the end of the book.
Dean: Give your creative voice permission to make up its own ending, to make up the rest of the middle and write the next sentence.” Everybody can write the next sentence. If you don’t worry about what’s going to happen, the next sentence is easy because you kind of go back a few hundred words. You go, you know, and look at it and you go, “Okay, that’s the last sentence I wrote. What’s the next sentence?” And if you keep it down on that level and just say, “What’s the next sentence? What would the character do next? What would happen next?” Just next to just that one sentence. And then you write the next sentence and then you do it again. And after a little while you start picking up speed and your creative voice is off and running. Don’t think about what’s going to happen in the mega, in the meta side.
Dean: You know, just stay down in the, in the write the next sentence, just write the next sentence. And so that’s my best suggestion on that cause that’s where you get stuck. Outlining is always done from critical voice. It can’t be any other way. You can’t outline from creative voice. Writers, some writers say, “Well, I know I do, Dean. I outline from creative voice. It feels..” It’s like, “No, you’re just making up a plot from your front of your brain, you know, and writing it down and your creative voices going ‘Well, that’s okay, I don’t want to do that.’ And the minute you write a bunch of stuff down that you don’t want to do your creative voice, so come up to it and you’ll run into the outline and that’s where you stop. And that’s why so many outliners can’t finish books.
Dean: But then they get more and more fearful. The fear breaks in and you go, “Whoa, if I don’t have an outline, I’ll never finish a book.” Even though it’s the outline that’s causing them to not finish most projects, it’s hard to break out of that cycle once you start out. I write puzzle mysteries that are very kind of twisty and complex and you know, people are like, “How did you not do that without outlining?” And I’m like, “Well, just kind of followed the characters and they would find a clue and then the clue would get twisty.” And, you know, and because I’ve learned that you don’t make it easy on your characters. You make it hard on your character. That’s what fiction is all about. Try and fail, try and fail until finally the very end, the very last try.
Dean: And they succeed. That’s fiction. And so, you know, it’s just one of these things is I’ll be going along and I’ll be stuck and I’ll go, “Okay, I’m going to write the next sentence. I’m gonna write the next sentence” and then I’ll get up and go do something else. Or I’ll be off on an errand somewhere. And that’s exactly when the, “Oh yeah, of course! That’s what-” you know, and it’s literally, I’m only having those epiphanies not more than maybe a half a chapter ahead, but it’s the key, you know, where the next sentence was headed to. My creative voice was leading me there. But then of course it gave it to me in traffic or in something else.
Question: You wrote a 70,000 word novel in ten days. That’s a phenomenal word count each day. What tips can you give to help authors achieve this speed?
Dean: Basically, number one, I got past the myth that writing tires us out, that’s a myth. It doesn’t tire us out. I mean, you’re sitting alone making up stuff. How can that be tiring? I mean, if you’re digging a ditch or you know, laying pavement on the road, or doing something, you know, like that’s tiring, you need breaks and all that. Writing is just, you’re sitting alone in a room and making stuff up. How can that be tiring? It’s not, you can do it all day, but you need to take breaks from to save your wrists and to save other stuff. You know, you need to take breaks on that. What I do is I’m about, I write about 800 words an hour or so. I’m pretty slow compared to, especially some of the younger writers who grew up on, I grew up on a typewriter, hunt and peck. Chris tells me how I have three fingers on each hand involved, the minute she says that I’m back to hunting and pecking again.
Dean: But you know, and so that’s, I’m not very fast, per hour. I’ll, you know, and I’m also cycling, so that’s, you know, I’m going back over this stuff so I’ll get 800 or so finished words in an hour and I’ll take a five or 10 minute break and get up and move around. So how do I write that much? I spend more hours. I don’t have any, I don’t have any misconception that, you know, or any of this “Oh, this is hard work.” I’ve got the best job in the planet. I mean, you know, sitting alone in room, making stuff up. I had a very lower income upbringing where you had to work your eight hours or 10 hours a day and you got your check and it was all gone to bills, you know? Now I’m very rich. I live in a penthouse condo in Las Vegas and you know, and it’s just sort of one of those “Excuse me? And I do that by sitting alone in a room and making shit up?”
Dean: It’s just one of those things where you can’t believe that that’s how easy it is because, yeah. And that’s why you’ll never hear me talk about my writing with using the term work because work to me is going out and digging ditches or are all of that heart, that’s work. You know, working an eight hour day for the paycheck, that’s work. Okay. Writing isn’t work. So I always consider my writing fun. I always consider it a place to play, well, but when you’re considering the place that you go play and have fun, how you make your living, then there is a clash and that takes some time to get through for all writers, I’ve never seen a writer not have a problem unless they were very rich to start off with. You know, like they had family money and stuff then they didn’t seem to have problems with this.
Dean: But those of us who grew up poor, you know, and working and working day jobs and working all that, as we started to write, the writing was the place that we wanted to go to when we got home and that we did on the weekends. And then when you go, suddenly you put the pressure of making that date, you start calling your writing work. “Oh, I gotta go to work.” And that starts shutting it down. And that’s why writers tend to only have four or five, people who call their writing work on tend to have a four or five year lifespan in writing before they, you know, they bogged down. It becomes too hard and it’s all in their head. There’s nothing hard about this job. Nothing. And see I called it a job there. How I write so much is basically I just spend more time sitting. Actually, I also have a writing computer that’s different from this internet computer.
Dean: In fact, I have around me here, I have eight screens. I’m not kidding you. I’ve got 8 computer screens. All of them are these big huge max with some side screens, large side screens. But I have a computer on this way to my right that is nothing but I do lay out for covers and stuff like that. You know, when I’m playing on covers. I have another one that’s an older one that has some older files and stuff. And then over here on a completely different desks to my left and a ways away is my writing computer. It has no internet, it has nothing on it but writing. So when I pull my chair up and pull that out and sit down at that computer at that specific computer, nothing else happens.
Dean: I have all of these other computer’s turned off. That’s all I’m doing. And so my focus is only on creating. There’s no email, there’s no programs, there’s no games, there’s no nothing. So that is another hint that I tell people is make one computer, because they’re cheap these days, make one computer your writing computer. It can be a laptop, it can be, you know, an Ibook. It can be, you know, a big screen. It can be anything you want. The thing to turn off on your computer, on your writing computer, is any grammar checker or spell checker. Because what that does is, is that pops up and you spell a word wrong because we all do, you know, you spell something wrong and it will underline it or it’ll pop it up or whatever and and you go, “Oh!” And that immediately puts you in critical voice.
Dean: It gets you out of creative voice. So you want to turn off the spell checker and turn off. So when I’m actually talking to, you know, people out there, I say, “Oh, I’m a three draft writer.” You know, I write three drafts and I can say that with a straight face, even though I get done it and never look at it again. I spell check everything when I’m done. I turn on my spell checker and go back through and look at everything that’s lit up. I don’t read anything. I just look at the words that are lit up, you know, and spell check. It takes me 15-20 minutes to do for an entire novel, just making sure that everything’s spelled correctly. And then the next draft is that draft where I put in my first reader’s stuff that I agree with. Often, I mean, my first reader’s Christine Catherine Rush, she’s won a Hugo for editing and for, you know, and for other stuff like that. And yet the reality is I never, half the stuff she says I don’t agree with, so I don’t do that.
Question: Tell us where we can find out more about you and your workshops?
Dean: Chris and I started all the workshops because we wanted writers to understand what we wish someone would have told us before we had to learn it the hard way. And, you know, and climb over some of these myths the hard way. So if you really, really, if you’re having struggling with writing, I tell these people, the folks out there in general, climb on Heinlein’s five rules and don’t fall off. If you, you know, you can Google Heinlein’s rules and they’re very basic. And that’s what got me unstuck after seven years of no sales and nothing else. I just climbed on Heinlein’s rules and never looked back.
Sacha: Thank you very, very much.
Dean: You’re welcome.
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