15 October 2011

Different Strokes

by John M. Floyd

This is one of those columns that I suppose is aimed more at fellow writers than fellow readers, although I've found that some readers are interested in this kind of thing as well. Case in point: A few students in my writing classes have confessed that they didn't enroll because they wanted to write--they just wanted to learn about the writing/publishing process. They wanted to find out more about the way writers think, and the way we do what we do. (At first I was surprised that anyone would want to find out more about the way writers think. That could be a scary subject.)

Some quick background info. For more than ten years now, I've taught night classes in fiction writing at a local college. Two courses each fall/winter/spring session, two nights a week for 21 weeks a year. The first is an intro class called "Writing and Selling Short Stories"; the second is an advanced class with the brilliantly original name "Writing and Selling Short Stories, Part 2." More than four hundred students have been through my courses so far, and one of the best things about that gig is that now and then someone who took my classes will call or e-mail me with news of a sale to a major publication or publisher or contest. I'm not naive enough to think I'm the sole reason for those successes, but it still makes me feel great to hear about them.

Anyway, as any teacher of anything will quickly tell you, the instructor often learns as much from the teaching experience as the student does. And one of the interesting things I've learned is that there are several areas, in both writing and marketing, where writers always seem to disagree. Specifically, every group I've taught has been almost equally divided in its opinions on the following five topics:

1. Should fiction be outlined beforehand?

On one side of the fence are folks who map the plotline out mentally or on paper before the real writing begins. On the other side are those who just sit down and start writing, blissfully unaware of where the story might take them. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and everyone seems to have a definite preference on this. I once heard an author say writers are either OPs (Outline People) or No-OPs, and there are very few in between.

My preference: Outline first. But . . . I'm flexible when the actual writing begins. The roadmap I come up with beforehand usually winds up changing a bit somewhere along the way.

2. Should short stories be submitted simultaneously? (Let's hear it for alliteration.)

The upside of submitting the same story to multiple markets at the same time is clear: you stand a better chance of getting something published sooner. The downside comes into play only if you happen to receive more than one acceptance for the same piece. Nobody likes to be asked to go to the dance and then find out the asker has decided to take someone else instead.

My preference: I usually don't submit the same story to two different markets at the same time. But . . . my situation's a little different, in that I have a large inventory of stories available for submission. If you're written only a few, it's tempting to take the risk and thus increase the odds.

3. Should I write literary fiction or genre fiction?

This one has a simple answer. Write what you like to read. If your favorite authors are Cheever, Proulx, Joyce, Conroy, Bellow, Faulkner, etc., maybe you should consider writing lit fic. If you never read anyone but Evanovich, Grafton, Hammett, L'Amour, Clancy, and other "commercial" authors, you might want to churn out genre stories. Again, I've found that readers are usually pretty clear about what type of stories and novels they prefer.

My preference: Genre fiction. But . . . I think the very best stories--and my all-time favorites--have elements of both.

4. Should I write in first person or third?

Once again, about half seem to lean one way and about half the other. Not surprisingly, if you strongly prefer to read first-person stories, you'll probably want to write them that way, and vice versa. First person and third-person-limited offer the strongest and most intimate "connection" between author and reader, while third-person-multiple, omniscient, and "detached" POVs offer a larger scope and a sometimes better means of providing external suspense. I've heard that the writer should choose the POV based on how much he wants the reader to know and how soon he wants the reader to know it.

My preference: Third person. But . . . the POV depends on the story itself. I've also written and sold a lot of first-person stories.

5. Should I get everything down on paper first, or stop and edit as I go?

Many writers feel it's best to make a rough draft "rough." Get your thoughts down in tangible form before worrying about refining and rewriting anything. Others like to edit as they go, and make sure whatever they've written (however few the number of words or pages) is as perfect and polished as it can be before proceeding.

My preference: Write the whole thing first, whatever the length of the piece, and go back and edit later. No buts, on this one.

One other difference that I didn't mention is that some writers feel more comfortable about publicizing and promoting their published work (via booksignings, appearances, etc.) than others. But no matter how much our personal feelings differ on this, all seem to agree that an author must--to some extent--try to get out and "meet" his potential readers.

There will always be areas of disagreement among the participants in any profession, or even any endeavor. The points of contention that I've listed are just the ones that seem most evenly balanced--and also seem to spark the most discussion.

What's your opinion?


  1. Interesting column, John! I never outline, but usually my first draft is so rough and rudimentary (and full of mistakes, too), it might be thought an outline if I showed it to somebody (which I never do). That's because in first drafts I don't bother with details or even descriptions. I just want to get the story right, put down what it’s all about. In subsequent drafts then, I add all the small details and descriptions that make a story really come to life. . . .

    That's how I work, but of course I understand everybody does it differently.

  2. Thanks, John, for an article that shows both sides to several questions about writing. Most columns of this type are so didactic they think everything has to done one way--their way. Personally, I don't outline at the beginning of a novel, but I do know how it will end and sometimes write the ending, then write toward that. After completion, I outline what I've written to check for continuity and other important considerations. My way is neitehr right, nor wrong, just my way. Thanks for showing both sides.

  3. Well, John, I see that I misspelled "neither" in my comment. Perhaps we need an article on the importance of proof-reading and what to do when one's fingers move faster than his/her brain.

  4. I don't outline in the old high-school way (1.a., 2.b., etc.) but I do at least try to work out the general flow of the plot before starting to write. And Josh, a lot of folks tell me they too use a rough draft as their pseudo-outline.

    Fran, I agree with you in that I'm more comfortable if I know the ending before I begin. Authors like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block say they never outline, but I suspect they've been through the process so many times they have a pretty good idea of where a story's going soon after they get started. Once again, I think the key is flexibility--charting a path for your trip doesn't mean you can't detour along the way, or even later change your destination. But I think it can prevent aimless wandering (wondering?) and wasted time.

    As for time, I once heard someone say Margaret Mitchell wrote the end of GWTW first, and finally wrote the beginning ten years later.

  5. Interesting.
    I must confess that while I outline non-fiction, I never outline fiction and rarely know the ending when I begin- makes for more revision!

  6. Janice, I've heard that both Joe Gores and Robert B. Parker felt that working without an outline is a good thing for mystery/suspense writers. Parker said that when the author isn't sure what will happen next, the reader won't be either.

  7. Good article, John. I'm outliner, but like you I feel free to roam once I've embarked. As for POV, it just depends on what I'm trying to convey; that being said, undoubtedly the majority of my stories have been third person. I tend to edit as I go, however. Altogether, I suspect that these issues, and our preferences regarding them, reflect personlities traits as much as technical, and stylistic, choices; exactly why no two writers will ever write the exact same story.

  8. John, I hope you and your readers don't get too tired of hearing about my grandson, but since outlining became the major topic today, I'm going to share this.

    Last year in fifth grade, my grandson came home and asked if I'd autograph a Callie book and give it to him to take to his teacher the next day. The next afternoon, I asked if he'd given the book to the teacher.

    "Yes," he said.

    "What prompted that?" I asked.

    He replied, "She told us that all writers outline or make plot webs before they write. I told her that not all of them do because my G-mama doesn't. She said that maybe she knew more about writing than you do, G-mama, so I took her a book to show her you know how to write."

    I gave my usual lecture about "all, none, and never" being giant words that aren't always appropriate. I also explained that if his teacher required a web, he had to do it, but when he writes for pleasure, he doesn't have to."

    I received a nice email thank-you for the book from the teacher, but she didn't ask if I outline or web my writing.

  9. David, a friend of mine also edits as she goes, and she says the main advantage to that is that when she's finished, she's finished. She doesn't have tons of rewriting ahead of her, as I do. Vive la difference.

    Fran, I love the teacher story. I'd like to have seen the look on her face when she received the book.

  10. John, I think the word we could delete from the discussion is "should." My take on all the issues you've mentioned is that every writer works differently, and whatever that is for any of us is fine if it works for us.

  11. Well said, Liz. Someone much smarter than I once observed that a good instructor never says, "This is the way you do it." He says, "This is the way I do it." Very seldom is there an always right way and an always wrong way to accomplish something.

    Having said that, I do feel it's really interesting to find out about all the different ways writers work.

  12. Sorry to be a late respondent, but I’ve been out of the loop for a few days while the kids were enjoying a school break. (Translation: I’ve been too busy dragging kids out of bushes and trees, to work.) But I really enjoyed your post and think you hit the nail on the head about writing not being a “one size fits all” endeavor, so I’d like to give you my answers (assuming you weren’t just being kind when you asked).

    I don’t usually submit simultaneously, and tend to edit before, during and after (just can’t seem to help myself!). I don’t often outline, but have been known to make a convoluted flow-chart when trying to construct a complex mystery—in order to “keep my story straight,” as a person on the hot-seat might put it.

    I keep trying to write different story/genre types, in order to push my writing skill boundaries, because—for me—writing lit, or for a genre other than mystery, is sort of like lifting weights: It’s hard and it hurts, but I think it makes my muscles grow. As a guy who spent years working in a male-centric environment (Women are not permitted to join Special Forces.), this means I spend quite a bit of time working on romance stories, in order to improve my understanding of how to write convincing female characters. (See, I’m so male-centric, I can’t think of any other way to incorporate female characters into my writing. How twisted is that?)

    And, though I tend to work in 1st Person or 3rd Person Limited, I find myself extending my reach to other POV’s -- either to experiment, or because (as you pointed out) certain stories seem to require escape from the limits of those POV’s I’m most comfortable in.

    I guess I also work in genres and POV’s I’m uncomfortable in, because I’m the sort of mutton-head who can’t resist taking up a challenge—and “uncomfortable writing” amps up the challenge for me. (As if writing isn’t hard enough—which it is!)

    Thanks for the great post,

  13. Thanks, Dix, for the observations! I admire you for trying things outside your comfort zone--I have tried and am trying to do more of that as well. (I've sold half a dozen romance stories over the years, though I'm not at all sure I knew what the hell I was doing, and I even sold one once to a feminist literary journal. I've also written a lot of SF and fantasy and westerns--but I'm way more comfortable with traditional mystery/suspense, probably because I read so much of it.) I think you're correct that experimenting with other genres is a great way to learn and grow as a writer.

    As for the POV issue, one of the students in my current set of classes said the other night that she had once written a long story in second person (!). THAT's something I don't think I could ever do, or do well.

  14. Hmmm,John, this post sounds awfully familiar. I wonder where I heard this before?

    Just kidding, of course. God posting. See you next Tuesday.

  15. Yep, you heard all this in class already, Wayne. Thanks for taking time out to comment! (I assume you're working hard on your story . . .)


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