Outlines

Since I started thinking about trying my hand at writing in a more serious and committed fashion, I’ve been thinking about my approach to writing. I don’t know when I became such a mechanical, mathematical person (perhaps somewhere along the way as I became a professional accountant), but in any event I’ve decided that my writing methodology relies quite heavily on outlines and well-defined processes rather than just sort of organically throwing myself into some kind of creative mode. What follows is the process of writing, from my own perspective.

The starting point for a work of fiction is its theme. Theme is huge, because without the theme the work has no relevance or meaning. In a sense, you could start off by asking why creative writing exists at all. The obvious answer is entertainment. You could also talk about the potential for creative writing to teach a lesson or illustrate a viewpoint, but at the end of the day if the work isn’t entertaining no one will want to read it. Now, if you’re writing for 4th graders you could probably write something with no theme at all, just sighing princesses for the girls and lots of laser beams for the boys and they’d be perfectly happy. But, 4th graders don’t typically get to choose their own reading materials, they’re selected by the school board. The school board is going to want something with some educational and intellectual value, and anyone older than the 4th grader is going to want that too, so you may as well write something with some substance to it.

To select a theme, it’s important to choose something based on a few important criteria. First, the theme should be interesting to you as a writer: if you aren’t interested in writing about the theme you likely won’t be able to motivate yourself to finish what you’ve started. Next, the theme should be something universal: the larger the audience the better, so choose something that matters to everyone. (Why do you think so many books are about love? It matters to almost everyone). The theme you choose should also be something original; now, I could write for quite a while on the concept of originality, but let’s just say that you won’t be able to be completely original just because there has already been such a vast amount written – at some point someone likely wrote something similar. However, you can find originality by making combinations of existing concepts to create something that feels new. Twilight is a huge example of this: vampire stories? Totally been done. Teen romance? Hello, Sweet Valley High; but combining them together into a new supernatural horror / teen romance genre? Wow – recipe for success.

In many ways writing has become like cooking. If you’re a chef, you aren’t likely to find many new ingredients. Basically everything that can be eaten by human beings has been discovered and cooked with already. The creativity in cooking comes not from finding original new ingredients, but by developing new recipes that combine different ingredients and different preparation styles in ways that haven’t been done before. So too with writing – don’t obsess over finding a completely new theme or concept that has never been written about before; it isn’t likely to happen. But, go ahead and play with themes to find new combinations and approaches that breathe fresh life into stale, done-to-death concepts.

Where was I? Oh yes, criteria for selecting a theme. So we have interesting to you as a writer, universality, and originality. I think that about covers it. Possibly one more thing you could say about selecting a theme is that it should be done with the length of the work in mind. For example, if you’re writing a relatively short short story, then you won’t have time to explore an extremely complex theme in a way that makes sense, so pick something simpler. On the other hand, writing a full-length novel likely requires that you select a theme that has many facets or subtleties to it, so you can invent characters and plots that wind their way through the various aspects of your theme.

Which all brings us to the next concepts of the writing process, to be covered in future posts.

 

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