Other writers are crazy

I was chatting the other day with a writer friend who was all freaked because they don’t know what happens in their work-in-progress. We chatted for some time me making suggestions, them nixing the suggestions, when in the course of the chat it emerged that they hadn’t actually started the novel.

The work it was not in progress.

“Of course, you don’t know what it’s about or all of the plot yet!” I exclaimed. “You haven’t started it! You’ll figure it out as you go along,” I said.

“Are you insane?” they replied. “I can’t start writing until I know exactly what’s going to happen. There’ll be nothing to write!”

Am I insane? I thought. I don’t think so. I’m not the one who can’t start a novel without knowing every single thing about it ahead of time. That’s nuts.

A year earlier I was bitching to this same writer that I had no idea how my book ended. I had nine tenths of the book, but no ending, and I had no idea what to do.

They thought I was insane: “How could you get that far into a book and NOT KNOW THE ENDING?!”

Um. Cause that’s how I write books.

Another writer friend of mine had a complete snit fit when they discovered another book had the same title as their yet-to-be-published book. My pointing out three earlier examples just made the author cry. I tried to console them by explaining that there are heaps of books with the same title and that this is not a problem. There must be dozens of books called Leviathan. It’s no big deal. Honest.

They does not believe me. Because author is cra-zy.

Like the friend of mine who cannot get going with their book until they know what the first sentence is. It has to be perfect. They can spend six months just writing that sentence over and over and over.


I think so.

Someone else I know writes their books backwards. Ending first. Then middle. Then beginning.

Another one writes a complete first draft and then destroys it and writes the whole thing over again.

And then there’s the writer who will write an entire novel without knowing what their main character is named. They’ll call them X throughout the draft and then only at the end go, “Oh, now I understand them. Clearly their name is Jebediah.”

Barking mad!

I’m just saying . . .

Thank Elvis there are some sane writers like me around. Clearly you should only listen to my advice.


  1. Gillian on #

    All sane writers first build background to cover at least 200 years before their characters are born and then starts writing in the middle, don’t they?

  2. Iris on #

    “Another one writes a complete first draft and then destroys it and writes the whole thing over again.”

    After reading you post about Cynthia Leitich Smith and her deletion of the first draft of stories, I actually went and did that as literary experiment. The first short story I had ever managed to finish, I went and deleted the first draft.
    The second draft is infinitely better. My sister, mother, and friend all thought I was crazy. Glad to see you agree about the barking mad part. I wear that title with PRIDE!

  3. lili on #

    I only write according to your advice. Everyone else is wrong.

    BTW have i told you about my next book? It’s called Enchantment or Insanity, and it’s about a girl called Sensible whose bathroom window in Melbourne opens out onto the cold wintry streets of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. It’s going to be a rocking trilogy.

  4. Marko on #

    Every profession that involves people working in solitude for long amounts of time with nobody but their own brains for company is bound to have a high percentage of complete nutjobs.

    That said, I’m totally with you. I’ve tried outlining to the n-th degree, and it doesn’t work for me. It makes the actual writing feel too much like work, as if the labor part is reduced to painting-by-numbers. And God forbid you have an awesome idea in the middle of the novel…you’ll either suppress it because you don’t want to laboriously restructure your outline around the idea, or you laboriously restructure.

    I tend to do best when I start with an idea and just let the ponies run, so to speak. Clearly, you’re a wise and enlightened and completely sane writer if you do it the same way. (Everyone else is barking mad, of course.)

  5. Patrick on #

    Thank Elvis there are sensible writers like you to guide us!

  6. Maggie on #

    Clearly! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. David Gill on #

    Clearly, you are sane. I will listen only to your advice. Espadrilles are not for me.

  8. Patrick on #

    Actually, David, you look quite nice in espadrilles and a gypsy dress.

  9. Don Vaillancourt on #

    Are you describing writers or smurfs?

    You forgot about the writer who can’t start until s/he knows the title.

    Who’s the writer that wrote the story backwards. That I’d like to see.

    .feat amazing an be would It

  10. Gabrielle on #

    You are the Goddess of All Things and I shall only listen to you. I will never write a novel if I know the ending in advance. Well, that won’t need a whole lot of adjusting.

  11. Cei Cei on #

    lol, my book writing weirdness isn’t even on your list ๐Ÿ™‚ middle, then end, wait about a week then beginning. i know its crazy and all my other writer friends say so but i just can’t sit down and go from the start to the finish. lmao

  12. Tim on #

    Good points, Justine. Anytime I hear/read someone say, “If you’re going to write a [story/book/article/whatever], you have to–” I usually stop there. No, dear advice-giver, *I* don’t have to; you’re describing what *you* “have to”.

    When I was younger, I would devour interviews with writers to find out how it’s done — thinking that there must be one right way. But one writer will talk confidently about outlining, another about not being able to write if they know what’s going to happen, etc. — just as you’re describing here.

    After a while I figured out that it’s all about what works for the individual. Asimov started with the end in mind, figured out a starting point, and then wrote each successive chapter to connect the beginning to the end. By contrast, Trollope did not know what would happen next, much less how things would end, but he “daydreamed” about his characters in odd moments throughout the day, so that when he sat down in the morning, he was ready to find out the next 2,500 words’ worth of what happened to them.

    Both crazy, both right, both wrong. But both prolific.

    The hard part is that each of us must find our own path up our own mountain.

  13. Bill on #

    I write my books in three parts. The first third is words 1, 4, 7, 10, etc. Then I take a little break. Then words 2, 5, 8, 11, etc. Then I stop, because the 3-6-9-12 words always seem to be adverbs/adjectives and I just have to edit them back out again.

    But the first time that doesn’t produce, there’s this drink-lots-of-tequila-and-stand-on-your-head method I’ve been dying to try.

    Saying “this is the only method I use” is like saying you’ll only wear one color clothing the rest of your life. Lunacy. Unless it’s black, of course. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Justine on #

    I am a bit shocked that not all of you seem to be taking me seriously. Hmph. Tim even seems to think I do not want to be worshipped like the writing advice God that I am!

    Iris: After reading your post about Cynthia Leitich Smith and her deletion of the first draft of stories, I actually went and did that as literary experiment. The first short story I had ever managed to finish, I went and deleted the first draft.
    The second draft is infinitely better.

    I should probably confess that I also tried it with a short story and that it worked. In fact the result of the experiment is being published in an antho in September. So thank you, Cynthia.

    However, it’s still MADNESS to do it with a novel!

    Patrick: Actually, David, you look quite nice in espadrilles and a gypsy dress.

    No one looks good in espadrilles! Do you want to be banned from this blog?

    Bill: The first third is words 1, 4, 7, 10, etc. Then I take a little break. Then words 2, 5, 8, 11, etc.

    You’re doing it wrong. You should be using the Fibonacci sequence!

  15. Carrie on #

    Brilliant post.

  16. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Hmph. You’re wrong. Dreadfully, abominably, horrifically, indubitably, astoundingly wrong.

  17. Dave Hogg on #

    I wrote a short story once where I knew the ending, and it ended up with Scalzi’s disembodied head in a cooler. I’ll never make that mistake again – you try to plan a story and it is just going to rebel and get ugly.

    My problem is that I make things up as I go along, and then I get 30,000 words into a novel, and hit a plot snag, and think “OK, we’ll take a break and figure this out.”

    And then I get distracted by horse racing or your fashion tips or Zeppelins or doing set-photography on a horror movie, and the book is still sitting, sad and lonely, at 30,000 words.

  18. Chris Billett on #

    “I wrote a short story once where I knew the ending, and it ended up with Scalziโ€™s disembodied head in a cooler.”

    Hey… I had the same. Please tell me it wasn’t a short called “I wrote my best work in a coffe shop you bastard” too?!?

    (in other news: great post!)

  19. Chris Billett on #

    Err… I meant coffee. I mean, no I didn’t. I meant [sic]!

  20. cherie priest on #

    [:: high fives ::] fellow sane writer.
    Kat Richardson accuses me of this. She calls it, “Writing by the seat of your pants.” She’s probably right, but my process is more like yours than like an outline. I tend to have a good idea of who the characters are, and a general idea of what’s going to happen to them, but I don’t usually plot anything out in advance.

  21. Owldaughter on #

    I’ve written fiction both ways: via outline (once!), but mostly writing by the seat of the pants. I enjoy the latter more, but I suspect there was less angst attached to the former. Of course, the outlined novel got boring two chapters before the end and I never finished it. It is mildly encouraging, however, to know that there’s a book in a figurative drawer somewhere that I could sit down and finish, if I could get myself back in the proper headspace. The other unfinished novels suffer from I-don’t-know-how-it-ends-itis, the main obstacle I have encountered while writing by the seat of the pants.

    All my non-fic is outlined, though. Not that the final product matches the outline. (Case in point: half a week before my last book was due, I realised it needed a new chapter that hadn’t been anywhere on the original outline. This was after I collapsed two into one and rearranged the order of most of the others.) So I guess my non-fic technique is a combination of outline and writing by the seat of the pants.

    Great post! I shall have to try deleting the first draft of something someday.

  22. Lauren on #

    I’m inclined to think that writers whose quirks result in the production of actual stories are doing just fine. But writers whose quirks prevent them from producing actual stories are just making excuses.

    Personally, I always begin with an outline and it always becomes laughably obsolete around 10,000 words in. You could say this is a good argument for ditching the outline. But actually, the outline is a perfect preliminary conduit for all the stupid mistakes I would have made in the first draft. Believe me, those mistakes are going to be made. Making them in outline form is quicker and less painful to eliminate.

  23. Jennifer on #

    I find it much more effective to have a general idea of a story and to just sit down and write. You never know where a story will go once you start writing. If you map it all out beforehand, and you’re not flexible, then the story will sound forced.

  24. Jon on #

    Your friend should be consoled by Leviathan’s track record. Paul Auster used the name and ended up with a magnificent novel; Hobbes used it hundreds of years ago and it’s still famous.

    It’s only crazy to think we’d all have the same writing method. Brains are individual, as are hearts, experiences, even handwriting. “Individual methods” is the only possible next step in the sequence. Hell, I don’t follow the same method from one story to the next.

  25. Kris on #

    I can’t plot from beginning to end. I am 80% pantster/20% plotter, I guess. I also tend to have the main characters already figured out to some degree, an idea of where I want to begin + catalyst for the whole thing, and then a basic idea of where I want to end up.

    The last time I tried to plot out my chapters. I had the first two kinda thought out…and then a big huge blank…and then the final chapter which was a very simple “and then they get together” (it was a romance).

    If I try to plot too much, I lose the enjoyment of discovering the story on my own. I like to be surprised.

    What do you want to bet the super-plotters are the type who want to read the end of a book before they buy it or ask you how the movie ends before they watch it?

  26. Lee on #

    I’m about 98% pantser. I usually have a general idea of where my characters will end up, but more often than not, they go off on their own without any respect for my feelings. Some nights I’ll even sit down with a certain scene in mind and write something completely different from what I intended. Usually, it’s also better than what I intended.

  27. Ruthanne on #

    *laughing* It’s so good to see another author who does NOT plan out every little detail. Oi, vey. (And of course writers are crazy. They spend most of their time living in their heads and talking things out with imaginary characters. We are all categorically nuts!)

  28. Polenth on #

    I write in a random chronological order, and rearrange it into order later. This is without a plan. All those people who write from beginning to end are the strange ones.

  29. Patrick on #

    Justine – Have you ever seen David in a gypsy dress and espadrilles? I mean, on anyone else it would be against nature and humanity, but David… well, banning me from the blog won’t change reality.

  30. atthecross on #

    normally, i am a lot like u, i guess… i start writing, then figure out my plot later. although i ALWAYS know EXACTLY what my first sentence is going to be. or at least the first important sentence. (its usually the protag’s name. easier that way.) this time around, i tried doing plot outlines… which has not yet been worth it, as i simply skipped all the intro and basically started in the middle. and i NEVER have EVER known my ending! heck i still dont know! but i guess different folks, different strokes, right?

  31. PixelFish on #

    I must be crazy. I’m trying EVERY possible method til I find one that works. The one I am on now is called Write A Lot Til The Story Is Finished. (But it also happens to be somewhere between the Asimov method mentioned in a post above, and the Trollope method from the same post. I have a VAGUE endpoint, and I’ve had about three starting points. One character was a bitch, and then I tried to find out why, and that moved the starting point back about three decades.)

  32. Lisa McMann on #

    I am a total pantser. Great blog!

  33. Leahr on #

    I’ve never actually commented before, but I thought I’d say:


    Speaking of different novel-writing methods, how can you leave that one out? The most writing I have ever done all at one time has been in November. Before that, I thought you could only write after months of worldbuilding and outlining.
    So I have tried both approaches, to some extent. I still haven’t decided which I like better.

  34. Melinda on #

    Another newbie on the comment trail. I definitly write by the seat of my pants. I only get to know my characters along the way. If i plotted it all out before-hand they wouldn’t surprise me and things would be dull, dull, dull. I always know the ending though, otherwise i’d never finish.

    I could never bring myself to delete a first draft, even when I’m on the final one. Even though I never refer back to it. It would upset the balance of the universe.

  35. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    For your writer friend whose work in progress is not yet in progress, tell them this:

    “If we wait for that moment when everything, absolutely everything, is ready, we shall never begin.”

    I don’t remember who said it, but it’s a pretty strong case for seat-of-the-pants-ing, or at least for getting on with it already.


  36. Kelly McCullough on #

    Wrote two by the pants method. Outlined the next, outlined the one after in greater detail. Now, start with solid if rough outline, write a third, outline the rest scene by scene, write the last two thirds pretty much straight off the outline with the discovery coming in the details.

  37. Sarahlynn Lester on #

    As silly as this is, I really needed to read it today. My current novel is SO FREAKING HARD. Every time I sit down to write it feels like a long, hard, slog. Why is this so much more painful than everything else I’ve ever written?

    Now I know why! Instead of doing a rough outline and figuring it out as I go along (as I usually do) I’ve carefully plotted and character-journaled and step-sheeted every step of the way. AFTER ditching my first draft.

    This would be funny if it weren’t true. I’ve decided to ditch the rest of my stepsheet and kill off an extra character somewhere along the line, TBD later. Ahh!

  38. JGS on #

    This is a great thread if only because it has introduced the term ‘pantster’ into the lexicon.

    I have heard, apocryphally, that James Ellroy (one of my writing idols) has an 800-page outline for a 600-page book. Now that’s crazy.

    I’m still so new at this that I can’t claim to have ‘a’ method, but I started writing individual scenes, got bogged down around 30K, read McKee’s Story, went back and outlined the plot scene-by-scene on 3x5s, and filled in the holes from there. It did make some of the scenes feel a bit like ‘work’ when I was writing them, but I think my overall plot and structure are much stronger for it.

    Now I have to go back and cut 15K words out.

  39. Trish on #

    My editor wants a new beginning to my book, but I can’t think of a new beginning right now. So I started writing just beyond the beginning and I figure I’ll go back when I figure it out.

    By the way, I read an ARC of How to Ditch Your Fairy. CUTE!!

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