The Book You Thought You Were Going to Write

When I first got the idea for Liar I thought it would be a comedy. I thought it would be a goofy, screwball comedy with a protag who was lying about herself out of boredom and insecurity and that as the layers of her lies were peeled away chapter by chapter—“Actually, I’m fourteen, not seventeen, but that’s only three years diff. Not that big of a lie, right?”—through a series of misunderstandings and misadventures she would learn to like herself and lose the need to lie so much. It would be heartwarming, they’d all hug it out, and everyone would learn and grow. You know only funny. Really funny.

The finished Liar turned out somewhat differently. Less with the funny.

This happens to me a lot. I suspect it’s because I don’t plan or outline my novels. Writing the first (or zero) draft is where I do the planning and figuring out and where I discover what kind of book I’m writing. Though maybe that’s what those planners are doing as they outline?1

Just before I start writing a new book I have the shiny wobbly spherical-ish ur-idea of it floating at the front of my brain. I can see the colours and I know what it smells like. It is gorgeous and wonderful. But something happens the moment I start writing it: the-texure-colours-shape-and-smell-novel I thought I was writing begins to fall apart. Every new word on the screen speeds up the process. Within a few thousand words all that’s left is this very faint residue. By the time I finish the first draft I can barely remember the floating sphere of wonder. The book has become its own self.

When I first started trying to write novels that process really bothered me. It drove me nuts that I couldn’t capture what I’d been imagining on the page. I thought it meant I was a terrible writer. But now I know it’s just part of the process and I enjoy it. I’ve decided that exactly capturing those early imaginings would be boring. There’d be no discovery, which is part of why I can’t outline. I really enjoy finding out what kind of novel I’m writing as I write it. I like that my novels surprise me.

But of course as I’ve said here many times before: every novelist writes differently. I’m sure many of them will not recognise what I’m talking about and write exactly the books they imagined. I wonder what that’s like?

  1. Who knows? Their ways are a mystery to me. []


  1. Bianca on #

    Not being able to write it the way I imagine my ideas is one of the main reasons I’m not able to finish anything. I write down the way I imagine it but I can’t really go anywhere with it. It frustrates me so I just leave the story in my head and it just floats around, never really going anywhere. Still working on getting past that barrier.

  2. Tamara on #

    That’s a very cool reason for not outlining. If I don’t outline, my novels wander forever. But I love how an outline leaves lots of room for flexibility.

  3. Julia Rios on #

    It doesn’t seem to matter if I outline or not. Until I have written the first draft, I really have no idea what the story is about. In the second draft I have a better idea, but basically I have a make a big mess and then try to sort it out approach that happens no matter how organized I try to be in the beginning. This means a lot of revisions.

  4. tegan on #

    hey justine.

    I have no idea how you write such good books. I get writers block like evry five seconds. It sucks.

    I was just wondering what a manuscript looks like. I have never had a book published and I don’t want to look like an ameteur to the publisher.

  5. Tara on #

    I’m working on an outline for a novel for National Novel Writing Month and it seems that I go into outlining thinking that I know what I exactly want to happen or how I want my characters to act and then once I get going, things just seem to get a life of their own and surprise me. I guess the story just wants to be told the way it wants to be told!

  6. Karen Healey on #

    My way of plotting is that I tend to have an idea of the beginning, and an idea of the end, and I aim at the second from the first. Both of these are subject to change, and I typically don’t work out the character arcs until the second (or third) (or fourth) drafts.

  7. Deb Lund on #

    Thanks for the validation. We all play with our own process, and it’s such a gift to hear someone else say what I’m thinking. For me, the discovery is the joy. I always say that writing is like reading in slow motion. Especially those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books kids would fight over when I was a librarian.

    What a great post to find just before NaNoWriMo tomorrow! It’s my first year to participate, and though it’s scary, I’m going to step back from myself and be my own student–right down to the little prompts on cards I made for young writers (and am sharing with FB/Twitter pals). Good thing I have all that teaching background to fall back on, especially the teacher voice to put myself back on track. But “quieting the critic” is what I’ll be anxious to practice over and over again. Letting go is a skill I could work on forever and still need more time.

  8. Stephanie Leary on #

    I think that explains why I freeze up before finishing my novels: panic that it’s not what I’d planned. Must work on not panicking.

  9. rockinlibrarian on #

    Timely: I just got a new book idea, and the Inner Critic is already needling me that it Won’t Turn Out Like You Think It Will. Apparently this is the only argument the Inner Critic HAS about this idea, which should be a good sign, but it’s still hard to get it to shut up.

    I saw your next post, too– NaNoWriMo is exactly something that would be good for me (and my way too talkative inner critic), but November is a horrible month for me having other stuff to do!

  10. Helen Landalf on #

    Great post. I can totally identify! I find it so interesting that you also call your first draft your “zero draft.” I started doing that when I realized that I needed an entire draft that might have actually nothing in common with the finished novel.

  11. Carrie on #

    This is so me and my process! You’ve really put it beautifully! Except for me I still have that moment of panic when the bright shiny idea starts to morph on the page (and usually that panic is encouraged by upcoming deadlines). Sometimes it’s hard to let the story go where it wants to.

  12. Summer on #

    Yes! This is so much like me. I mean I DO outline my stories vaguely but things just always fall together perfectly for me. Is it like what I first imagined? No, but like you said, that’s okay.

  13. Susan Adrian on #

    Thanks for saying this out loud! I’m finishing the first draft of my fourth book, and was getting frustrated again that it’s not what I thought it would be. But you’re right–it really is part of the process.*

    *Not an outliner in any way, shape, or form.

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