On Writing: Keep It Simple

The best advice I can give on writing:

Keep it simple.

You don’t often hear this.  I don’t know why.  Maybe because if people knew how easy it was to write a story, they’d stop paying professional novelologist to do it and just do it themselves.  Although perhaps easy is the wrong word because novelology isn’t easy.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s just that people tend to think the easy part is hard and vice versa.

This is only my own personal experience.  I can’t speak for every writer, but the hardest thing about writing is sitting down and actually making yourself do it.  This is why most people never actually become writers.  Most people don’t have the indefinable quality to sit down and finish a story.  Not even a short story.  Much less a novel.  But it’s not always their fault.  Sometimes, they’re getting bad advice.

Writing a novel is difficult enough.  I know I wouldn’t do it if I believed half of what I’d read about “How to write” books.  These guides come from a well-meaning place, but they tend to put a lot of pressure on writers.  They might ask for plot outlines, character studies, world building, thematic construction, character arcs, etc., etc.  These aren’t always bad things to have in mind when writing a story, but as often as not, I find they get in the way of the creative process.

To begin with, they’re usually so much boring prep work.  It’s like arranging all your cleaning supplies on a shelf in the order you plan on using them, then measuring out how many rolls of paper towels you’re going to need, how much time must be allocated for vacuuming, when would be the optimal time for dusting, and deciding on how long your lunch break should be.  You could waste hours preparing to do something when you could just be doing it instead.  And those hours of prep work give you the illusion that you actually accomplished something, when all you did was get ready to accomplish something.

The same thing happens to writers, especially aspiring writers.  They might be able to tell you everything about the history of their elaborate fantasy world.  Or they deep, pychological scars that drive their detective to deliver justice.  Or the reason their character always wears sandals and likes cats, except for tabby cats.  They might be able to detail the nuanced arc their protagonist undertakes to learn that life is worth living again and that tabby cats are okay.  They can give you all the elements that make a story.

They just can’t give you the story.

Keeping it simple means forgoing the tedious arranging of elements, of doting loving detail on every single element of the story, and just getting the damn thing done.  You might make mistakes that way, but you’ll make mistakes anyway, regardless of how much time and effort you put into quantifying how magical powers work in your universe or how many hours you spent studying handguns or flamingoes or the history of Napoleonic France.

Keeping it simple has more advantages than just allowing you to get your novel done.  It allows you one of the greatest assets a writer can have.  You can be the audience, sit in their seat, and watch the show unfold.  If you’re eager to see what happens next, then how can your audience not be?  If you are just following an outline, screwing together plot points like rivets, you don’t really know if that’ll translate.  It very well might, but to me at least, that’s a lot of work to put into something that could just as well be working against you.

I keep it simple.  I don’t write intense backstories for characters if they don’t need it.  (And so far, only one has needed it, and that didn’t even come up in the book.)  I don’t worry about a central theme at the beginning, except when it’s so obvious that I didn’t need to think about it at all.  And world building should be minimal.  Enough to make it look like I know what I’m doing without pulling it out of the air.

The advantage for me is that when I sit down to write a story, I just sit down and write.  I don’t often know where I’m going, and I rarely, if ever, know how it will end.  This is what keeps me writing.  I want to know why endless waves of zombies are attacking the diner, why a hapless loser has been made immortal, and what would happen if we invited mythological gods into our homes and onto our sofas.  It’s what compels me to write these stories because, until I do them, I’m not honestly sure either.

A good story is a complicated thing, an amalgamation of intriguing questions, characters, memorable moments, and so much more.  It’s magic.  And maybe some folks can take all the ingredients of a great story and look at them before they’re mixed together and know exactly what they’re going to get.  But not me.  I throw them in the pot, stir liberally, add spices, strain out the unnecessary, and by the time it’s done, from almost out of nowhere, a story is born.

Maybe you are one of those writers who benefits from prep work.  Good for you.  More power to you.  But if you’re not (and I think most writers aren’t) it’s all right to work in a different way.  It’s already to take it easy, keep it simple, and just write to see what happens.  It’s what I do, and so far, it’s worked just fine by me.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted October 15, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I take it you are a complete and total pantser? I have a basic idea of where I want the story to go and where it needs to end up, but everything in the middle is up for grabs. I love those moments when the unexpected happens on the page and characters surprise me. Non-writers think we’re nuts. We’re creating these people, we should know what comes next and what is in their heads, shouldn’t we? I answer a resounding “No, we don’t.” And that’s what keeps me writing.

    Nice to hear it from someone else out there.

  2. Chad Kallauner
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for this. I followed a writing publication’s advice and wrote extensive plot outlines, character studies, etc. before I started writing my novel.

    Halfway through the “prep work,” I scrapped the whole outline/planning method because it felt forced and, frankly, I didn’t enjoy it. So I just started writing and the story unfolded rather well. I’m glad to see that I am not in the minority as I once thought I was.

  3. Quinn
    Posted October 15, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. I find writing to be such a complicated and even painful process, and this may be a big part of my problem. My only easy stories were written the way you suggest!

  4. Doug Johnson
    Posted October 20, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I loved this and sent it to writing friends, but the question occurs to me that you must have SOMETHING to start with. I understand not doing the full outline, etc. but what do you feel you need to have to start in? I get that it may not be the same for me or anyone else, but for yourself, do you start with a question? “What happens if ancient gods start showing up in convenience stores?” or a character “There’s a guy who can’t be killed” or a place “a castle which is a collection of magical stuff”. Any of those COULD be a starting point, but none seem sufficient to dive in, unless you really do just wing it, then go back and rework it. And I guess that’s my question. Is that little germ of an idea enough to sit down and write and then you write until it fleshes out or dies a painful death, or do you pull enough pieces together until you know it can make it to the end? Just asking.

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