So I am working on a new novel right now, and I've allowed myself to be led astray by the methods of Davin Malasarn, who writes without an outline. This is my sixth novel. Way back in 1990 I started my first novel (which I like to call The Precious Unpublishable Mess) and spent a few years writing the first half of the story, working without an outline. One night I sat down and wrote out a detailed outline of the second half of the story and finished the book up within a few months. Huh, I said. Things went a lot more quickly with an outline than without one. After that, I wrote four more novels.
Each of those four books was planned in advance, at least in broad strokes: I knew what the big conflicts were, I knew how the stories ended, I knew who all the main characters were and how they related to the conflicts. As I wrote the first drafts, I was able to see how my subconscious was feeding me images that tied into the central conflicts/themes of the book and I was able to craft large-scale symbolic systems that tie the whole story together. Most importantly, I knew what the hell I was doing with each scene I wrote. I could see how what I was building all worked toward the vision I had of the novel.
Now, of course, I've got none of that. I'm sort of hurling words at the page and seeing what shapes they form, like some sort of Rorschach test or something. Really, it's entirely maddening. I have a bunch of characters and I see how they all fit together, sort of, but I don't really know what they'll do. I have two main storylines, but I don't know what the stories are. No, don't even ask how that's possible. The storylines might intersect at some point or they might not. I'll know if/when I get there.
Certain images are occurring to me so I write them down but I don't know if they matter to the themes or story because I don't know the themes or story. I just keep writing forward into the breach with no idea at all what's waiting for me in that breach, and I'll put down 1,000 words and then see that they don't actually follow what I've got but then I see that if I slip an additional 1,000 words between the extant prose and the new passages, it'll all fit together and there's a sense of forward motion but to what? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
It sets my teeth on edge. There are people who write like this all the time, who would rather write like this than know where they're going. I find myself getting upset and while I've managed to keep pressing on at the usual rate (the biggest surprise to me has been that I don't write more slowly without an outline than with one), I feel dizzy often when I consider the story, because it's like squinting to look at something that's invisible. Maddening, it is. Insanity.
You pansters, I say, are certainly making life hard on yourselves.
And yet, I am conducting this experiment because I believe in my heart of hearts that there are valuable lessons to be learned about writing with this method. I'm traveling through an unknown landscape with no map, no compass and no idea who or what or where I'll see along the way. I could argue that there's a sort of purity to this method, that I won't be hampered by any preconceived notions about the structure of a story. Certainly I'm not writing to the three-act paradigm right now. I can make a long list of what I'm not doing; what's harder is saying what I am. I have no idea. It makes me tense. Yet it's interesting, and that's enough. Also, the writing is really good. Some of my most gorgeous bits ever. So while there's a madness to this method, I keep at it.