Organic Writing: An Adventure in the City

I don’t use outlines when I write stories or blog posts or anything, really. I find them boring and restrictive. I tried to outline years ago when I first started writing, but I was so busy making sure I followed the outline to the letter that my writing ground to a screeching halt.

So I threw it out and have been an organic writer ever since. And it has apparently worked out for me pretty well because no one has ever really complained about my stories’ structures. Even some of my older stories, which were riddled with mistakes like you wouldn’t believe, received little criticism in that area (admittedly they received little criticism at all, but I digress).

Quite a few outliners would be horrified to hear me admit this. They seem to think that writing organically means slapping down a rough first draft, maybe looking it over once for basic mechanically errors (if even that), completely bypassing any and all editorial comment, and then posting or publishing it for the entire world to see in all its mistake-filled glory and expecting everyone to praise it for how wonderful it is.

That would explain why some outliners have a great distaste for organic writing (and, unfortunately, for the writers who use this method). They so closely associate organic writing with shoddy craft that they think all organic writers are hacks who wouldn’t know a well-structured story if it slapped them in the face.

But to me — and, I hope, to my fellow organic writers — that’s hardly what I think of when I hear that a writer writes organically. It is, in my opinion, a crude caricature, one that only applies to the most inexperienced of amateurs and even then only to the worst of them. While I cannot speak for all organic writers, I can offer my experience regarding organic writing and why I feel that it’s not nearly as bad as some outliners make it out to be.

To me, organic writing is an adventure in a new city. In this city, you have plenty of sights to see and things to do. You have no particular plan for this trip. Instead, you follow your fancy, visiting that nice Chinese restaurant the city’s inhabitants seem fond of or observing the day-to-day lives of the locals. While you may have had a vague idea of what you wanted to do and where you wanted to go, you soon scrap that plan in favor of the much more exciting “distractions” that other travelers who carefully planned out their trip might miss, such as the old man in the clown suit who keeps checking his watch or the young girl who is playing with her pet lizard on the sidewalk outside of her apartment.

This is not to say you can or should go everywhere in one trip. That would simply drain you and make it impossible to enjoy any of the wonderful things the city has to offer. Instead, you make multiple trips into the city, each trip focusing on a particular area until you’ve covered the entire city or at least a good chunk of it. Some trips may require more time than others, some less, but regardless of length, each trip is important in helping you grasp the city in its entirety.

When you are satisfied that you have seen everything that you need to, you pack your bags and move onto the next city. You repeat the process again and again for every new city you visit. You don’t always spend the same amount of time in every city, but you make sure to spend enough time in each that you understand them better than anyone else, better even than their inhabitants, whose busy day-to-day lives prevent them from understanding the bigger picture of which they are a part.

In this analogy, the city is your story and your method of visiting the city is organic writing. Most organic writers, like me, usually know how we want the story to begin and have perhaps a handful of characters we are interested in writing about. But we do not allow our plans, as vague as they are, to control our stories. Instead, we pay careful attention to the characters’ actions and the general direction of the plot and make decisions accordingly. Nor do we dismiss the “distractions” that planners might because these so-called distractions often add flavor to our story better than anything we could have come up with on our own.

The trips we make into the city are the drafts we write about the story. For me, at least, each story has to go through a minimum of three drafts before I show it to anyone, though generally more. I am never satisfied with the first draft, no matter how good it comes out. That would simply be unprofessional of me.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I admit. While your trip to a city is limited by your funds, time, energy, interest, and knowledge about the place, you could start writing an idealistic romance story set in an early 20th century American high school and immediately change it to a psychological sci-fi thriller set at the end of time on an alien planet with no prior warning or foreshadowing at all. In writing, there is little holding you back besides your own imagination and common sense, if even that, although if you are interested in improving your craft at all you will hopefully learn to be a better traveler than the one who is hasty.

For that matter, the analogy doesn’t even cover editors or beta readers. If I had to fit them in somehow, I’d say they are tour guides, giving us helpful information about the city we may not have learned about on our own, or pointing us in the direction of interesting places we might not have known about. I will need to think about this.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, the analogy works. It describes how I do it, at least, which is primarily what I set out to do here. Other organic writers would probably explain it differently than me, which is fine because we all do it differently anyway.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to visit a city. Before going there, you might make a detailed plan of all the city’s most important landmarks and features and make sure to visit them, making changes to your schedule as necessary. You would probably interview the city’s inhabitants in order to get a better understanding of their them and their lives, recording detailed notes about their answers that you can refer to later.

This is how I understand outlining and, while I don’t enjoy it myself, I know a lot of writers do and I won’t fault ’em for that. Whatever works for you, works, and who am I to tell you otherwise?

But to me, organic writing is an adventure. Sometimes an uncertain adventure, even a frustrating one at times, but an adventure nonetheless.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What about you? How do you structure your stories? Do you organically write or do you outline or use some combination of the two techniques? Share your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim

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5 thoughts on “Organic Writing: An Adventure in the City

  1. Hooray for someone defending organic writing. I wrote one book that way and it improved my productivity exponentially. But now I use a combination of outlines with organic writing. I set up loose outlines for how the chapters will weave together and within them what subplots I want and a rough go at how they will interact with the characters. Nothing defined, nothing that cannot be revised when it seems that the writing demands something else. But something so that I can write at any point in the novel so that I can pick and choose depending on how I feel that day.

    I also find that writing organically can reveal things about the novel never thought of in the conceptual period. Subplots where there were none before and arcing philosophy that was never there to begin with. One of my favorite revelations is after rereading the book and realizing that I wrote an entire philosophy into it without attempting to.

    But I think that a mixture is important. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.

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    • Agreed that organic writing and outlining aren’t mutually exclusive. I suppose I forgot to mention that in the blog post.

      I like what you said about writing a philosophy into a story without realizing it. I rarely write a story knowing what themes I want to express. Most of the time, the themes arise completely on their own and so don’t feel forced or preachy. I might do a blog post about my ideas on themes and how to integrate them into your writing better.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂 .

      -Tim

      Like

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