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On "Writing Into the Dark"

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

There's a term I like, coined by author Dean Wesley Smith over on his blog, called "writing into the dark." This means writing without an outline, without an overall plan, without a safety net, and without much by way of process aside from sitting your ass down and pecking away at the damn thing—be it a novel or a short story or a screenplay—until it feels right.

Actual video footage of me at my desk.

Some writers call it "pantsing it." As in, writing by the seat of your pants. But I've always preferred Smith's term. To me it implies a vast darkness ahead of you, the writer. There could be absolutely anything in that darkness. Whatever your mind wants to project onto it. And bit by bit you flash a light on it, and more and more of that darkness is illuminated until you've figured out the shape of the Thing, whatever it has become.

I've written both with outlines and into the dark, and I've always preferred the latter. Outlines can be a great tool, but I find much of the fun in writing comes from surprising myself. It's nearly impossible to do that with an outline.

Writing into the dark can take a lot more time, though. It's like visiting an unfamiliar town and trying to find your friend's house without a road map. Eventually you may find the house but you'll probably end up going down a dozen dead ends to get there. You might not even make it to where you wanted to go at all. You might end up in a different part of town, and realize the book you started writing wasn't what you'd wanted to right in the first place. That what you've written is better, more interesting, more like something brand new you've created yourself than an homage to other books you've enjoyed. Or you might end up entirely lost, and end up abandoning the journey altogether. I've lost count the amount of books I've dropped ten-thousand or even ninety-thousand words into them. And short stories... gawd, I've got dozens of false starts on my hard drive.

That time I wrote into the dark and found myself in a dark basement staring at the wall.

(Fortunately, those false starts can be pillaged for new stories, and those "failed" novels can be returned to when the things that first intrigued you about it have percolated enough that it starts to sing again.)

That's the biggest risk with this "method." But the process can be hugely rewarding. When you start with nothing but a concept and a few core characters, or even less, just an image or a theme you want to explore, and a month or six months or two years later end up reading something you never could have imagined you'd have written when you first opened that blank document, there's not much like that feeling.

My previous novel (which I'm currently shopping around) started out as just high concept idea in 2014. A story of survival in an evil place. It took me years to work out who the main characters should be—a family? an estranged couple? a pair of detectives? And it took writing into the dark for months to figure out what story I wanted to tell. I must have rewritten the opening of the novel five or six times to get it to where it felt right. (And I will likely return to those early incarnations for future stories, salvaging them for parts.) Aside from that core concept and the main characters' names, the entire first draft (upwards of 100k words) is entirely unlike the final draft I've submitted.

I don't feel all that time spent flailing around

in the dark was wasted. I'm fairly certain the finished novel could not have been written with an outline

- at least, not by me.

My current novel is a page-one rewrite of what writers refer to as a "trunk novel." This is a novel generally thought of by its author as so bad it's unpublishable, thus relegated to spend the rest of its days gathering dust in a trunk. (These days it should probably be called an "old hard drive novel," or something more descriptive. I'll have to come back to that one.) This was my first completed novel, written back in 2011. (I've been writing since 1991. Imagine how many unfinished novels I've got stored on old hard drives!) It was bad. Trunk bad. But it had a concept I'd never read before and some moments that made it stick in my memory eight years later. I felt compelled to return to its world and its characters.

Where most of my writing pre-2010 has ended up.

So here we are. I'm 36k into it and I'm loving the journey. Even though I've got a few signposts to light the way, I'm still writing into the dark with this one. The finished novel, the book I'll eventually share with you, hopefully as early as the end of the year, will be nothing like the book that came before. I've been calling it the "good parts" version, as an homage to William Goldman's The Princess Bride. But save for a few major plot points and some backstory, this is an entirely different beast.

But that's the fun of writing into the dark. The small diversions you might not choose to explore with a strict road map. Surprising revelations. Discovering character. It's possible to surprise the reader when you're writing from an outline, but I feel like it's much more likely when you surprise yourself.

Michelangelo said of his masterwork, David: "Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Stephen King has a similar quote in which he "chips away anything that isn't the story."

I'm not saying any one way is better than the other. Maybe a combination of the two works better for you. Maybe like me, you like to leave a few signposts for yourself to guide the way. Write however you want to write. Whatever gets the job done. Whichever way pleases you the most. Just finish the damn thing.

And hey, even if you don't finish it, you can always salvage the parts for the next thing you work on, or that next draft.


Speaking of "methods," check out these titles and judge for yourself which method worked better for me:

The Method (written without an outline)

Salvage (mostly written with an outline)

Woom (written from an outline)

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