coverA couple of months ago, StoryBundle offered a writing workshop bundle—a number of how-to guides covering different aspects of writing and publishing. I apparently didn’t see fit to mention it on TeleRead at the time; I wish I had. Regardless, today I had the opportunity to read one of the included books, and found an interesting guide that might help new novelists overcome some of their worst writer’s block problems.

The book in question is Writing Into the Dark: How to Write a Novel Without an Outline by Dean Wesley Smith. Whether to outline stories or not has long been a matter of debate for writers. Smith, an accomplished novelist as well as a writing workshop instructor, clearly comes down on the “don’t do it” side—what he calls “writing into the dark,” and others have called “writing by the seat of your pants.”

Smith holds that outlining basically kills spontaneity, as well as reduces the desire to actually finish the story. We write for much the same reasons that we read, Smith explains—to entertain ourselves and find out what happens next. If we already know exactly what is going to happen in the story before we even start writing it, why would we want to finish it?

The book is pretty short—I was able to read it from start to finish on a 45-minute bus ride today—but it offers some great advice for writers, with full explanations and examples. I’ll try to boil down the salient points; you can read the book for the fuller explanations.

Smith holds that writers are inhabited by two distinct, warring voices, inculcated by our years of education on the one hand, and our years of reading things we enjoy on the other. On the one hand we have our critical voice, the self-censor that is always looking at what we write and telling us it’s not good enough, that we need to plan out what we’re doing, and no matter what we’re doing, we’re probably doing it wrong. It’s this critical voice that is responsible for writers giving up and not finishing many of the works that they start.

On the other hand, we have the creative voice, the part of us that just wants to tell stories. It’s not entirely a conscious thing, and it often takes paths we wouldn’t expect. Leave it alone, don’t try to force it into set paths as with an outline, and it will tell your story for you—if your critical voice doesn’t shut it down cold. The trick is figuring out how to listen to the creative voice and ignore the critical voice. and Smith has several specific pieces of advice on that score.

Some of the high points of this advice include:

Love the story. You need to be “reading for enjoyment, for sheer love of a good story told well.” Don’t read critically. If you read critically, you’ll be convinced that all the most popular writers—the ones like Cussler, Patterson, etc. who sell scads of novels and entertain millions—can’t write at all. If you can get lost in the stories people are telling regardless of how “good” their writing is, you’re going to be able to tell that kind of story yourself.

Forget everything you learned in school about critical analysis and story elements—foreshadowing, plot arcs, character threads, rising or falling tension, etc. All that stuff is fodder for your critical voice to use to tell you your story isn’t good enough. If you let your creative voice have free rein, it understands all that kind of thing by instinct and will often come up with a much better story than you could ever have planned.

Don’t fret about writing “extra.” Your creative voice doesn’t always know the shortest path from point A to point B. Sometimes it has to take side roads or meander down cul-de-sacs. That isn’t a bad thing; it’s just your subconscious trying to figure out what it wants to do. Accept that it’s going to happen and let it.

Don’t allow yourself to rewrite the book. This bit of advice tends to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom many professional writers dispense, but I can see where he’s coming from. Smith holds that you should not give yourself permission to fix anything later, or to write sloppy, because that lets the critical voice come in and tell you your work isn’t good enough. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t go back and fix things later if it comes to you they need a change—it’s just that you should go fix them as soon as you realize there’s a problem, rather than waiting for when you do “the next draft.” Write the story, finish it, then send it on to your publisher or first readers, don’t reread, don’t look back, and just move on to the next thing.

Get “unstuck in time.” Don’t feel you have to write the book linearly from beginning to end, the way readers read it. Write the scenes in the order in which they come to you, and worry about connecting them up later. If they come to you linearly, fine, but if not, don’t feel ashamed about writing something later in the book now, or jumping back to add something in earlier if you realize it’s missing. You’re the god of your story; you have the power to create it in any order.

Fix problems when you find them. As with not allowing yourself to rewrite, this is all about feeding the creative voice while ignoring the critical one. Your creative voice knows what it wants to do, and you need to keep your critical voice from getting in the way. Listen to it, fix it right away.

Cycle through your story. Smith explains that his writing process involves writing about 500 to 700 words at a time, then jumping back and rereading right then and there what he just wrote. It helps him build up momentum to write the next bit, and lets him notice and fix problems as he sees them. It’s sort of like writing a second draft, but you do it a chunk at a time rather than all at once.

Outline as you go. Just because you’re “writing into the dark” without a preconceived outline doesn’t’ mean you shouldn’t outline. But you should outline “in reverse”—outline what just happened, rather than what you think should happen next. This provides a handy reference for you to follow to catch up on where your story is if you take a break from writing for a while, as well as to let you keep straight the sort of details that tend to pile up and be easily forgettable when writing at novel length.

When you start writing a story, Smith explains, you should simply put a character in a setting, engage him with all five senses, and then let him go and see what happens. (This seems reasonable; it’s one of the main points to many workshopping tools such as Storymatic—they give you hints to coming up with a character and a setting.) When you get blocked, just work on writing the next sentence, or else check and see if you need to go back a few hundred words and either start a new chapter or take things in a different direction.

Bearing in mind that writing processes are often idiosyncratic and deeply personal, Smith’s advice nonetheless seems like it makes a lot of sense and could be very helpful to uncertain writers who don’t have a very good grasp on productive process yet. I’ve already recommended it to a friend who seems to have a lot of trouble with his inner critical voice.

For myself, I had already come to a sort of instinctive understanding of some of Smith’s points in my own writing, though it’s interesting to see them codified in these terms. I had grasped that a lot of the time I don’t seem to like my own fiction writing, but I’ve learned to ignore that negative inner voice and keep plugging away. When I do finish something and post it, I find I tend to get the most praise for works I thought were particularly terrible, so I’ve simply come to accept that I’m not a good critical judge of my own writing. It sounds as though that is the sort of understanding more would-be writers need to reach. I should see about putting some of Smith’s other advice into practice, such as the retroactive outlining. It does sound like it makes a lot of sense.

In the end, I found this book interesting and helpful, and well worth the $6 e-book purchase price on Amazon. Of course, I got it much more cheaply than that, as part of a StoryBundle, along with some other books I might review later on (such as another writing guide by Smith’s wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch). Hopefully it helps other aspiring writers!


  1. Interesting review, Chris! I just read a book on writing non-fiction which said some similar things, and one of the things I had most liked about that book was the editing-as-you-go suggestion. Contrary to the first draft-second draft model, that book suggested working one chapter at a time, thoroughly finishing that one chapter, then pausing to do the edit right then and there. Then you move onto the next chaper and boom, done.

    Personally, I do find it helpful to give the whole thing one more read on my Kindle before I pronounce it finished. Both times I did that, I did find a few typos to fix. But on my current project, this is how I am working now, one chapter at a time.

  2. I’ve found that for me, for any project that’s not strictly chronological by necessity (Chesterton on War and Peace), more than a rough outline is wasting time. If I create one, I spend too much time organizing in ways that I quickly discard. I start writing as ideas come to me and take advantage of the fact that Scrivener makes moving material around easy.

    My latest is a message book and to make that message clear, I need to jump about over a two-year period in my life, bringing in events when they’re relevant to the flow. The book’s first chapter includes one of the last events and the book’s last chapter includes an event in the middle. It’s set in the early 1980s, but there are portions that leap ahead to just a few years ago, because they’re as much a part of that message as any other. What ties it all together is the theme. Only by actually writing could I discover what fits where.

    I’ve got a handy way to deal with that “critical voice.” I shut it up by fixing what it is complaining about and move on. Eventually, as it runs out of complaints, and I start to like the book more and more. Eventually, everything flows well, and I release it to the world. My latest, that message book, Senior Nurse Mentor: Fixing What Ails Nursing Morale hit that stage this week. When all I can find is changing “ice ax” to “ice axe,” I know it’s ready to go.

    My problem is that while many authors seem to regard their creation as a four-year-old off on his first trike ride and thus in need of careful watching and protection post-publication, I tend to regard mine as college graduates with STEM majors. I’m not only happy to see them move out into the world, I figure that they can look out for themselves. They don’t need my help.

    And, alas, that doesn’t seem to be true. Now, more than ever books must be hyped. If I were the editor-in-chief of Nurse magazine, promoting this one would be easy. As is, I must spend much of the first chapter persuading nurses that working with nurses without being one is sufficient reason for me to write a book about nursing.

    Writing into the Dark sound like a good book. Unfortunately, I find I can never read a book about writing, maybe because I am already too opinionated. I do like writer’s podcasts though, and highly recommend Writing Excuses:

    Funny, short and practical. The show’s motto is: “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail