If you’ve been following my posts, you may have noticed that I bring up free writing a lot. And I do mean a lot. Like as in almost every post. I do that because I think it is probably the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox, except for maybe the Internet. Free writing is the writer’s multi-tool. It can help us develop compelling storylines, flesh out characters, find solutions to dire situations, and even figure out how to create the situations we need solutions to. And, after we’ve done all this, it will still be sharp enough to slice a tomato (two points to anyone who gets the reference).
If you look up free writing on the Internet, you’re likely to find a few different descriptions. One of the more common approaches is as a writing exercise where a person writes anything and everything that comes into their head. The goal is to start the pen (or keyboard) in motion and not stop until the time runs out. If the writer can’t think of anything to write, they are supposed to keep writing something like, “I don’t know what to write” until something comes to mind and they can start going again.
To me, that describes free writing purely in the context of idea generation. It is a way to go from nothing to having a seed of an idea. I do think that approach has a lot of value, but it isn’t really what I’m talking about. Free writing as an everyday writing tool allows me to explore. It is a way to keep myself focused on exploring a specific topic or idea with the added bonus of having a written record.
When I started The Timekeeper’s Son, I had a little bitty idea seed and I had no clue where to go with it. The idea came from a writing prompt and that gave birth to a short, 1,000 word story. That genesis still shows up within the first chapter of the book, only in a much more evolved form. Anyway, that micro-story was a good start, but it wasn’t nearly enough. It was just the beginning.
Over the next couple of weeks, I wrote out a complete prototype of chapter-one and I started to develop the idea for the conflict that would carry the story forward. But it still wasn’t a novel. In my mind, the idea wasn’t even developed enough to create a 7,000-word short story. That’s where free writing came to be my very best friend.
To show you what I mean, The Timekeeper’s Son is almost 82,000 words. I have close to 40,000 words of straight free writing about the plot. Just the plot. That doesn’t count any of the character development, setting, descriptions, or anything else but the plot. What did I write about? Who knows? If you ever wanted to torture someone into submission, you could force him to read it. I sure wouldn’t want to.
That’s because the results don’t ever have to be read by anyone, even you. You don’t focus on punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, composition, or any of that business. You have one goal: think about whatever needs your brainpower. There’s something about writing that helps keep you on task. I use speech too, but there’s no record of it if you need to reference it later. So, when I do use speech, I often write down the results afterward.
I generally have at least one of three basic focuses when I go exploring. The first is to write out everything I know about whatever it is – a character, a plot line, a story, or even a specific problem. I might explore everything I already know with the hope that I will start to figure out some things I don’t know. That’s the real value. Forcing myself to write about something helps to bring out the little bits I haven’t thought of before.
The second focus area is listing out the stuff I don’t know. When I started thinking about the storyline for The Timekeeper’s Son, there was a ton of stuff I didn’t know. I didn’t know why he travelled back in time. I didn’t know who the antagonist was or even what the antagonist wanted. I didn’t know how to move the story forward. I didn’t know much of anything, to be honest. By writing about the things I didn’t know, I started to solidify the questions I needed to answer, even if I still didn’t know how to answer them.
Finally, I will explore possible answers. I will chase down any answer that seems remotely plausible. Even the silly ideas can spawn another seed that can turn into something great. One way to look at this is that you have to give your ideas a chance to explain themselves. You have to give an idea the spotlight and watch it perform. It could be a dud, but it could also be a gem. Or maybe a dud could lead you to another idea that is a gem. You just never know.
Just don’t forget to keep your eye out for The Snick.
I guess the next question is when to free write. The answer to that is very simple: free write any time you need to find a creative answer to something. If you find yourself stuck and you don’t know where to go? Free write. If you see too many possible paths and you don’t know which is the best, free write. If you feel like you don’t even know what you don’t know about the story, you guessed it. Free write. You’ll be surprised what pops out.