You’ve heard this one before, I bet.
Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. -E.L. Doctorow
But if this quote from E.L. Doctorow on writing is new to you, you can probably already tell why it’s one of the most often quoted writing maxims for both new and established writers.
Because writing the first draft is scary. Writing your first draft is a swim in uncertainty. Where is your story going? What will the end look like? How will you know it’s the end when you get there?
Worse, there’s zero guarantee that your hard work won’t take a shit and die before you finish it. And it may not be a fancy hero’s death either, all full of noble self-sacrifice and funeral honors. No, we’re talking the kind of pathetic death where it trips over the last step on its way from the kitchen and chokes on a grape.
And yet, we’re supposed to trust the writing. That’s what Doctorow’s quote is all about. Trusting that you’ll find your way to the end through all the uncertainty if you just take it a sentence at a time.
Maybe that’s why you and I devour stories about other people’s writing processes. And why that age old pantsing versus planning argument lives on. Because this is us, we writers who are new to writing, just trying to find our way in the dark. It’s us trying to find the secret to trusting the writing long enough to get our stories out of our heads and into the world.
That’s what week three in the How Writers Write Fiction course I’ve been taking and sharing here gave student writers last week. In the lesson, Working with Plot, three novelists shared their three very different methods for unearthing plot in the first draft for you to use too.
I worried when it was time to write this post, in fact. Because even blogging switches on my Perfectionist Pessimist, that nagging bitch in the background who unspools her never-ending criticism while I write (Are you sure you really want to say ‘fuck’ in your blog post, Mandy? You’ll never really translate into words what you feel about those ideas, so why try? Maybe you should just take a nap instead. Ummm, Mandy, that’s not how you spell ‘Doctorow’. Dumb ass.).
That’s why I loved the week’s plotting lesson and those three novelist’s trust-your-writing tips. Because every time we sit down to write, it’s an act of faith. That the Perfectionist Pessimist is wrong. That somehow we’ll be able to put into words what we want our readers to know. That when the alarm goes off in our heads and the Great Procrastinator threatens to take over, it’s going to be okay. As long as we keep writing.
So how do other writers do it? How do they trust the writing anyway? Here are those answers from three of the best.
What It Takes To Trust Your Writing: Three Novelists from University of Iowa’s How Writers Write Fiction Course Weigh In
Highlights from Boris Fishman’s lecture: Don’t be a snob about plot. Plot is just tension + conflict. Plot is just making the reader wonder “what is going to happen next?” so they turn the page. So practice + read other writers. The first draft tells you what the story is really about. The second draft is to write as it was supposed to be written. And don’t beat yourself up. The world won’t miss any opportunity to tell you your work is stupid. So wait to ask yourself that question until the story is done.
More from this novelist: Boris Fishman
Highlights from Stephen Lovely’s lecture: You don’t need a plan. The writing process is more powerful than the thinking process. You make discoveries at the sentence level. Allow the story to crystallize slowly through many drafts. Get comfortable in that uncertain space. It’s where you’re supposed to be.
More from this novelist: Stephen Lovely
Highlights from Jonathan Lethem’s lecture: Generate plot using juxtaposition + causality. That means throw two unrelated things together and shackle them, then make up some reason they go together. Look for stuff in your notebooks or unfinished stories and combine them. Alone they are incomplete. Together they may be something.
More from this novelist: Jonathan Lethem
Still don’t trust the writing? Instructor, Bruce Elgin came to the rescue with a few straightforward plotting tools in the following class. We’ll cover those next week.
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