E.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.
There’s no one answer.
Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)
We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.
So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.
It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.
When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.
That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.
Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.