‘It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’
That’s what E.L. Doctorow said about writing, and it’s one of my favourite quotes that I’ve unearthed in my quest to better understand the craft. It’s encouraging. It’s honest. And, when doubt settles like wet sand over your shoulders, pushing down against the nape of your neck, it serves as a good reminder to—simply—not panic.
It’s OK. You’ll get there. Just follow what’s laid out in front of you.
Right now, I’m pausing for thought, the large jut of my chin snug against my thumb and index knuckle like the compatible edges of a puzzle piece. I don’t quite know what I’m going to write about in this post, but in an hour’s time I’ll have it done. (OK, ninety minutes!)
The quote manages to speak true in more than one circumstance in life, but with writing I’ve found it incredibly helpful—no, at times it’s been like the cease of wind smoothing out the surface of whisked water.
It’s important to accept that you can solve your problems, just not all of them at the same time.
I’ve found it most helpful to keep in mind that I can’t know everything about my story, my protagonist, his love interest, his antagonist, his family, his friends, his feelings and memories towards each and everyone of them, their feelings and memories in return about him, and so on and so on—I can’t possibly know all of that from the beginning, especially when most of the truly good stuff, the yes! stuff that makes your eyes widen with excitement, comes out of the writing itself.
Sure, I need to have a better—a complete—understanding of all those things—and more—by the time I’ve finished, but even then not until I’ve done a couple more drafts of the whole manuscript. (I’ve learnt from my mistakes there.)
While I’ve been re-planning and developing the story, I’ve made a separate space for questions I don’t yet know the answers to and considerations I will need to make. I’ve added my doubts, too; if I can’t answer them now, I will do so later on.
I much prefer having my doubts stored in a document than in my head.
All I need is enough of a plan to get me started, to get me on the road at night with my headlights stretched across the tarmac in front of me.
So, where abouts on the road am I at the moment?
Well, from what I can see, I’m in a good place.
I’m feeling confident with the road so far travelled, including the story idea and this month’s preparation: namely, most of the things I said last month that I wanted to do. I initially found this a bit daunting, until I broke the tasks up and gave myself weekly goals. This proved very productive.
I read Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Cress and Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card; I’d recommend them both to anyone with a similar interest to my own. Once I’d read them, I copied up my notes to my Writing Notes master doc, which is now a whopping 104,000 words long—easily long enough to be a novel in itself!
I have one more book to go, which is Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, then, with the exception of re-reading my Writing Notes master doc. a couple of gazillion times so it all sinks irreversibly in, I’m going to leave it there and shift my focus to the writing. After all, that’s the main goal, right?
A week of my time was spent typing up my handwritten notes. This was longer than I’d originally anticipated, but it was unequivocally worth it. I now have 58 (and counting) pages of ordered, backed-up notes—and I only wanted a minimum of twelve before I continued writing!
Doing this allowed me to better grasp the wholeness of my idea. Most of it is somewhere inside my head (or, as Sherlock Holmes would call it, my Mind Palace), but it’s good to have it ordered more clearly for me to read. This is why my confidence has been less sinkable of late, as ordering my thoughts has enabled me to see how much I have covered—and what I still need to cover. Which I will get to, when the headlights pass over them.
Another thing I did was watch Toy Story a couple of times. It’s remarkable how many authors have suggested studying Pixar films based on the strength of their storytelling.
I watched it through the first time with Emily, enjoying the trip back to my childhood (it was the first film I sat through in the cinema without asking my mum how much longer was left) and then the second time I sat in bed with my laptop primed, typing up notes on each scene. I will probably watch it once more, looking for things that I missed the first two times.
Watching films may sound leisurely, but when you’re pausing every thirty seconds to allow your fingers to catch up with your thoughts it soon becomes tiresome, even sucking the entire entertainment value from the film. Though not enough for me to stop loving Toy Story!
Analysing a film is a bit more accessible than a book as you can do it in one go, and it also made me appreciate the film all the more. Part of the beauty of Toy Story‘s structure is how simple it makes telling a good story seem.
This knowledge will be good to keep in mind during my first draft, but it will very likely be more important when I come redrafting with the focus on structure—but that’s further on down the road, on another night.
As for the headlights now, they’re six days into November—the month I committed to resuming my writing. We’ll have to wait to see what the headlights pass over.
(Well, would you look at that, it’s gone nine; my ninety minutes are up!)
[Cassie and I after a lovely walk with Emily at Lullingstone Country Park; the photo doesn’t do justice to the beautiful fire of autumnal colour—though maybe my jacket does!]