My dialogues come in spurts. My characters marinate in my mind until I can actually have them move about in my novels. And my plots just seem to evolve, twist and change until I’m left with something tangible. The whole process is gut-wrenching, time consuming and frustrating. But somehow I’ve managed to publish four mystery-suspense novels, garner an award for one of them, and still maintain some degree of sanity. But I’m doing it all wrong, aren’t I?
I mean, for years, I’ve always thought that good writers begin with a solid outline and a crystal clear vision for their plot, character development, and dialogue. They know the climax the minute they pen the title of their work. And everything else flows smoothly. Then why wasn’t this the case for me?
My novels evolved like my grandmother’s cooking. No real recipe – just some ingredients and a general sense of how to blend them. She never tortured herself over the lack of a step by step plan. So why did I? Maybe it was all those years of having to write formal outlines for my English teachers. None of my novels had formal outlines. They had post-its. Post-its that hung on the computer, next to the computer, on the desk, and anywhere in the vicinity of the desk.
I vowed that when I started my fifth novel ( which, by the way, is somewhere between crappy first draft and third round editing ) I would do it differently. I would pre-plan it. Do it right. And then, a miracle happened. I bought Anne Lamott’s instructional guide to writing – Bird by Bird. I wasn’t even sure who Anne Lamott was, but I remembered reading an article of hers in some magazine while I had to wait for hours in the urgent care because I was convinced I was having a stroke. (Ha! Turned out to be Bell’s Palsy and disappeared in a week). Anyway, her name appeared on my nephew’s school reading list under “Best Guides for Writing.” It was right next to The Elements of Style, so I figured it was in pretty good company and couldn’t possibly be as boring.
Well, that book gave me all the validation I needed to keep writing in small spurts and not panic because I couldn’t “see the big picture.” And as it turns out, she’s not the only one who agrees that writing is a nail-biting, self-doubting experience that pushes writers to the edge. She quotes E.L. Doctorow ( Ragtime ), and this is one quote I’ll treasure.
“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.”
Thank you, Anne. Now I’ll only worry if snow or dust covers my headlights.