Writing without a Map

old world mapNot only are jokes on the skids as humor goes–apparently there are more 21st Century ways to make humor than old stand-up one-liners–but coupled with the rise of GPS systems, and jokes about how men never ask for directions sound positively archaic. With a smart phone or in-car positioning system, one never need be mapless again. If our sense of direction is sub-par, no worries. In a new neighborhood or city, instructions for orienteering are just a few clicks away.

I admit it; I am a fan of plans and outlines and the writer’s equivalent of a blueprint for works in progress. But sometimes my standard process doesn’t unfold, and I find myself writing into blackness. If I prefer having character descriptions in front of me, a knowledge of the major plot points and an intermediate grip on the themes as I sit down to write, then I have to manage my disappointment when identifying the tale to be told is a murkier process. This new novel will only reveal itself to me in word-sized chunks–no matter how I try to stir up bigger portions of the narrative, I can only clutch at one scene at a time, like trying to get at the most excellent plushy animal at the bottom of a seaside toy grabbing crane. I will take what I can get, succumbing to this impromptu apprenticeship in authorly creativity and patience.

For the writer who likes to know the universe before typing, here are a few suggestions when that unruly project comes along:

1. Note as you go–At the end of your writing session, leave a few minutes to diagram what scenes you added, if you wrote in any new characters, and describe the major plot points that are now in the narrative. I like to reflect on the just-laid scenes before I sit down again, so having an ongoing journal for each project helps get into the right mindset more quickly, and then my writing time is more productive.

film still from Misery

2. Use the lack of structure to your advantage–If you’re not going to be beholden to an earlier idea about who does what, then relax and let your characters do their thing in the story. They may surprise you with their activity once you free up your expectations for your writing process. Remember, the bulk of the work is in the revisions, so there will be plenty of time later to shift, tweak, and undo (if need be).

3. Feel free to use placeholders–I sometimes put in a <<INSERT SCENE>> marker in my first drafts if the needed scene isn’t coming to me or I feel more capable of writing some other aspect of the novel. Without a drawn-out architecture plan, there’s even less reason to struggle with some impertinent character or plot point. You aren’t wedded to any sequence of events, so if you’re obsessed with the antagonist, go ahead and tell their story from beginning to end. You can and will work everything else into their story until all of the components are present and accounted for in the manuscript.

4. Remember that good writers are flexible writers–Of course there are stories about the superstitions writers attach to in the course of finding a process that works for them. If only life were static and nothing ever changed, then a single way of writing a novel that worked perfectly could be used time and again. Thank goodness life moves and is fluid (talk about running out of things to write about–it’s a good thing the universe keeps growing). So if say, having a 1-year-old and a brand-new work schedule mean that not enough brain capacity exists to do things like, uh, outline the novel in progress, then it will only make me–I mean, one, it will make one–a better artist in the end. The point remains to tell the story that is dying to be told. How we get there is not only part of the project, it is a big chunk of the joy.

Good luck, folks, and may your best words find you.

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Categories: Writing


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