This past weekend I attended the SCBWI conference in NYC, and while we were waiting for the next great speaker, random quotes would appear on the mega screens to keep us patient.
One quote by E.L. Doctorow kept with me during the weekend, and I wrote it down in my handy-dandy composition notebook. It was this: “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.”
Wow. That’s it exactly! Each scene, each chapter leads you to the end of the book. That made me think about WIPs and the obstacles that get in our way while we’re writing. I started to see all these similarities between driving in the fog and writing a book.
Then I did what some writers do best. I distracted myself and started Googling. I found a bunch of warnings for driving in fog, and I realized many of them would also apply to writers. Let me share with you my epiphany. ☺
1. Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will only be reflected back off the fog and impair visibility further.
As writers, we tend to shine a very bright light on our current work. We try to see every little mistake as we’re going along when maybe the best course of action is to put on the low beams and see the work in progress as it’s meant to be. A rough draft.
2. Reduce speed.
This is a pretty straight-forward warning. I’m guilty of participating in NaNo and writing full-steam-ahead, but often times, after November is over, I’m looking at a rough draft that has lots of random information that doesn’t add anything to the plot or character development. Sometimes taking things slow is the way to go.
3. Listen for traffic you don’t see. Open your window a little, to hear better.
Take a breath and listen. Listen to what our characters are trying to tell us. They know where they should be going better than we do. If we open ourselves up and just listen, they will speak.
4. Use wipers and defrosters as needed for better visibility.
All writers have special tools that work for them. Some may be as simple as a pen and notebook. Others may use the beloved post-its and highlighters. Some have three-fold poster boards divided into three or four or twenty acts. When we are having difficulty seeing ahead, sometimes writing aids can help us.
5. Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.
As a pantser by nature, I used to have a hard time with following an outline. I thought it stunted my amazing creativity. Now I realize that those outlines can be guides to just keep me on the right path. Otherwise I get very distracted and tend to off-road.
6. Allow more distance between vehicles. Never get too close, and don’t rush.
As writers, we tend to compare ourselves to others. We look at the deals of those who just signed with an amazing publisher. We ask ourselves when it will be our turn. Sometimes we follow blindly. Sometimes we follow trends when we should be starting our own. Take your time. Don’t follow too closely to other people. When the fog clears, you very well may find yourself all caught up. ☺
7. Don’t drift. There’s a natural tendency to wander to the middle of the road when visibility gets bad.
Oh, yes! When we lose sight of the story, we start drifting. I once put a random stalker in a story when it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t have a clear plan, so I panicked and drifted myself and my characters right out of the story. Don’t drift!
8. Be patient. Do not pass lines of traffic.
Many of us are tempted to self-publish, but sometimes it’s okay to wait. Sometimes it’s okay to hone our craft and work a little longer on that manuscript. By changing a few things here and there, we’re making it better. With some deeper editing, books can always be made better–even ones that are already published. Having said that, if your manuscript is ready and has been edited and the only thing holding it back is that a publisher doesn’t know quite where to market it, then self publish that baby!
9. Pull over when there’s no visibility. Wait for the weather to clear.
Sometimes the best thing for a manuscript is to set it aside and wait. It’s better than throwing in a random stalker, I can tell you that much from experience. If you find that you’re having a hard time seeing at all, then there’s something wrong. Ask yourself why you’re banging your head against the table in despair. It may be that you’re writing your character into a corner with no hope for any resolution. Or you’re having your characters do or say things that aren’t true to them. Put the manuscript aside for a limited amount of time while you think.
10. It’s okay to ask for help. Have passengers look for obstacles in the road.
Critique partners are with you on your journey. If you’re traveling a very foggy road, ask them why you can’t see it clearly. They will likely see better than you do. The writer is so focused on a certain portion of the book that they can’t see what’s happening in other places. My critique partner told me point blank that the stalker wasn’t working. She also told me that she hated my newest main character’s best friend. So, I changed that character’s best friend, and now the manuscript is very much improved. Ask your critique partner for help! Just as you almost always know what’s not working in someone else’s work, they will see the same in yours.
It’s okay to drive through the fog as long as you heed the warnings. It’s okay to keep writing even when you don’t have a clear idea of the ending or where the story is going. But sometimes, it’s even better to sit back and wait for the fog to clear.
I set my book aside for a while, and now I know how it’s supposed to end. Now I know those few scenes that pull the whole plot together. But, I decided to wait out the fog in the comfort of my home and not even venture out into the bad weather. I’m not stressed out, white-knuckling my steering wheel through the fog. There may be times when visibility gets rough, but that’s when I’m calling on my passengers. That’s when I’ll put my low beams on, drive slowly and follow the marking on the road.