Writing Advice: In the Headlights

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Last week I posted about outlining and the many different ways to execute that planning mechanism. As I concluded in the post, the way you outline really depends on you, your personal preferences, and what will work best for the story you’re writing. Whatever you’re most comfortable with is what you should go with. And so, this week I thought I would talk about what kind of outlining works best for me.

You may have heard that quote from E.L. Doctorow that says writing is “like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Essentially, this quote says to me that you can only plan so much. You can only see so far ahead, even in your own story. Outlining can be helpful, but unless you’re going to stick to that outline no matter what, the document you create may become obsolete as you continue to write. After all, aliens may decide to invade, psychotic family members may decide to drop by, or your main character may decide she’s had enough of this nonsense you’ve been writing. Writing can be volatile and there are times when your best-laid plans will fall apart.

I recently saw Doctorow’s sentiments reiterated in a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog entitled 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story. One of his twenty-five items sounds a lot like the quote mentioned above, although he uses a flashlight rather than headlights. Wendig’s tip reads, “You outline only as you go. Write a scene or chapter. Roughly sketch the next. Then write it. Onward and upward until you’ve got a proper story.”

Until I read this quote, I didn’t realize it, but this is the kind of outlining that I do most often. Especially during National Novel Writing Month, when write-ins are happening every weekend and those 30 days are just flying by. Even when I’m not under a crazy time constraint, though, I tend to write for a certain period of time and when I’m ready to stop, I write up a mini-outline of what should happen next. That way, I’ll have a marker for where to begin when I sit down to write again.

Check out Chuck Wendig’s blog post and see what kind of plotting and prepping is best for you.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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