Sunday, January 22, 2006

Trusting the Stars

How do you navigate your way through the unknown journeys of first drafts?

Some writers set sail without a map, loving the feel of the open sea spreading before them--a blank surface on which to make their marks, an unkown world to explore.

Others prefer planning a course to follow before setting out, leaving open the possibility of unexpected excursions along the way.

Each of us has to find our own stars to navigate by.

On some nights the sky's clear, and we can sail without fear, marking our course as we go.

On other nights the journey's more risky. The sky's clouded over, the stars hidden from view, our destination unclear.

How do we find our way?

In his book on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury suggests that plot is:

"... no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot should ever be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic."

Years ago, when I asked Ron Koertge (Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Stoner & Spaz, Margaux with an X) to help me learn how to plot a novel, he simply stared back at me, bewildered by the question, and said something akin to Bradbury's advice: "What's the problem? Just play with the keyboard and, voila, a plot will emerge."

And Robert Parker (author of the detective novels featuring Spenser and hailed as the "dean of American crime fiction"), when asked on if he has a writing procedure, explained that he once outlined plots... but no longer relies on them:

"I sit down every day and write five pages on my computer. At some point I found that not outlining worked better than outlining. The outline had become something of a limitation more than it was a support. When I did the Raymond Chandler book, Poodle Springs, which was in the late eighties, I was trying to do it as Chandler did it, and since Chandler didn't outline then I thought I won't outline. If you read Chandler closely you can see that he didn't outline. What the hell happened to that chauffeur? I would recommend to the beginning writer that they should outline because they probably don't have enough self-confidence yet. But I've been writing now since 1971 and I know that I can think it up. I know it will come."

Each book, each story that we set out to write is like a journey out to sea, requiring a different course and a different set of decisions and responses to those decisions. We can't know in advance where the journey will take us... or if we will even make it to the opposite shore.

"Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how," said Agnes De Mille, the American dancer and choreographer. "The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."

Writing, too, is a form of not being sure, of leaping daily into the dark.

Louise Hawes (Vanishing Point, Waiting for Christopher, and Rosey in the Present Tense), in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, says "That's the fun, the free-fall of fiction, after all -- going on a journey that surprises you as much as it does your readers."

To find your way on the page, trust that light from the stars above--and within you--will guide your journey, illuminating a path that won't become visible until you set sail.

For more on Ray Bradbury, take a look at his website

Ron Koertge talks about his work at Check out this interview at and learn more about his writing life at

To read the full interview with Robert Parker, check out at You can also catch a webcast with Parker at his publisher's site

For the full interview with Louise Hawes, check out Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, Cynsations, at You can find more of Hawes' thoughts on writing at her website

1 comment:

jacko said...

Lately I’ve thought more about the challenge of beginning a novel without the assistance of a carefully thought out, written outline. Not a detailed, scene-by-scene roadmap, but an outline that considers at least one major complication, or problem, and a series of minor complications, or obstacles, and the reolution. I’d always considered the approach suggested in “Writing for Story,” by Jon Franklin, the best authority on writing tight, effective outlines. It was recommended to me in a graduate writing program. A fiction writer might at first be wary of Franklin’s sub-heading, “craft secrets of dramatic nonfiction by a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner,” but who better to learn from? There may not be much difference anyhow in good, dramatic non-fiction writing and literary fiction writing other than that in the former the event actually happened on Tuesday evening, seven o’clock, last year, in Hoboken. Franklin’s approach will help keep the writer from what he calls “spaghetti-ing.” Most writers can carry along easily enough for two, three, or four chapters without an outline, but things may start to get raveled and twisted thereafter. With Franklin, you’ve got the thematic structure and points of interest clarified and you can concentrate on good writing. And yet. I admire those writers who plunge in without an outline, give free rein to the subconscious, introduce surprising new characters, seize opportunities to break new ground. But. Every time I resolve to start out with that approach, shortly into the story, I have to calm my anxieties with an outline. I’ve started another piece of work without the outline, but I can sense the need building.

Thanks for the links, Bruce; they look really interesting.