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Writer-Talk Tuesday: Writing without Knowing What to Write

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

    Sherrinda asked: You said you did not know what you would be writing Sunday. Do you not have a plan…an outline…of what you are writing?

    Debra wrote: I’ve been doing the 1k1hr challenge once or twice a day but I can only do it if I list the three or four things I need to get done in each chapter. Then I have no problem hitting that mark.

      Best-selling author Tom Wolfe once said:

      What I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write.

      Because I’m at the point in my novel in which I’m in the middle—the section where I’m supposed to be upping the ante for my characters, complicating/thwarting their goals, and driving them toward the climax at the end, I’m also at the section of the book in which I had the fewest ideas for specific scenes when I wrote the synopsis for the proposal (which, let’s remember, was about eighteen months ago).

      About four or five months ago, right after I signed the contract and knew for sure this was what I’d be writing, I pulled out the synopsis and my big Post-it Notes and wrote scene cards for the scenes I’d already written (prologue and first three chapters which went out with the proposal) as well as for the specific scenes mentioned in the synopsis. Though I stuck them to a table-top A-frame flip-chart easel, and not to my office wall (which no longer has this space available), here’s a reminder of what that process looks like:

      Scene cards from Ransome’s Crossing

      However, once I get into the middle of the book like this, I’m not always certain what specifically comes next when I sit down to write. Much depends on what happened in the previous scene, and much depends on what specific scenes toward the end I know I need to work toward. But most of the time, when I sit down to write, I don’t have a specific scene in mind.

      There are those occasions when I will suddenly hear the dialogue in my head or I will see a scene play out in my mind’s eye and have to scramble to transcribe it onto the page. That did happen to me with one of my 1k1h sprints last weekend. I’d already begun writing the scene (about 300 to 400 words) of which I’d had a very clear vision the day before. So when I sat down to just write, write, write for that one hour, I knew exactly where that scene was going—what the action was, what they characters needed to say to each other, and what the motivations/reactions/goals of each of the three characters in the scene were. But part of the problem of having that scene so clear in my head was that it slowed my ability to write it because of the fear that I’d never be able to get it down in words the way I envisioned it.

      The next afternoon, when I started the next 1k1h challenge, I’d already started a new scene—and shortly after starting to write, I knew where it was going and what hook I was working toward for the end of the chapter. Which I got to with plenty of time to spare in that hour. So I started the next chapter, really not sure exactly where it was going.

      How did I start the next chapter if I had no idea what came next? Well, I thought through my four or five POV characters (I’m still not sure if I’m keeping all of them, but I am allowing myself to write a first draft, so I’m experimenting with viewpoints right now) and picked the one who hadn’t had a POV scene in a while. I started with his name. Andrew. Then I figured out where he was. In his cottage. What time of day it was. Afternoon. What he was doing there at that time of day. About to look at the thing wrapped in cloth that Meg handed him in the previous scene. But, as an experienced author, I know I can’t just have him sitting in his house alone thinking. A knock on the door. So . . . who’s on the other side?

      As soon as I figured out who was at the door (his rival for the heroine’s attention), then I had my scene—and I was able to write more than 1,600 words in one hour. But if I hadn’t made myself sit down and write, I probably wouldn’t have (a) come up with that scene or (b) gotten any progress made on my word count that day.

      When that hour was up, I walked away—and left off in the middle of a sentence (and with a misspelled word at that!). So the next time when I sat down to write, I was able to immediately pick up where I left off and keep writing. Which resulted in another almost 1,500 words in one hour.

      Though I didn’t get anything written yesterday, as I was exhausted from having been kept awake until almost 3:30 in the morning by the tornado sirens the night before, I am planning on doing at least 1k1h challenge every afternoon this week to see just how much progress I can make on this manuscript this week. And, no, I won’t know what I’m going to write every day when I sit down to do it . . . I’ll simply know that I must write. And trust that my creativity will kick in and illuminate my path.

      Which brings me to my favorite quote about writing from author E.L. Doctorow:

      It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

  1. Tuesday, January 24, 2012 12:18 pm

    I like that last quote. It’s true of so MANY aspects of life – and that’s where faith comes in. If we can have faith in those headlights, why can’t we have faith that God will guide us as we write? I don’t often read all of the posts on the ACFW listserve digest, but Martha Rogers’ VOTW is always a must-read. Today her verse coincided (In MY brain, anyway) with Doctorow’s quote – “Whether you turn to the right or left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.”’
    Isaiah 30:21

    Then there’s always the old saying – “God helps those who help themselves.” If we don’t put forth a little effort, how are we going to heed that voice behind us?

    I like reading about YOUR writing, Kaye.


  2. Sherrinda permalink
    Tuesday, January 24, 2012 5:14 pm

    I’m with Regina…I love to read about how you write. Your thought process, your plan of action, and what actually transpires. I guess when I see all the post it notes on the wall, I think you have the whole book planned out, so I was curious as to why you wouldn’t know what you were going to write (on that Sunday).


  3. Roberta Gallant permalink
    Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:42 am


    How do I replace vague verbs — “am”, “is”, “are”, “will”,
    “would”, and “shall” (for example) — with action verbs?
    I desire you to give me specific and clear instructions
    on hoe to turn these sentences — “Healthcare is important”,
    “I am writing to you about you vacation in Peru”, “You are
    magnificent today” — etc. Using strong verbs interest me!

    Roberta Gallant
    Concord, New Hampshire


  4. Wednesday, January 25, 2012 12:26 pm

    I too love your sharing of your writing process. Gives me confidence that I’m not completing off-base.


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