E.L. Doctorow once said, “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.”
I must say that, for the most part, I can’t relate. When it comes to producing novels, I'm a "plotter" and not a "pantser." A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of his (or her) pants -- a person who can reach a destination without looking too far ahead.
Writing for me is not a spontaneous process that begins by opening a blank page on my laptop. It is a process that is so clear and ordered, it’s like driving all day in sunshine on a flat, straight, traffic-free highway with my GPS navigator activated.
My outline takes the form of detailed chapter summaries that can run from twenty words to two hundred. If there’s something I want to mention in Chapter 26, I’ll leave myself a reminder. Often I will add entire quotes or passages to a summary.
By the time I’m ready to start Chapter 1, I know not only which roads I will take to get to my destination but also which ones I’ll avoid. Virtually every twist, turn, and potential obstacle will be identified well in advance.
I say virtually because, like most authors, I like to leave some room to depart from the script and do something entirely different.
When I wrote The Mine, my first novel, I added a Japanese-American character about a third of the way in. The character, a college senior named Katie, became one of the most instrumental figures in the book. In three other novels, I added two lengthy chapters after the first draft was “finished.”
I’ve found that this approach works well. By outlining a novel in advance, I reduce the chances of writing myself into a corner. By leaving myself wiggle room, I leave open the possibility of heading down a better road.
In the twentieth of his twenty-two lessons on writing, Stephen King advises writers to take a break from their finished draft. He suggests six weeks, in fact, so that they can return to their manuscript with fresh eyes and see the proverbial forest among the trees.
I think this is sound advice. Good writing is a process that requires not only discipline and perseverance but also patience and perspective. What may seem a great idea in the planning stages may seem downright dumb in the end.
As I jump into the second novel of my second series, I plan to drive during the day with a map handy. But I’m going to keep an eye on the signs. Last-minute detours can do more than make a trip more interesting. They can make it better.