Most writing advice is given by planners, who tell you to decide what to say and then say it. Tenth-grade English teachers demand detailed outlines before you put down a word. Most manuals on writing novels prescribe creating a chapter outline and character biographies. Newspaper editors want a “budget line” as early as possible, sometimes before you’ve gathered any information. Plan, then execute.
But some of the best stuff comes unplanned, and the secret is to let it.
A decade ago, I suddenly started writing novels. Although I’m a dedicated planner, I found myself writing fiction without a plot. That worried me a lot, but I really fretted when my characters started acting on their own. A pilot in my third novel suddenly committed a murder, which he had clearly planned ahead of time without me. Hey, this was my novel, not his.
My novelist son Jason advised me to relax my control-freak impulses, and follow the characters when they took off on their own. If what they did or said panned out, I could develop it. If it didn’t, I still controlled the Delete key.
One night in a Washington, D.C. motel, I got up at 1:00 a.m., typed non-stop for an hour, and went back to sleep. The next morning, I found a chapter on my screen that I had not planned or imagined. It was better than what I had written before. Strangest of all, it had no typos. I’m a hideous typist, and this text was perfect. Who wrote it? The staff in my head.
I use a similar technique to write leads. I type the main body of a piece first. By the time I get to the ending, there’s a lead in my head unprompted. I’m not talking about literary mysticism. The staff in my head composes the lead from the words they see me typing.
In her book Naked, Drunk, and Writing, Adair Lara uses exercises, questions, and prompts to bring about what she calls “epiphanies,” breakthroughs in thinking. For instance, you keep asking yourself why you did something and writing down the answers. “Your fingers can type things,” she says, “you didn’t know were in your head.”
Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute conducts an exercise where participants write a short piece, then toss it out and write it again, and toss it out and write it again, etc. On my fourth version, I astonished myself with this lead: “I’m glad my father died.”
In a less structured version of this technique, you turn the screen off and just type. (Watch your fingers so you don’t type gibberish.) Don’t think, just type. Don’t think, just type type type. And the staff in your head will tell you what they’re thinking about.
Letting go helps with form as well as content. Sometimes you can’t come up with a structure, things just won’t jell, or everything seems equally important (or unimportant). So you just type sentences, lots of sentences about your subject. Don’t worry about how they go together. After a while, clumps will emerge. As Michael Ruhlman put it, “Telling the story generates the shape.”
If I can suppress my Internal Control Freak, so can you, when you need to.
[Got any other techniques for turning yourself loose?]