There’s an analogy that’s been around for a long time – I’ve been using it myself for years – comparing writing a novel to a long-distance road trip, usually at night. The comparison goes, in the car, you can only see as far as the headlights light up, but you only need to see that far at any given moment. You can get from New York all the way to San Francisco without ever seeing the whole road at once; in fact, you can’t see the whole road at once when you’re in the car. You can only see it all at once if you’re in a satellite, which doesn’t do you a lot of good if you’re driving.
It’s the same way with writing; you don’t have to have a detailed plan for the whole book, you just need to know where you’re going and have a clear idea of the next chapter or two. As long as your planning stays a chapter or two ahead, you can get to the end of the book that way.
It occurred to me recently that this analogy makes two really key assumptions that aren’t necessarily the case. First, it assumes you know where you’re going (and that you care where you’re going and whether you get there). A sizeable minority of writers don’t work that way. Their writing “road trip” is more like driving around for a day or two and then looking at their surroundings and going “Hey, we’re close to Denver! Let’s go there.” And it works fine for them…but that brings me to the other key assumption, the one that really matters.
And that’s knowing where you are. If you’re trying to drive to Chicago, and you don’t know whether you’re starting in New York or San Francisco, you don’t know whether to head west or east. If you’re trying to drive to Chicago, and you’re starting in Honolulu or Beijing, you’re going to have a serious problem when you get to the Pacific Ocean. And if you don’t know where you are, you certainly aren’t going to be able to figure out what interesting places might be nearby to visit or even to finish off an open-ended road trip in.
Knowing where you are is something that’s so basic that most of us do it unconsciously, which is why the original analogy doesn’t usually address it, but only looks at where you’re going and how you get there. And most of the time, this works just fine. Every once in a while, though, someone I know gets stuck or runs into trouble because they’re doing the equivalent of trying to cross the Pacific Ocean in a car, or driving east from Chicago in hopes of arriving in Los Angeles in a day or two.
Invariably, when this happens, it takes forever for the writer to sort out what the problem is. Once the person finally takes a look at where they are and what they’re doing, it’s usually a head-banging moment – “Dang! How did I not realize that I need a BOAT?” or “Geez, I’m in Pennsylvania, not Colorado! No wonder this doesn’t look much like the Rocky Mountains.”
What I mean by “where you are” in the writing sense is basic stuff, like what kind of story you’re actually telling, as opposed to the one you may think you’re telling (a friend recently got tied up for months because she was trying to write action-adventure, when the part she’d already written was clearly comedy-of-manners), who the protagonist and villain really are (they may be different from the ones you started off thinking they were), what the real problem is that the protagonist and friends are currently facing, and where facing their problems is likely to lead.
It’s not easy to do this, because it requires backing off from one’s preconceptions about what one has been doing and where one has been heading, and taking a long, hard look at where one actually is. And, sometimes, admitting that one is completely lost, and even the map is no help, because one can’t figure out where to go next to get back on track if one isn’t aware that one is in Pennsylvania and not Colorado.
Crit groups and editors and first readers can make a reasonably good analogy for asking directions at the local gas station, but one still has to listen – and also, one has to remember that the directions aren’t always totally correct. Still, it’s often a lot easier for someone else to see where a book is than it is for a writer to let go of what they thought they were doing…though one does need to remember to ask, and not everyone is good at that part.
It is a great pity that there isn’t a writing equivalent of a GPS system (preferably one that marks out all the road construction and missing bridges up ahead). Until someone invents such a thing, however, we all have to muddle through the hard way.