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Thursday, October 20, 2011

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” —Anne Lamott

There are several applications for this quote, so don’t be surprised if you see it from me again sometime.

Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or a report for work, beginning a project can sometimes be the hardest part. We sit down and start the blank sheet of paper or the empty document and are so overwhelmed with the idea of the finished project that we are paralyzed. Ideas might swirl around in your head or maybe there are just a few lonely tumbleweeds rolling past.

Take the fear out of the blank page. Scribble at the top. Draw a stick man in the margin. Change the font to something quirky. Use colored paper or the back of a shopping list. The less ‘official’ it looks, the better.

Now jot some ideas. Don’t think about the finish product. Just focus on what’s immediately in front of you. Do you have a topic? Scribble 5-10 ideas you could talk about on the topic. Brainstorm. See if you can come up with 15 ideas. If you have the luxury of time, stop here for now. Reread the list, then go do something else. If you’re on a tight deadline, reread your list, then see if you can come up with 2-3 points for each idea. Some will have a bunch, some may have one or two, or even none. Doesn’t matter. Just brainstorm for now. Let these ideas simmer in the back of your mind for an hour or a day. Maybe reread the list once or twice and see if any other items come to mind.

When you’re ready to work on it again (don’t let more than a day or at most two pass before facing the page again), skip a few lines, or get a new sheet of paper if you need to, and play with organizing the ideas you came up with yesterday. Is there a particular order they should go in? Is there a beginning, middle and end? Do some ideas lead into others? If you have time, write each idea on a separate index card along with the points you came up with for each. Deal them out on the table, move them around, look for a logical and pleasing order.

Now, start writing, but only on the first idea. Just rough draft, brainstorm, as if you’re talking out loud to someone about what you plan to write about. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or sparkling vocabulary. Write a few lines under each point if you can. Keep it in outline format still, partly for organization, partly to fool your brain into thinking this isn’t “for real”.

Set a goal each day, either time or number of points, depending on your deadline. Write about each point independently from one another if you like.

Once you have something written for each point, take a look at the whole collection again. Are the ideas still in a good order? Does one feed into the next? Or do you need to do some rearranging? Play with it until you like the order.

After you have it in order, go through it from start to finish, and smooth it over. Don’t worry about making it perfect, just get the obvious stuff in shape. Then read it out loud to yourself or to someone else. The reason for this is your ear will hear things differently than your eye sees them. You’ll pick up on awkward phrasing, wordiness, even punctuation errors sometimes. Tweak things, then let someone else read it over. Have them make notes if you want.

One last pass and it’s ready for review or submission.

Tada! You’ve ‘driven’ the entire journey by looking only at what you can see directly in front of you. Anne Lamott calls this the ‘1” picture frame.’

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