Writers Write

The Dirty Dozen–Uno

I’m several days into the rough draft of the third act. It’s exactly like that quote by E.L. Doctrow.

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

Instead of car lights, the dark is illuminated by seven post it notes (in day-glow colors, of course). Each note is an event that happens in this section of the manuscript. How to get from here to there is the mystery. It’s a little like automatic writing. I sit trancelike and write whatever comes into my head without thinking too much or editing. I plunk the words down, one after another, until I have a thousand or so, almost always writing in chonological order. After the fact, I can change the chronology. Sometimes, an act of insignificance in one scene plows into the next, becoming the catalyst that moves the story along. 

The post it notes are not very helpful except for rudimentary plot points. They contain things like:

  • Car is stolen
  • Meeting in EBs office
  • Matilda shows up.  

How or when the car is stolen, or what valuable thing was in the car is up to the process. I wish it were more efficient, but no amount of pre-writing prepares me for the actual event.

When I directed plays, I never knew where my ideas came from. I had pictures in my head much like the post it notes. I knew what the stage would look like at a particular place in the story, but I had no idea how the actors would arrive at those marks. When the moment came with players on stage and lines rehearsed, I would mystically say, “Move your body here, and move this object there.” 

It’s the same with the novel. These seven things will happen. When, where, and how are all up for grabs.  

Jennifer Crusie calls the voices that move her, “The Girls in the Basement.”  It’s as good a description as any. Although living in San Antonio, we have too much rock to have a literal basement, so the analogy is hard to imagine. The point is to make contact with the wrong side of my brain–the dream part that gives me an alternate reality, a parallel universe. It takes courage to reach for it daily, but no matter how badly I write, I don’t have a choice. I surrender myself to those basement dwellers.


Post it notes on the plotboard next to my desk.
Post it notes on the plotboard next to my desk.

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