The Efficacy Of Kindness

Writers who outline often site time management as a driving force behind their decision to abandon Doctorow’s “headlights on the road at night” technique. To extend this metaphor, outliners don’t have time to travel down some dead end, back up, and find the right road again. Once they start writing, they want every word pointing them exactly where they need to go. This is particularly true, of course, if you are expected to produce one book a year, as many commercial and/or series writers are. But not everyone can outline, myself, as I have often mentioned on this page, included. And in my experience, the greatest time saving technique a non-outliner can develop is the willingness to rip up the pages that aren’t working and start again.

By which I mean, pay attention. There are a lot of stories floating in the ether. As you write, you are tuning your antennae to the story you are currently telling. It is easy, however, when you are deciding where to go next, to tune into the wrong story. If you are feeling a bit stuck, you might leap on just such a story if for no other reason than to feel the satisfaction of writing again. Very soon, however, problems will arise: characters will become wooden, the conflicts two-dimensional. You are trying to force the square peg or your current story into the round hole of the new story, and the results are predictably awkward.

The sooner you admit what you have done, the sooner you can begin tuning your antennae again. In the end, time will be wasted not because you have made some wrong decision—everyone does this all the time—but because you were afraid to admit what has happened. You might look at the wrong turn part of your story and wonder, “What is wrong with me?” or, “Why have I forgotten how to tell a story,” or, “This novel is doomed.”

Now, not only must you get yourself back to the actual story you want to tell, but you must also recover from the terrible idea you have just sewn into your psyche. I have wasted a lot of time recovering in my life. Writing without an outline requires great discipline. You must be particularly disciplined in your kindness. If you train yourself to be as kind as possible whenever a wrong turn is taken, you develop more and more courage to race ahead, knowing as you now do, that there has never been a good time to punish yourself.

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