The Journal: Analogies and a Clarification

In today’s Journal

* Yesterday’s post
* Some writers and some drivers: analogies
* My experience, a clarification, and more of my experience
* The essential key
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

This is long. My apologies in advance.

Yesterday’s post struck a chord with a few folks. There were emails and there were comments. In one comment, Matt P called the post a “low-KT tactical nuke.” (grin) In another, Anitha K wrote “on days when WITD seems to lead me down an underground mine with no exit in sight, it’s that much harder to trust it.” I encourage you to read the comments and my brief responses.

The initial, central idea behind the post was that despite how much we naturally believe other people are like us—that they have our values and tendencies, our discipline and abilities, our passions and desires—in reality that simply isn’t true.

I do believe most people are GENERALLY alike even across cultures and national boundaries. I’m traveled just widely enough to believe that most people are “good” people who just want to live their lives and enjoy their friends and family, everyday frustrations and general cultural differences aside.

But when it boils down to specifics, individual people are not alike at all. For our purposes, that means different writers trust or believe or get-used-to different methods to put their story on the page.

Some writers can charge into a thunderstorm and simply trust that they’ll come out the other side. They revel in the thrill of the unknown, experiencing events as they unfold. Others have to know the windspeed and direction, anticipated precipitation, and whether there’s a monster hidden in the cloud bank before they’ll even consider running in. The first small group will be able to bring themselves to write into the dark. The second, much larger group, will not.

I like analogies. Let me give you another, maybe more apt one:

There are a few folks who are capable of climbing into a vehicle one morning, backing out of the driveway, and Just Driving for the thrill of driving. They don’t plan their route and they don’t carry a map. They don’t even anticipate what they’ll see around the next turn or over the next hill. They don’t want to know in advance. They simply revel in the wonder of whatever they discover.

These folks have no specific destination in mind. They only want to go where the road leads them and discover what they’re given to discover. They are addicted to the sheer wonder of revelation, and they trust that everything will turn out fine in the end.

As you’ve probably guessed, those are the writers who are able to write into the dark.

Now, absolutely anyone who owns a vehicle CAN climb in and Just Drive if they want to, but most never will, and for good reason. In the long run, there are responsibilities to consider. In the short term, what if they run out of gas? Or what if they get a flat tire? Or what if the paved road turns to dirt or gravel? What then? (Sweat beads appear at only the thought of something unexpected happening.)

Still, the idea of being a free spirit sounds really cool, so they get into the car, back out of the driveway, and drive to the service station to top off the tank, check the oil and coolant, wash the windshield, etc. While they’re there, they buy a map Just In Case. Next, they go to a tire shop and have the attendant check the spare tire and the jack, making sure everything’s in working order.

But as they pull away from the tire shop, they think Well, it’s late in the day. What if I run out of daylight while I’m on the road? That wouldn’t be good, especially since I don’t know where I’m going. I can see only so far down the road in the glow of my headlights. It’s an adventure for sure, but there are limits. There’s no reason to risk doing myself harm or getting lost. Maybe I’ll wait ’til tomorrow. The car’s ready. I’ll wait ’til tomorrow, and then I’ll go for sure.

And the next morning—and the next and the next and the next—something comes up. And a week or ten days later, when the bold urge to Just Go strikes again, they go out, get into the car, and realize the gas tank isn’t full. Better top it off. And the spare might have leaked. Better have it checked. And where is that map? Better buy another one just in case.

Those are writers who WANT to write into the dark but can’t quite pull the trigger on it.

Now, I hasten to add, as Dean Wesley Smith often says, every writer is different, and that’s fine.

My experience, a clarification, and more of my experience—When I first heard of Heinlein’s Rules and WITD, I made a conscious decision to trust Dean. To me, it only made sense to trust him as a prolific professional writer with hundreds of credits to his name. So I took a deep breath, stepped off the cliff, and plunged into the unknown. I also trusted Bradbury, that I would somehow build my writing wings on the way down.

It was a thrill. I was excited that I could potentially write a story, even a whole novel, while having absolutely no clue where it was going from one scene to the next. None of that mattered. I only knew I wanted to feel exited as I was telling stories. I wanted storytelling to be fun, not work, not drudgery.

I also knew that plunging in and giving WITD an honest try was the only way I could personally know for sure whether it actually worked. Not for anyone else, but for me personally. If I fudged at all, I would never know whether WITD would work. And not knowing was never an option I was willing to consider.

Besides, I also knew I was never in any real danger, was I? What would happen to me if I tried WITD—I mean REALLY tried it—and it didn’t work? Absolutely nothing. I could always trudge back to the bread-and-soup line of outlining, character sketching, etc. There’s a lot of comfort in realizing your greatest fears are BS.

A clarification—In yesterday’s post I referred to that bread-and-soup-line ritual as the “smells and bells” approach to writing. I did not mean to present that as a viable alternative to WITD. It isn’t.

Practitioners of WITD tell pure stories straight from their characters via their creative subconscious. Those who use the smells-and-bells approach consciously think their way through much (if not all) of the story, severely watering down and taming the story that might have been.

So when I mentioned the smells-and-bells approach, I was referring to it as a safety apparatus that exists for those who are unable to trust that they don’t need it. Non writers (English teachers, et al) and traditional writers would have you believe if you go through the entire ritual and touch all the magic stones, you’ll somehow call forth the magical writer fairy dust and be annointed a professional writer.

What will actually happen is that you’ll teach your creative mind that you don’t trust it, that you personally believe your own critical mind and the critical minds of others know better than your CREATIVE mind how to CREATE a story.

But back to my own experience, I have to admit I was never in danger of rejoining the smells-and-bells crowd either. Been there, done that, threw away the t-shirt. For me, knowing what’s going to happen in a story is far too boring. If WITD hadn’t worked for me, I would have simply found something else fun to do. Like fishing.

Anyway, it turned out all right for me. I tried WITD—again, REALLY trusted it and tried it—and I’ve turned out an incredible number of words and novels and series and short storie in the past 7 years. And you can too.

It isn’t even a matter of trusting me, or Dean for that matter. It’s a matter of trusting yourself.

You only have to stop thinking about it and worrying about it. You only have to take a deep breath, stop making excuses, and do it.

Finally, I believe the most essential key to being able to write into the dark is to begin with the understanding that no novel and no story is inherently important. You will turn out work that is incredibly important to some people, and that’s all you can hope for.

There will also be some who sort of like your work or who don’t like it at all, but so what? Whether and who enjoys or detests your work isn’t the point. The point is that you’re a writer, and that means you’re the first person ever to hear your characters’ story. It doesn’t even matter whether you personally like or dislike what you’ve written. All that matters is that you wrote it and some readers will like it.

The story itself isn’t important beyond being a few minutes’ or a few hours’ entertainment. The story itself isn’t important in the slightest. What’s important is that you fulfilled your destiny as a writer: what’s important is not what you wrote, but THAT you wrote.

We aren’t dealing with life or death here. We’re only dealing with, as Lawrence Block put it, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Nothing more serious than that.

Writing into the dark is not the “only” way to write fiction, not by a long shot. But it’s the most freeing way. All you have to do is really want it.

Talk with you again later.

Of Interest

See “Was Marilyn Monroe’s Death Actually a Homicide?” at

See “3 Writing Prompts to Spark Your Creativity” at

See “On Going Exclusive” at

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1630 words

Writing of WCGN 5: Tentative Title (novel)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for August……… XXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 623282
Total nonfiction words for August… 8190
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 163410
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 786692

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 13
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 66
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

4 thoughts on “The Journal: Analogies and a Clarification”

  1. Thanks for this follow-up Harvey.

    Reading through this, it struck me all over again how guilty I am of making all these excuses and more.

    I write mostly in the “speculative” genres… lots of far-future, deep-space, cutting-edge tech to fool around with, if not old magic and weird gods and faerie-folk.

    That’s far worse than a tire shop. At least there I can pretend I’m fixing up the car.

    The temptations of world-building are more like a roadside attraction with blinking neon, carnival barkers, and the smell of fresh-fried donuts.

    I was going through one of Dean’s pop-up classes a few weeks ago and he said something there that may as well have reached out of the screen and slapped me in the face.

    You don’t world-build apart from the writing.

    It’s so obvious once somebody says it out loud.

    You build the world one piece at a time, as you write.

    Call me dumbfounded.

    The hardest part for me here is separating my role as consumer from my role as producer. As a consumer looking in, all I see is the finished product. With product in hand, it’s easy to pick up your Three-Act Structure and analyze your favorite stories into pieces. Pick up that Encyclopedia of the Universe and read all the characters and timelines.

    But that’s the finished product… it’s not *how the final product gets made*.

    Mind-blowing, frame-breaking stuff. I wish I’d known it 20 years ago.

    This part hits me every time:

    “The story itself isn’t important beyond being a few minutes’ or a few hours’ entertainment. The story itself isn’t important in the slightest. What’s important is that you fulfilled your destiny as a writer: what’s important is not what you wrote, but THAT you wrote.”

    I don’t think I could read this enough if it was tattooed inside my eye-lids.

    Thanks Harvey.

    • You’re very welcome, Matt. And wow, what a succinctly put gem from Dean. As I was reading the rest of your comment but before I got to that sentence, I was thinking of telling you that Kris Rusch often writes short stories or novellas as a way to “explore” the world she’s working in. In other words, sometimes she writes specifically to world-build, or to explore a new character or a new concept. Writing a shorter piece enables her to world-build more quickly (maybe more “economically”) while also exploring new characters, etc.

      I really do believe the whole key is to trust the characters completely. I write whatever happens to them and whatever they say and do. I’m often completely in the dark as to why something happens (and sometimes even what a particular “something” is). But if I trust and just write the next sentence, everything works out and I don’t have to conjure up anything consciously on my own and apart from my characters. Again, it’s their story. They’re the ones who are living it. Who am I to force my will on them?

      Lately I’ve been focused on diving more deeply into Wes Crowley’s stories (set in the American west and Mexico). It’s very limiting because the setting is always made up of physical features, weather patterns, etc. that are familiar to a lot of my readers, so my characters have to get them right. (An astute reader pointed out that in one book, I had the Canadian River flowing the wrong direction in Texas.)

      But another of my series takes place in the far future on what started out as a generation ship and ended—as the result of an alien entity helping the captain with new space-contracting technology—with the original crew and passengers landing on a new planet named Terra 2. Very freeing because it can be whatever the characters want it to be (or whatever it is) with no limitations. I was surprised at how many new technological innovations there were, but also happily surprised at how much technology remained the same.

      Stop worrying so much, my friend. Just write and enjoy the story.

  2. Driving into the daylight (even!). Harvey, In 1964 my wife and I owned a Triumph ‘TR-3 and a Springer Spaniel. On a Saturday when we didn’t have to teach school, we decided to drive up Mt. Lemmon and take all the turn-offs as far as they would go. The canvas top was stored in the trunk and the dog was on the back shelf behind the driver. It wasn’t dark, but we had no idea where the roads would lead. On one dirt road, we came to a house with a couple of “dedicated” watchdogs who let us know that we were not welcome. Tonda (our dog) was ready to defend us barking wildly as I did a hasty U-turn and got the hell out of there. Continuing up the road, about a hundred yards below Windy Point, it began to rain. Not knowing how close I was to Windy Point, I pulled off the road and unloaded the top (which I had never installed) and side curtains. The rain got heavier and Tonda climbed into PJ’s lap. I locked down the frame but couldn’t snap the top to the windows. The rain got heavier. Finally, I realized I needed to unlock the frame to release the tension on the top. I could easily snap on the top. THEN, I locked the frame. As I was inserting the side curtains, two MGs (with their tops up) zoomed by us beeping their horns. I drove the Triumph up the road to Windy Point and we waited for the rain to stop. The Sun came out and we turned around. (with the top up!).
    Just wanted to let you know that the unknown (WITD) can happen even in daylight. Heh! Heh!

Comments are closed.