The Journal: I Had to Laugh

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* I had to laugh
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“If I’ve done my job in the first two hours, the audience will believe anything I tell them at the end.” Director Steven Spielberg on making up stuff in fiction

“Tip: Non-outliners — write the story then add the foreshadowing.” Steve Hooley, TKZ, on foreshadowing (grin)

I Had to Laugh

I had to laugh, albeit in a good-natured way, when I first read that second quote. Yeah, I’m gonna take advice on how to write into the dark from an outliner. (grin) Certainly, I mean no disrespect to folks of that particular stripe, but neither will I accept any.

Those who haven’t experienced writing into the dark can’t possibly understand why we do it or what it’s like. And no, the same can’t be said in the other direction. Most of us who write into the dark have experienced the outlining, revising, rewriting route and abandoned it. But it isn’t easy to do. WITD requires a level of trust in yourself that most people simply don’t have.

When you trust yourself and the knowledge you’ve attained — both consciously from classes and books and subconsciously through absoring Story over your entire life — writing becomes sheer pleasure.

Yes, I understand that some people can spend a whole day writing 500 “perfect” words. They enjoy meticulously playing with words, swapping one for the other and back. Some can argue with themselves for hours over whether to insert or omit a comma in a particular place.

Others enjoy carefully constructing and reconstructing sentences or paragraphs. Still others enjoy physically counting the number of times they’ve used a particular word, then reducing that to an acceptable number by deleting the word or finding replacements for it or by rewriting sentences or whole paragraphs.

I know all of the above because I used to be that guy.

And then, of course, there are those who actually enjoy the process of meticulously outlining, consciously making sure their “mirror moments” and “rising action” and “try-fail sequences” and all the rest are perfectly placed for maximum effect on the reader.

Or at least they say they enjoy it. But do they really? Or is all that labor-intensive stuff just another way to put off actually writing the story (like it was for me)?

I once spent several years actively outlining a single novel. I made changes to it even after that. I never wrote that novel. I still have the outline. I kept it as a grim reminder of all that storytelling is not.

Just as a reminder, those of us who write into the dark also utilize the 3- or 5- or 7-act structure. Some of us also use “mirror moments,” and we all use rising action and try-fail sequences and all the rest. The difference is, we don’t outline or otherwise consciously manipulate those things because we’re confident in our own abilities. We trust that what we need fromwhat we’ve learned has seeped through into our creative subconscious.

Those who write into the dark don’t squabble with themselves over punctuation or words or sentences. We’re interested only in Story. We enjoy watching the story unfold as uur fingers move across the keyboard (or our pen or pencil moves across the paper), and we feel blessed that we were chosen to record the story for others to read.

The very idea that a writer who practices WITD might “write the story and then add the foreshadowing” is ludicrous. And actually doing it would be an exercise in redundancy. Why? Because any foreshadowing necessary to the story is already there. Your characters added it as you wrote.

Sometimes you don’t notice that your characters foreshadowed an event until the event happens. Every writer who practices WITD has experienced this. They are actually physically surprised and sometimes shocked at some completely unexpected thing their character does or says.

Sometimes when they’re foreshadowing something your characters will do or say something so off-kilter that it even causes a temporary stoppage. Maybe you feel stuck because something doesn’t quite make sense.

But then you remember to keep your conscious mind out of it. It doesn’t have to “make sense” at the moment. It only has to make sense in the overall scheme of the story, and you don’t know yet what that will be. Only your characters know, so you remember to trust them.

So you set your jaw and write the next sentence that occurs to you, then the next and the next, and soon the story is flowing again. And eventually that place where you got “stuck” suddenly makes perfect sense. All because you trusted yourself and your knowledge. All because you trusted your characters and allowed their story to play out.

So with regard to the second quote above, the point is, trusting your characters to tell their story means TRUSTING your characters, not second-guessing them. No “yabbits” (yeah, buts) allowed.

I guess outliners assume that writers like me just slop stuff across the page and hope it works. We don’t. We just trust the characters to tell the story that they, not we, are living. To us, that makes perfect sense. Like trusting your neighbors or some strangers across town to live their lives without being controlled by you.

The instant you invite your conscious, critical mind in to “correct” or revise or second-guess your characters, you’re lost as a fiction writer. From there on out, writing fiction will cease being a pleasure and will become a slog through sheer drudgery. Even if you tell yourself you enjoy it that way. (grin)

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Want Strong Dialogue? Don’t Forget The Subtext” at Contains a great example.

See “The 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing” at To me, number 7 is the most interesting.

See “What If You Gave Up?” at An interesting take, and an unusual one these days.

See “Mentor Focus Projects” at

See “Foreshadowing: A Look Back and a Look Forward” at

See “The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked” at Not specifically about fiction, but the same myths apply.

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.

10 thoughts on “The Journal: I Had to Laugh”

  1. I just finished the second book in my mainstream trilogy last night. I’m tweaking a few words in the last scene. It is a testament to the method I’ve developed for writing which takes into account the damage ME/CFS has done to my brain, and probably uses every single method you dislike – and it’s only been seven years since I started this one.

    At this stage, even with an extremely detailed set of roadmaps (that’s for the damaged brain), the characters dominate and run everything. I am consciously letting them do it because that’s what you do – sometimes it works, and other times produces utter garbage.

    Then I listen to what I have, and the next bit becomes obvious, and the garbage goes in the can. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I’m like a broken bug that keeps moving forward because that’s all there is.

    I am really pleased with the results. Without all this, I wouldn’t write at all. With this, I just keep going, testing and adding and subtracting methods by the only rubric I believe: does it produce fiction I love?

    So far, except for the tweaking of that last scene in a 180K book, I do.

    Still amazes me.

    • Thanks, Alicia. Obviously, you have a very specific medical problem. I’m glad you’ve found a technique that works for you.

      To be clear, though, it isn’t that I don’t “like” outlining, revising, rewriting, and other conscious, critical mind manipulations of creative work. I don’t really care how anyone else writes. What annoys me is when people who know nothing about WITD go out of their way, intentionally or otherwise, to ridicule or demean both the technique and those who practice it. I’m not sure why they see WITD as such a terrible threat, but they do see it as a threat. That’s the only reason I can think of for their reaction.

      Anyway, frankly, I don’t believe WITD would work for you specifically because of the personal limitations you’ve mentioned to me before. But in this blog I speak to fiction writers in general. And in general, I recommend that writers who are in generally good health mentally and physically give WITD an honest try. I recommend it because it’s so very freeing.

      If they try WITD and choose to go back to allowing their conscious, critical mind to second-guess and override their creative subconscious, what have they lost? Nothing. But if they try WITD and succeed, a whole new world opens up to them.

  2. “Sometimes you don’t notice that your characters foreshadowed an event until the event happens. Every writer who practices WITD has experienced this. They are actually physically surprised and sometimes shocked at some completely unexpected thing their character does or says.”


    I may have mentioned that as I was nearing the very almost-there one more chapter moment in The Ad Club when one of my secondary characters slapped me on my powerwalk and said, “You know, I was the villain all along.”

    Damn if she wasn’t right. All the foreshadowing was already in place. I just joyfully pressed on to the right and proper conclusion without any rewriting, revision, re-doubling of effort, reefer madness or whatever. It just flowed.

    I would never have plotted that twist.

    • Don’t you just love when a character throws that sort of plot twist at you? I’ve been there, and then found myself wondering “Why didn’t I see it coming?” when I look back and realize they were giving me clues all along that I wasn’t consciously picking up on but wrote nonetheless.

  3. Good grief. That quote sounds like a plotter who is trying desperately to convince themselves that ALL writers are actually plotters, just using a different technique than he uses.

    I had an obsessive plotter inform me that a “pantser’s” first draft IS their outline. Then we go back and flesh out the story through rewriting. Um… nope. When I showed her one of my “first draft” copies, she accused me of having edited and rewritten it a few times to add in the layers needed for the full story. Given I’d just written the entire thing off the top of my head the day before, and that was documented because I was in a small accountability group for writers, imagine her shock.

    The mental hoops some of these folks jump through to convince themselves that there’s no other way to write but outlining can be pretty amazing.

    • Thanks, Dawn. I guess it’s always easier for some folks to remain “safe” with what they know. As I wrote to Alicia earlier, I can’t understand why they see WITD as such a threat.

      • I honestly have no idea. All I can figure is that they truly are SO boxed in by their set-in-stone perception of “the right way” that they can’t even fathom that it’s not actually the ONLY way, not to mention “right” for everyone.

        • I may have an idea: if they’ve invested tons of energy into a grueling process, the possibility that there’s an easier, more fun way feels threatening because it means they went through all that drudgery for nothing.

          • Possibly. I only wish they’d stop running down what they don’t understand. Come to think of it, I guess I’m saying I wish they’d stop acting like humans. (grin)

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