The Journal: WITD and Detractors

In today’s Journal

* Thank you
* Topic: WITD and Detractors
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Thanks to everyone for the continued support. Your emails and other contributions are much appreciated. I have a feeling I’ll be back full-strength before too long. For today, here’s a topic for you. You’ll note, too, this is being delivered at a different time of day. Sorry about that.

Topic: WITD and Detractors

I won’t use the word “haters” because, frankly, I’m not a four year old boy or a young teenage girl, so “detractors” will have to do.

I hadn’t planned on talking much about my preferred writing technique—writing into the dark, or as I prefer, letting the characters tell the story that they, not I, are living—but like Michael Corleone, just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

The simple fact is, when something I love is being unfairly and blatantly attacked with innuendo and half-truths, a flaw in my personality dictates that I have to fight back. The obvious question is Why do so many who choose not to try WITD put down those of us who practice it? Seriously, are we that big a threat to them, or what? But I’ll leave that for another time.

I’ve long been annoyed by the way others put down practitioners of writing into the dark. Of course, they are never brave enough to do so directly, but rather choose, every time, to use innuendo, half-truths and opinons stated as if they were fact.

Very seldom do detractors of WITD contradict themselves or lift the veil to let the reader see what they first omitted. But in a guest post on the Kill Zone blog on July 6, 2020, Larry Brooks did just that. Of bestselling author Robert Dugoni, he wrote,

“He’d been a reader of quality novels since childhood, so of course he knew in his gut how a novel came together and what makes it tick. | He believed that’s how successful writers do it. Some of them actually claim it as their experience. They just take a chair and start typing, letting the story flow out of them. It would take him years to realize that such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.”

But wait. Isn’t that exactly what I do when I write a novel? Just “take a chair and start typing”? Yes, yes it is. So as you might imagine, this got my hackles up. Not because the guy disagrees with me as to writing technique, but because of the way he presents his disagreement. He’s intentionally omitting some information that, fortunately, he adds-in later:

“Dugoni took over a year off to absorb as many craft books as he could, searching out teachers of fiction craft….”

Ahh! So then, I can agree with his earlier statement that if you “just take a chair and start typing” [WITHOUT HAVING LEARNED ANYTHING AT ALL ABOUT CRAFT], you probably WON’T tell very good stories. But remember, Brooks also wrote that

“…such advice is toxic, if not an outright lie.”

And again, I agree. If anyone advised someone else to attempt to write even a short story without having learned anything at all about craft, that would be toxic advice. (Um, I also think it’s toxic to advise someone to revise and rewrite their work and to submit it for critique to a critique group, but I digress.)

What I find particularly distasteful about this article is Mr. Brooks’ implication that those who write into the dark don’t care about craft. I’ve heard the same implication in various forms from several sources before, so I’m not surprised. (One wrote that she could write into the dark but she “wants to put out quality work,” implying that those who WITD do not care about quality.)

But again, none of that is what writing into the dark is all about. I don’t know a single practitioner of WITD—Not One—who advocates ignoring craft or putting out less than top quality work. OF COURSE you should learn all you can about craft (duh!), and you should keep learning. But you should also practice what you learn, and the only way to practice storytelling and improve is to tell stories.

And practice in writing, like writing itself, is defined as “putting new words on the page.”

Thinking or talking about writing is neither writing nor practice. Revising or rewriting is neither writing nor practice. Chatting over coffee with your critique group (or writing group or whatever else you choose to call it) is neither writing nor practice.

Only putting new words on the page is writing. Only putting new words on the page is practice.

Finally, finally, Mr. Brooks lifts the veil and indirectly quotes Robert Dugoni himself:

“…when a writer has internalized and assimilated and worked with the core principles of storytelling craft—to the point that she or he can see it just below the surface in the books they read, and within their vision for the stories they want write—only then can they truly and effectively sit before the blank page and actually perform. And when that happens, when the writer truly knows how a story should work, it becomes a blissful experience.”

In other words, the two ideas—writing into the dark (or as Mr. Brooks put it, those who “take a chair and start typing”) and learning and applying craft—are not exclusive of each other. You can do both.

So the only question that remains, really, is whether you’re serious about writing.

Serious writers learn the craft, period, whether they write into the dark or meticulously plot everything before they start writing. The difference is that a writer who writes into the dark trusts that he has internalized what he’s learned. He feels no compulsion to push back against the fear of failure by constantly double checking his creative subconscious with his conscious, critical mind. He feels no compulsion to revise with his critical mind what his creative mind has wrought. He feels no more need to “correct” the characters who are actually living the story than he would feel to correct what his neighbors choose to do on weekends.

Here are a few facts about those of us who write into the dark, and one fact about our detractors:

1. We don’t care how you write but we’re pulling for you. If you can learn to trust your creative subconscious, you will discover a freedom and confidence that very few writers (and NO would-be writers) will ever enjoy. However, if you are never able to bring yourself to that point, what do we lose? Nothing.

2. A few of us actively and publicly advocate writing into the dark, but NONE of us says it’s “the only way” (as those who fear us constantly say we do). Again, if you can find your way to the clarity and confidence of WITD, good for you. But if you can’t, that’s strictly your cross to bear, not ours.

3. ALL OF US have tried the much more commonplace approach to writing that was taught to all of us at every level of school: outline or otherwise plot, revise and/or rewrite, submit our work to critique groups (by any name) for input, and polish (meaning revise or rewrite again).

4. NONE OF THOSE who constantly put down writing into the dark has seriously tried it. How do I know? Because once you learn to trust yourself and let go of the safety nets and the unreasoning fear of failure, you’ll always remember that feeling and you’ll never go back. (If you DO backslide, you’ll recognize it as your own lack of faith in yourself and you still won’t fault WITD, especially in public.)

So no, WITD is not “the only way” to achieve success as a writer, but I would hazard to say it’s the purest, cleanest way. And by “purest, cleanest” I mean it’s the only way to maintain your own unique, authorial voice.

Why? Because those who write into the dark

1. don’t allow even their own conscious, critical mind to second-guess their creative subconscious. Each time you revise and/or rewrite, the work gets farther from your original voice.

2. don’t allow any other conscious, critical minds to intrude on their domain, and

3. take sole custody of and responsibility for their writing. If my short stories and novels sell, I don’t have to credit my critique group. On the other hand, if they don’t sell I don’t have to fault my critique group (even only to myself).

Hope this helps.

Talk with you again when I can, probably soon.

Of Interest

Sorry. Nada.

The Numbers

Fiction words yesterday…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 1440 (Journal)

Writing of (novel)

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

Total fiction words for the month……… XXXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 309655
Total nonfiction words for the month… 1900
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 124140
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 433795

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 5
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 12
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 50
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 208
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

4 thoughts on “The Journal: WITD and Detractors”

  1. Great post, Harvey. I admit when I first heard about WITD I was skeptical. I kept thinking I’m still gonna need to do some type of outlining. 🤪 But I finally decided (after much dithering) to just go for it.

    The way I had been writing (working on the same novel for ten freakin’ years) sure wasn’t fun anymore so what did I have to lose? So I signed up for Dean’s Great Publishing Challenge and have been writing one 20k novella a month since January.

    I read the Journal for inspiration and it’s my favorite writing blog. You have helped me more than I can say. 🥰

    Thank you!

    • Thanks, Maggie. Nothing wrong with being skeptical. I suspect that’s how most of us come to WITD. But the proof is in being able to give it a real try. As you know, it works.

  2. When Larry Brooks first came out with Story Engineering, it was all the rage. Everyone said it was a new approach to structure. So I read it.

    It was THE worst craft book I’ve ever read.

    He dressed up basic skills with a fancy name so he could market it, and that book dripped with marketing. Every time i turned around, it kept bringing up to the “Core Competencies” like it was something new. But worse, he kept lecturing people who didn’t outline. Over and over, he would circle back to it, stating “Pantser books are always a mess” and that the only solution was to use his system (never mind that he is a developmental editor and stories being a mess come with that territory).

    The problem we’re running into is the advent of technology made it easier for a lot of people to produce a novel without getting all the skills they needed. In the 1990s, everyone started focusing on that audience and the books got dumbed down. You can’t find in any modern book how to do a flashback because it was on the top ten list of agents as a “Do not do this.” Night and day between the craft books in the 1980s and earlier and the ones you see today, and how people talk about writing.

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