Plan A. Plan Be. Plan See.
Guest blog by Jon Jefferson – the “Jefferson” half of the crime-fiction duo Jefferson Bass. Working in collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Jon writes the bestselling series of Body Farm novels. The latest—The Inquisitor’s Key—comes out May 8.
I have writer friends whose workspaces are immaculate. I have friends who write every day, including one who gets up at 5:30 a.m. and writes for two hours before heading to his day job as a lawyer. I have friends who make detailed outlines. I have friends who start at the beginning and write their way forward, in perfect linearity, to the end. That is to say, I have friends who are neater, more disciplined, better organized, and generally much smarter than I am! But a beautiful thing about being a writer is that there are a zillion different paths up the mountain. Doesn’t matter which path you take, long as you’re climbing.
Three tricks to keep climbing: Change course. Be your inner TV writer. And see what’s in your headlights.
Change course: When I was a kid, I had one of those windup toy cars that, when it ran into a wall or a chairleg or the dog’s dish, would back up an inch or so, change directions slightly, and tear off again. Not, perhaps, the most efficient way to go from Point A to Point Z, but I couldn’t help but admire the little car’s persistence and energy. In practice, what that looks like for me (messy, nonlinear writer that I am) is jumping to a different place in the story when I’m stuck, and writing a scene that comes more easily than the one that brought me to a screeching halt. I end up doing a fair amount of joinery eventually, fitting all those pieces together, but I’ll take joinery over a blank screen any day of the week.
Be your inner TV writer: Back in my twenties, I had vague aspirations to write a novel—actually, the embarrassing truth is, I had vague aspirations to “be a writer”—but nothing came of them, because (a) I didn’t have a story I was burning to tell, and (b) I was too damned intimidated by my inner critic (my straight-A English-major critic) to write stuff I knew would be far inferior to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dickens, and a legion of other great writers. Then I spent half a dozen years making cable-television documentaries, and I got over myself. Writing for television taught me to write fast and to write “good enough.” The liberating thing about it was that nobody cared if a script was Faulknerian or Hemingwayesque; what counted was that it got done, and that it was good enough. Since then, I’ve written nine books. My inner critic still winces at some of what I write … but at least I’m writing.
See what’s in the headlights: Somewhere, taped to one of my computer screens or walls (underneath a few other strata of index cards offering words of wisdom), I have this wonderfully reassuring line from novelist E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another analogy, which I offer from my experience as a pilot of small airplanes in the humid summers of the South: When you’re a mile or two up, on a hazy August afternoon, it’s often impossible to see the ground more than a couple miles ahead. The world seems to coalesce, to materialize, just ahead of the plane, just in time to fly above it. Sometimes when I’m writing, the world of the novel materializes one paragraph, or even one sentence, ahead of me. What a relief, and what a privilege, to see—to catalyze—that world’s creation!
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