Ever hear a piece of advice that sounds great at first hearing but starts to look pretty lame when you begin to dissect it? I found just such a piece of advice in Wild Mind, a book on writing that I’m reading along with my Harry Potter fix. The advice was essentially, find a line you like, then just add the next line, and the next. “Don’t think further ahead than the next line. Don’t think back. Just build that story.” And: “Place those sentences down, as if you were laying bricks. Keep each one true.”
Man that sounds good. Or does it? As I began to think about it, two problems with these statements quickly occurred to me. First, if you build a piece line by line you’re not building a story. A story goes somewhere. It has a destination, even if that destination is rather vague and different for different readers. I’ve started stories the way this author suggests, and I think it can work to find a beginning, but unless I soon begin to think ahead, and back, and sideways, the piece ends up nowhere and either gets stuck in my “writing pieces” file or gets reworked from the beginning with more thought given to it.
Second, although the bricklaying metaphor works perfectly for the suggestion the author makes, I don’t think it works as a metaphor for how stories and novels really get written. Many successful writers I know work from outlines; a much better metaphor, then, might be a blueprint. And if you just lay one brick after another after another you’re going to end up with a wall, not a building. I don’t write with an extensive outline, but that means I constantly have to stop writing and start thinking. At some point you just can’t proceed until you know at least partly what has happened before and what is going to happen next. At least I find it to be so.
Turns out, the author of Wild Minds seems to have gotten this advice from Raymond Carver, and this was an epiphany of sorts for me. That’s why I can’t stand Carver’s stories. They begin in a random place, meander about for a bit while repeating themselves, and then end up nowhere. They’re walls of bricks, with no windows or interiors. They’re not really stories.
Whew! Now I can rest easier.