Big Ideas and Permissions

“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.” 
– E. L. Doctorow
I’m slowly growing more comfortable with the idea of stepping into a novel without a detailed outline. I’ve tried making an outline using the feminine journey in the back of 45 Master Characters, but I always get hung up. Why? Because I haven’t spent enough time with my characters and their story to know who they are.

I’ve got three novel ideas, and I keep switching back and forth between them, unable to commit to pursuing just one. NaNoWriMo is about to start, and the days between me and the 10,000 word goal by November 15th are steadily disappearing. I’m kind of in novel freak out mode.

I have two wonderful writing friends to thank for pulling me out of my pre-novel funk.

Alisa Alering sent me a wonderful article by Bruce Holland Rogers about deciding on your Big Picture: why you are writing this novel. Each of my novel ideas has a different practical and creative purpose in my writerly big picture. One is a YA, one is literary/ experimental, one has a good feeling of forward motion. The YA would be writing for a great audience that I am eager to connect with, and would give me the satisfaction of finishing a story that I’ve been writing on and off for years. The literary one might never see the light of day, but it would give me the opportunity to unlock some stories and language I’ve been keeping stowed away. And the one with a good feeling of forward motion feels like one I could finish, that would prove to myself that I can write a novel, and would have enough of a structure to not melt into disparate parts after draft zero is done.

So what is most important to me in this first novel attempt?

My guideposts

With these in mind, my choice of which novel to write is much easier. I’m going to write the one with the sense of forward momentum, the short story idea my thesis advisor asked me about three years after it was workshopped in her class, about a body-modified raven and a lost girl searching for something that others are trying to hide.

The second writer push that happened this week was that Ashley Cowger gave me permission to write a crappy first draft. I’m constantly trying to persuade myself that it is ok to just write, get that first draft on paper, because I know I’m going to revise the story twenty or more times before I ever submit it anywhere. But the impact of having an accomplished writer whose work ethic and creative work I deeply admire tell me that it’s ok to just follow the story where it wants to go the first time through is amazing. I really feel like a giant weight has been lifted off of my chest.

After all, one of my guideposts is to prove to myself that I can write a novel. It doesn’t have to be the best novel in the world on the first draft, but it does need to be done. And if I’m not judging my writing every step of the way, then done is a goal I can accomplish.

So I’m going to pass this writing gift on to you, one day before the start of NaNoWriMo, in the almost November time when everyone’s itching to write a long story.

It’s okay to write a crappy first draft. 

I’m going to do it. Lots of writers do it. 

You have our permission. 

Now start writing. 

One thought on “Big Ideas and Permissions

  1. Good one, Jenni!

    I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the exact same reason that I did my first half-marathon: To prove to myself that I can do it. Frankly, I expect it to be sucky. Then again, I have absolutely no interest in doing anything with it. I might (but probably won't) throw it away on December 1.

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