Monday, September 27, 2010

Scene by Scene

"E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard." — Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)

When I began writing novels years ago, it was daunting. Every page felt so big and with every one I wondered, how can I possibly fill up 200+ of them and string along a story that makes sense? I was constantly thinking and WORRYING about the WHOLE BOOK.

Somehow, I managed to finish that novel. But that was really just me seeing a story through beginning to end. It wasn't a particularly interesting story, and if you asked me what the plot was, I'm sure I couldn't tell you.

Now, I understand the importance of plot. Weaving plots and subplots together is important, and takes time figuring out how to do it well. I still feel like I have a lot to learn with this.

But how I write a novel is different now. I take it scene by scene. With each scene, I ask, what do I want to accomplish in this scene - character development, plot development, or a little of both? I don't think about the rest of the book, I just try and write that scene to the best of my ability. I go along, scene by scene, until pretty soon, there is a part of a book there. And eventually, a whole book.

Isn't it true that usually when we remember a book we loved or a movie, there is a certain scene or two that sticks out in our head? We don't recall chapters or pages or how far into the movie we were. We say - I loved that scene...

Last week, I wrote a bunch of words trying to find my way into a story. Finally, Friday, I found it. Since then, I've written three scenes. I'm excited about writing more this week, each time, just focusing on the scene in front of me.

I'm curious - does E.L. Doctorow's quote resonate with you and your writing like it does with mine?


  1. I loved this. And thank you for the part asking, what do I want to accomplish in this scene? Character devlopment, plot development or both? I just had my wip critiqued and while I got great feedback, they really hacked at one scene, asking how it tied to my big story question or plot, and said I had to cut it. I agree that most scenes, I want to be tied to the main plot, but I think there is a need for scenes that focus on characters, with the plot tie-in occasionally being secondary. Anyway, this was helpful! Thanks

  2. Timely post for me. Just got back my outline synopsis from my instructor and finally beginning the writing. I was a little overwhelmed by the thought of the whole book...but taking it scene by scene made total sense to me and has brought the nervous chills down to only a few quivers. =) Thanks!

  3. That is--hands down--one of my absolute FAVORITE writer quotes. I live by it. I so rarely know what I'm writing or how I'll get there!

  4. Rachel - I agree with you on scenes that focus on characters. Good luck!

    MaDonna - One scene at a time. That's how books get written and revised!! :)

    Beth - I love that quote too! And wow, with the kinds of books you write, I would have guessed you have long outlines or something. But apparently not??

  5. *Takes notes* Love this. I was just thinking earlier today, as I'm working on my NaNo word count, how it would work out if I , instead of saying, "I'll quit when I get to 1700 words," say, "I'll just go until I finish this scene." I've certainly been trying to really plan and play out the scene (and only that scene) I'm about to write before I sit down to write it. Thanks.