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One Small Thing

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When we travel, there are maps. There are even extremely detailed maps, which pin down every single tiny street, their names, and exactly where they start and finish. And for almost every question, google and wiki have thought of hundreds and thousands of answers. So most of the time, it’s easy to pretend that things make sense, that it’s possible to map out everything in the world clearly. We can find answers and understand how the universe works. Or convincingly pretend to, anyway.

And then there’s novel writing.

Novels are made of the wobbly substance of the imagined. They are big and subjective and temperamental. You think you know the characters, and the plot, and exactly where the scene where the main character first meets a moose should go. And then a different character turns up, and a theme you’d never noticed before which now seems to be everywhere, and a bunch of events that lead into other events, none of which you had bargained for. And then the moose comes in, at least 200 pages too early, and it’s standing around in your main character’s living room, awkwardly chewing on the couch cushions, and you don’t know what to do. And suddenly the story seems so much bigger and more stubborn than you are, and you will doubt everything about it. And also yourself. And then well meaning family members will start asking you if maybe you want to do something else for now, something that doesn’t make you constantly howl in agony like a jilted werewolf.

I used to try and fight this by making infinite new notes, by chewing over chains of events over and over again and desperately fighting to get them to make sense, trying to get everything under control and pinned down and well behaved again. Like if I just drew a new goddamned map that accounted for the stray moose, everything would be fine. Dammit. Fine. Well. Except for that one corner, where the streets got all tangled and a bunch of scenes that were originally meant to be crucial were now overshadowed by something else that rendered them a waste of space. Yeah. Except for that. And also that other corner.

I still try this, actually. It’s good for a story to make some sense, after all. But does it need to entirely make sense, all the time, in every place, while you’re still writing it?


What I look for now, instead of a big map of everything, is whichever part of the map makes sense at the moment. Often it’s not a particularly big part of the map. In fact, sometimes all I can find is something tiny, one scene that I can see clearly, one small thing that I can write right now. But one small thing is all you really need. We don’t write entire novels all at once. We write them one chapter, one scene, one word at a time. And often we edit them that way as well. So if one small thing makes sense, work on that. Tomorrow a different small thing will make sense. And eventually, all the small things will add together and make a whole. But for now, the whole isn’t worth freaking out over. Sometimes you have to stop worrying about the forest and take care of the trees. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. So don’t worry.

Just take one small thing, and work on it.

It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. – E. L. Doctorow
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. "Novels are made of the wobbly substance of the imagined." Leila's posts always have lovely bits of poetry in them.

  2. "Howling like a jilted werewolf". WINS. WINS so hard.

  3. Love it. I always feel this way. And love that quote too.

  4. Damn Leila, I really do love your posts. And I feel exactly this way when I try to plot.

  5. you never see further than your headlights.

    Pantsers motto.


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Item Reviewed: One Small Thing Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin