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Avoiding Writing Whiplash

This past month I learned two things: It’s not easy writing a novel without an outline, and it’s not easy driving a car without a speedometer.

(Or, for that matter, with one. My first speeding ticket, at 16, involved a Cops-worthy chase, almost getting pistol-whipped, a court appearance -- during which I giggled -- and immediately learning that reckless driving was a serious matter with serious, monetary consequences. My husband’s driving record? Well, let’s just say that he can get from Point A to Point B faster than the Road Runner can say, "Beep-Beep.")

But I do not want to rehash my collision -- not brush -- with the law; rather, I want to talk about how hard it is to gauge your writing and driving speed when you have no meter to employ.

I’ll tackle the speedometer issue first. For the past month our Jeep’s (you guessed it!) speedometer has been broken. It happened right after the vehicle received a spanking new transmission (can you say, Ca-Ching?), four tires, and an oil change. Almost as punishment for the Jeep’s bad behavior, we simply refused to get another part fixed.

It is hard to describe the strange juxtaposition of inhibition and liberation when I’m booking it down the interstate with no way of knowing my speed. At some stretches I feel like I should lower all the windows, crank up the heat -- since it’s winter, and I’m more cold-blooded than a reptile -- blast "Born to Be Wild," and throw ticket caution to the wind. But I am still quite scarred by the memory of Judge Fagan’s glowering eyebrows and the resolute clunk of his gavel, and even more scarred by how much going 80 in a 40 cost me. (I mentioned I was only 16, right?)

Thus, for the majority of these interstate stretches I do not drive like Mario Andretti but creep along like a cataract-filmed grandma. Sometimes, though, if I’m really pressed for time I try to tail "front doors" (those driving faster than you; therefore having a higher chance of getting pulled over before you), but then Judge Fagan’s face appears on my windshield and I become paranoid, wondering if my "front door’s" going 95 in a 65, and we’re both about to lose our licenses, and perhaps our lives, forever. So then I swoop up beside the car, press the side of my face against the window, trying to read their speedometer with my left eye while focusing on the road with my right (I haven’t quite mastered this). You know what’s really ironic about these efforts? It usually takes me far longer to get to my destination because of them.

Here’s my novel outline issue: I hate restraint, in any form. I hate directions. I get spit-firing mad when a GPS turns me around. I even hate cookbooks because the whole "1 tab of this and 1 dash of that" inhibits culinary creativity. I hate computers because you have to read manuals on how to maneuver within the programs (in 8th grade I was assigned a personal computer tutor; in college my writing with the new media professor, after looking at my Dreamweaver project, said, "You’re just not linearly minded"). Take all of this "Don’t Fence Me In" mentality and you get a girl who thinks outlines rank right up there with Chinese water torture.

So, yeah, I began this novel without an outline. (Surprised? Neither am I.) I had a hazy idea where I wanted the novel to go and what characters I wanted in it, but all those nitty, gritty details I figured would work their way out in the writing.

They didn’t.

Within a month my characters had taken on a life of their own, mutinied, and capsized my novel. Place me inside an outline or else, they seemed to be saying in an ominous, we-know-where-you-type tone. I dreaded it. I kicked and screamed (well, I felt like it anyway). But then I thought of our Jeep's pesky speedometer that no longer works, and how a working speedometer could be compared to an outline.

I thought of how much easier it would be glancing to the side of my laptop to gauge my speed instead of cramming my face against the social media window to check out the speed of other writers; to cruise through the story’s plot rather than giving myself writing whiplash at every twist and turn; to know when it is time to slow down my writing pace, and when the road is free and clear to swerve into the hammer lane and gun it.

So, yeah, my novel has an outline. (Surprised? So am I.) I now have a crisp idea where I want this story to take me and what characters I want in it. Despite this, a few nitty, gritty details remain unexplored, but I figure these will just work themselves out on the drive.