Why “Writing into the Dark” is like improvising on stage

I know, I’ve been going on and on about that book „Writing into the Dark“ (Amazon-affiliate link) by Dean Wesley Smith in the past few weeks but this has been so exciting for me, and eye-opening. And while I’ve only started using this method, and while I can’t say if this really works, it does feel very right to me.

So, in case you don’t remember, that book is about writing without an outline, without a plan, and without character sketches or anything. Basically, you sit down and write your story. Even if it’s a novel.

What you don’t do – and that is pretty important – is write a shitty first draft. You do not sit down, vomit words onto the page and leave them like that. What you do is sit down, tell a story as best as you can, go back and look at it every few hundred words, and when you’re done you’re done.

Now for most writers that sounds totally crazy. Doing it like that would surely mean that either you end up with an amorphous blob of a story that has no structure, or you end up agonizing about every comma and words and never finish.

Interestingly it seems that a lot of the most prolific, successful, and beloved writers write like that.

I find the notion very appealing because I haven’t had much succes with any other method. When I sit down and just write as fast as I can, I usually get through the whole story but it will be sloppy and disconnected and full of things that don’t move the story along in the least. If I outline I end up staring at the page for days or weeks willing myself to do it, and then I write very short stories that I find stilted. And revision is something I tend to avoid at all costs, so much so that revising any single novel so far has taken more between six months and two years.

Now most of what you read about writing tells you that you need to do the sloppy first draft, and then you need to revise the crap out of it to get a good book. But then that only works if you actually revise.

When I told my husband about the „Writing into the Dark“-thing he said, „That sounds like improvising.“ And of course he was exactly right. Writing the shitty rough draft is like noodling around at home alone just to pass the time. „Writing into the Dark“ is like improvising on stage. You just start somewhere, and then you throw yourself into it, and you never quite know how it will go. But because you’ve done this a lot you know that something interesting will happen, and since you’re on stage and know that people are listening you put in a little extra effort to make it enjoyable and entertaining for the others too. But you don’t think about them much, mostly it’s about you and the music, and this special moment that will never come back again ever.

And it works.

I’ve been working as a musician for quite some time, and I love free improvisation. There are a lot of musicians who are scared of it, and often when I encourage students to try it they say, „But what shall I play?“ and of course the answer is, „Whatever you like.“ I’ve always been like that. Improvisation was not part of my music lessons at all, and then I started listening to jazz, and I read a book about it, and it said that the musicians were making it up on the spot, and that just blew my mind. And when a teacher of mine put a drawing of a mountain in front of me and said, „Play this.“ I picked up my recorder and did.

Now you might get all huffy and say, „But what about structure?“ and „What about foreboding?“ and „How do I know the ending?”

Well, that’s the beauty. For one, when you improvise in music you usually make the structure without even realizing it. You start somewhere, and you realize that that was interesting, and you follow that thing, and then you feel like you need something else, and you try that. If that doesn’t work you try something else. And then at one point, all of a sudden, the piece will be over. There will be your ending, and you didn’t even plan for it.

If you watch people playing completely free on stage you will always see it. They are deep into the music, and someone will start something new, or even more interesting, someone gets ready to start something, and the realize that it doesn’t fit. And everybody is totally into it and playing along, deeply immersed, and then something happens, and they all play, and there it is. The ending.

That’s usually when the performers look at each other in wonder, and they laugh a little. Because it was a surprise to them too. But now that it happened it felt exactly right.

Now if you try something in music that doesn’t work you can’t really take it back. Music happens in real-time, you make it and it’s out there. But in writing the beauty is that you can step out of time. You can go back and change things. Or you can hop to a part that’s further along and write that first if you want. Nobody will ever know.

As for the fear of ending up endlessly searching for the perfect wording in the first paragraph? Knowing myself, that will never happen. I can barely stand to read something again for typos. And one has to trust oneself.

So I’m telling my creative mind to get it right the first time this time, and for once I can’t wait to sit down and write. My subconscious isn’t sulking because I have it write all these words only to toss them out later. The part of me that loves story is bouncing up and down in my mind with excitement saying, „Tell me what happens next!”

It feels great. I hope it will make for a better story. If it doesn’t I will at least get more practice because I will write faster and more.

And I can tell you that the feeling of bouncing with excitement because I get to tell a story is marvelous.