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December, 2005 : Feature:

True Facts About the Art and Craft of Writing

Adagio for two voices in dissonant agreement


Jay recently said the following on his LiveJournal page:

"Span of control" is the story size (and shape) that I can hold in my head and manage organically, to produce a competent (or better than competent) first draft with a strong, consistent voice. As opposed to work outside my span of control, which tends to be far more laborious, requiring multiple restarts and editing sessions and considerable editorial/critical input. Painful, in short.

This caused mild unrest on the comment thread, including a remark by Elizabeth Bear:

"I think I have no span of control. Everything I write, I write by following the headlights. Very, very rarely I'll get a story where I know most of it before I start. But usually, I'm at most a scene or two ahead of where I'm working."1

The Discussion:

Cross-fade to our two narrators, discussing in turn their thoughts about the concepts of span of control and following the headlights.

Jay: By "span of control", I didn't really mean outlining or having a clear, detailed vision of the story arc. For me, as a writer, a story has a specific shape in my head, and that shape is keyed, in part, to the length. More often than not, by the time I'm 1,500 or 2,000 words into a story, I can tell with reasonable accuracy how long the piece is going to be, how complex the plot is going to be, and how it's going to feel—all of this without really understanding any of the details of character, plot or action. Nonetheless, that sense of story shape is what keeps me in the zone.

Ruth: So you're talking about going to that place in your head, maintaining the fictional dream where story is everything and the world pretty much goes away.

Jay: Not exactly, but sort of. More like having a handle on the shape of the narrative, but not the details. I know it's a car, not a bicycle or a space shuttle, for example, but I can't tell which way its pointing or whether it's a Mercedes or a Yugo. As long as I'm in that span of control, I'm in the writing zone.

This isn't weird or psychic powers on my part, obviously. It has to do with the pacing, the level of detail, how much character and setting development is being invested up front. It's rare to spend 1,000 words establishing a location and context for a story where the plot is only going to consume a few hundred more words.

More to the point, it's my awareness of my own process. And that's what I meant by "span of control"—a sense within my process of how a story is going to map out. It's a silhouette without detail until I've filled it in. Like Bear, I would say that I follow the headlights into the darkness beyond. Unlike Bear, that metaphor has a somewhat different meaning for me. There's nothing beyond those headlights, not 'til the next turn in the road, but as long as I'm working within my span of control, Fred is enthusiastically throwing up detail and thematic interweave, much to the puzzlement of my conscious mind. As far as my surface awareness goes, usually I have a central image or mood or theme or something I'm chasing, and sometimes I'm just excavating the infinite dark of narrative a teaspoon at a time.

In more concise terms, when I'm inside that shaped space, within my span of control, most of the threads of story are snugly in my loom. Plot, character, setting, action, symbolism, theme, detail, style and all the other minutiae so beloved of the writer happen naturally, without me thinking about them or manipulating them. This means my voice can come to the forefront and help drive the story.

It's by far the most natural way for me to write. Pulling off the road to read the map breaks the rhythm of the trip. It becomes a pile of outlines and details and character sketches—I find those things separate me from the destination.

Ruth: And I can rarely get anywhere without them.

There are a handful of stories I've written, probably none of them much longer than 2,000 words, that I completed without any kind of outline, or at least none other than the one Fred lurking in my backbrain provided. For anything longer, if I don't have at least a vague idea of where I'm going to end up, the story tends to stall out early on.

This doesn't mean I work religiously from notes. When I was first learning how to write a story, I would take notes in longhand for individual scenes, including setting, characters, events and how it would advance the plot. Now I tend to jump ahead within the file I'm working on, typing in vague ideas for scenes I think I'll be needing down the line.

Jay: I just recently finished a 44,700 first draft of something called "Death of a Starship." It was long enough that even though I stayed within my span of control—longest ever for me—I still had to make look-ahead scene notes as I went along, so as not to lose the thread. Even so, my scene notes for the entire final confrontation and denouement were literally two words: "Hijinks ensue."

Ruth: That wouldn't be enough for me. If I don't know enough about where I'm going in the fiction, if I don't know what kind of hijinks I'm aiming for, that's when I'm most likely to get stuck. And if I do get stuck in a piece because I don't have enough of a map, the best (maybe only) way to save it is to take a step back, look at what I have until now, and brainstorm a few ideas for where the story could go from here. Sometimes I find I don't know the characters well enough yet, and I have to figure out more about their backgrounds and motivations. I don't have long, involved character sketches, though, or scene-by-scene summaries on index cards. What I have are notes scrawled on scrap paper or in the current working notebook and within the manuscript itself. And I seem to have internalized a lot about the writing process over the years—the more I write, the sketchier the notes get.

But sketchy or not, my method in planning the fiction tends to be to stay several scenes ahead of myself.

And I (almost) always know what the ending is going to be.

But from what I understand about your method, you do not.

Jay: You got it. I'm all about the headlights. Without a map. Or road signs. Which sometimes means I'm off the shoulder and into the river before I know it.

And that headlights metaphor is terrific. I want to thank Bear for throwing it out, even if it turns out she and I don't read it quite the same way. As good as that metaphor is, it's been tough to run down, from what you tell me. (Ruth's the trained researcher here, I'm just a semiprofessional bigmouth.) Supposedly it's Doctorow, right? The other Doctorow, not ours?

Ruth: E.L. Doctorow, yes, brilliant mainstream author of Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, among others. I found at least three versions of the "quote" on the Internet, and no sources for it—and I was beginning to think that the reference was a writing-quote version of an urban myth.

But then I discovered the Book. The real quote is, "Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." (Doctorow, 88)

The wonderful thing about that quote is that it can be understood nearly any way you want, unless of course you are about outlines nearly as long as the finished product. But for those who write like me, always a little ahead of yourself, the headlights are also a great metaphor, since they open up the path ahead of me as I proceed. And I see no problem with knowing what my destination is—even people who drive at night usually know where they're going.

One of the big differences between us is that whether I can see the road or not, I have usually taken a long look at the map before I set off.

Jay: That says a lot about the differences between us. Like many writers, you love research, right? I enjoy it myself sometimes, but mostly I just want to be down inside, writing. Let me tend the pumps and gears of story; the facts can take care of themselves.

Of course I don't mean that literally. I do all kinds of research for some projects. But for me, to be in the zone, that's where the magic happens. Span of control is part of that, not having to worry about the shape and size of the story. Some of the zone is just preparedness—having eaten, rested, whatever.

It really comes with a prickle and knock, when an image or a phrase or an idea sticks out in my head, like Lady Liberty rising from the sand. That's the headlights thing, that one clue that draws me down into the darkness behind my own eyes. It's kind of a mystical thing, or at least for me it defies useful description. What's the zone mean for you?

Ruth: I don't get into that place you describe very often, and when I do, preparation is the key. Yes, I'm a research nut. Not only do I need to know stuff in order to write, but research often gives me ideas on where to go and how to put my fiction together. While working on my last completed novel, I collected a six-foot-high shelf full of books on the Roman Britain, Arthurian legends, Celtic culture, ancient Ireland, the history of weapons and ships and medicine, and a number of historical atlases. (I love historical atlases.)

The times I've most often been able to get into the zone is when working on a novel, with characters I've come to know so well, I can see exactly how they are going to react to things, and I can get into their world because I can slip into their heads so easily. But the rest has to be there, I have to have laid the groundwork already, and if I don't know what the floor looks like in that villa in Sub-Roman Britain, I can't maintain the fictional dream.

But when I was writing my epic Arthurian monster, toward the end of the book, I was finding that place repeatedly. See, I knew what those places looked like by that time, Caer Leon, Aquae Sulis, Dyn Tagel, I had the logistics down and the look of the armies, and while the book as a whole was mapped out, some of the scenes that came along as solutions to plot problems surprised me.

But by that time I was over 100,000 words into the novel. I usually can't get into the zone without preparation, without knowing the basics that will give me that freedom to run with the story. Different strokes....

Jay: Indeed. I have an allergy to Received Wisdom in any form, including that which might come out of my own mouth, but I'll say here what I've said before. The only true fact of writing is this:

Write more.

The rest is tomato/tomahto stuff. Stroke differently, stroke the same, write.

Any final words, Nestvold?

Ruth: Thanks for the last word, Lake.

Here's mine: don't let anyone prescribe their way of writing to you. We all have to find our own pace, what works best for us, and do it. Over and over and over again.

One thing we do agree on is the "writing more" business.

Copyright © 2005, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Dec 9, 03:09 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Ruth and Jay's new essay.

The article is here.
Dec 10, 00:07 by Peter Hollo
The rest is tomato/tomahto stuff.

That's weird. Why did you write down two spellings that are pronounced the same?
The rest is, in fact, tomayto/tomato stuff ;)

Most interesting discussion. Speaking as someone who has exactly one "trunk" short story up his sleeves, and nothing published not surprisingly, it was fascinating despite my lack of experience or ambition in writing - simply from the perspective of reader and sometime editor.

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