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Writers Lead from the Back

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I’ve had a bit of business coaching during my time at a web development company. Such sessions are crammed to the brim with fragile visual metaphors, fit for purpose at first glance, but ready to shatter at the first raised hand or puzzled expression. So let’s begin with one of themwhynot – a husky team!

Flip chart

Ah, communication - a favourite coaching topic. No badly drawn pictures though. Image from Deb Nystrom

In this metaphor, the wittle doggies are the business team, and the driver is the project manager/CEO/business owner (depending on who the coach is talking to at the time). Got it?

Here’s a popular expression, “lead from the front!” A stalwart battle cry to future The Apprentice rejects everywhere (did you see that 80′s inspired fitness video this week? The other team woz wobbed)! Except there’s a problem with that. Yes, you can see where you’re going, but you’ve no idea what your team is doing, because they’re behind you. They are behind you, aren’t they? You don’t even know because you can’t see them! See?

No, a real leader (says the coach, eyes widening as he taps a finger against the scribbled stick man attached to a row of boxes), is like a husky driver. He is sat high, so that he can see ahead, but also so that he can watch over his team. He can guide them in the right direction, see if some are not towing the line, and check that none are struggling with the task. A real leader, leads from the back.

And so to writing…

I’m going to wrench this metaphor from its comfortable conference room, with biscuits and carbonated water, and plop it straight in the stuffy office/shed/cupboard-under-the-stairs of the writer.

Often a writer is deep in the story, and can let matters take their own course. Characters take on a life of their own and lead the way. Scenes you had not anticipated crop up, people go places you hadn’t expected and get into fixes all by themselves.

It sounds cheesy, but in these moments the writer kind of becomes his/her characters, and the characters are leading, from the front.

Sometimes this is all well and good, and a lot of books get written this way from beginning to end. I would wager that it takes a great deal of experience to create a truly successful novel in this way.


Aren't huskies beautiful? Mush doggies! This image is from EveryDamnNameIsInUse (ha!) on Flickr


For us others, it can get you in a lot of trouble. Suddenly you don’t now how to get to the ending you had envisaged. This would be fine, if another one presented itself, but it doesn’t. What you have is a tangled mess without structure. Oh dear.

For this reason it is helpful for a writers to behave like a husky driver. Take some time occasionally to review the story, see where all the characters are, and where everything is going. Maybe don’t even write for an hour – just spend time thinking about it.

This is the writer stepping out of the story, and looking at it from above and behind, where he/she can guide events. This is the writer leading from the back.

Do you lead from the back? How do you make sure that you are guiding your story, and it isn’t guiding you? Wring your brain dry of those thoughts by putting them in the comments!

  • Craig

    I think my writing is a lot like that image of the huskies above.  Where it looks like the driver has fallen off altogether, and the huskies go off and do their own thing.

    There is a big problem, and you mention above, about a project hitting all those points you can plot out, but giving the characters free reign to get there.  Because everything gets messy and bloated.  Messy is easier to deal with.  Bloated isn’t.  Messy can be handled by a quick tidy, while bloated needs months of work at the gym.

    My, we do like torturing metaphors around here, dont we?

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    Ha! Yes indeed we do!