Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writer's Commandment Number Three

James MacDonald, in giving advice to new writers, has said many times over that it is important to give yourself permission to write crap during the first draft. (He has a lot of really wonderful advice on writing commercial fiction, most of which can be found here.)

My third writer's commandment is inspired by that gem of wisdom.

Writer's Commandment Number Three: Thou shalt remember that some words is better than no words.

That sounds cryptic and ungrammatical. But here's the thing. Whether you're writing a first draft or a fifteenth draft at some point you will get caught up on some point that you don't know how to overcome. Maybe it's how to reveal a key piece of information. Or working out the snarls in a love/hate romantic subplot. Maybe it's just getting your MC out of the hole in the ground where he is determined to hide until the whole damn thing is over with. The fact is, at some point you will get stuck.

This is frequently (and erroneously, in my opinion) termed writer's block. The only way around it is through it. And by this I mean, in order to get unstuck you will - at some point - have to write yourself out of the hole in which you have landed.

And when it comes to getting stuck - and then unstuck - the best thing to do is NOT to stop writing. Some words is better than no words. Even if they are "bad" words. "Worthless" words. Even, dare I say it, utter crap.

Sometimes what you need is momentum. When I get stuck I start off my next writing session working on something else, usually a short story. I write for about 30 minutes. That's enough time to get the creative engine warmed up and all the processes necessary for writing engaged. Then I go back to the "block," the whatever-it-is that has me stumped and I try again. I don't attempt to spew forth polished prose. Instead I start with something simple.

"James walks out the door." 

Good, now he's outside and no longer hiding in the safe house. Then what?

"He has decided to go to the train station and catch the first thing headed for the buttcrack of nowhere. All of this, the prophecy, the heroic posturing, the love and manipulation, will be left behind. They can burn in hell for he cares. He will be somewhere else, living a normal life.

"Reaching the corner, he stops and looks to see if there is a bus in sight. He could walk, but his backpack is heavy and the sword, which he hasn't quite been able to leave behind, strikes the back of his leg with every step. There is no bus. In fact, there is no traffic at all. 

"The ground shivers and a crack skitters across the pavement trailing smoke and pale flames and the scent of brimstone. Looks like the demon is doing what it set out to do. Suddenly James realizes that Emmy and John and the rest of them will burn in hell if he doesn't do something."

And there you go. Suddenly, I've moved past the sticking point and the words are flowing again. It is not always that simple. If I try to just hammer something out and I get nothing, the next best thing is to free write about the problem. I need James to leave the house and see exactly what fate awaits his friends. But he's determined to stay in hiding. So something must make him leave. Maybe he decides not just to hide but to leave town alltogether. Etc, etc.

Then I move on to the next scene. Even if that one is still very rough. Even if it's still incomplete. That's tricky, because the little voice that always tries to suck the life out of your creative momentum will say "But what if this chapter/scene doesn't make sense with the rest of the story?" The answer is simple. You, being the kick-ass writer that you are, will fix it.

That's it. Fix it later. You have the skills to do that. If you don't, you will learn them. Not every scene is going to flow smoothly from one to the next on the first pass. Maybe not even the second or third pass. But you will be able to fix those bumps in the road. And when you hit one the first time don't stop writing and wait for the hole to fill itself in.

Some words is better than no words. The best cure for "writer's block" is writing. The best solution to a problematic plot point is working through it. Even if you have to skip over it and come back later. I highlight crappy sections in my manuscripts (as I write them) and put in a tag like this. Then I move on. Eventually something in my brain will turn over and I'll think "That's how that scene should go." And I fix whatever wasn't working. 

In the meantime, I keep writing. Because I can't fix anything if I'm not putting words down on paper.

1 comment:

Manuel Royal said...

Thanks for the info, and I completely agree. I dithered for literally years because I was afraid of writing crap. Now, writing some crap is just part of the process that leads to writing something publishable.