Just Keep Swimming

Time for a(nother) quick writer’s block rant.

There is a fair amount of wisdom in Finding Nemo, believe it or not. As a new father confronting the world of hyper-protective parenting and we-don’t-keep-score-at-games-so-nobody-ever-has-to-lose mentality, etc, I’ve given a little thought to Dory:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Right indeed.

But this is not a parenting blog entry. I’ve been back and forth through a strange fog of writer’s block the last few weeks, partially due to an overloaded schedule, and partially due to an inability to break into new chapters. A creative chasm I can’t seem to leap. I frequent a number of writing blogs and hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t voice a similar issue. The creativity just isn’t there, or it’s an off week, or they just can’t find the best way to come at their scene or chapter. I posted a similar thread myself on one forum a little over a year ago, and yet here I am again.

Well, there is another bit of wisdom in Finding Nemo that I’ve found quite useful, and so long as I remember to keep it in mind, I can push through. Most recently when I reminded myself of the magic formula, I managed to break out a 10K+ word charge!

The magic formula? Here it is:

Dory had it right.

Howard Taylor and his crew over on Writing Excuses refer to this as BIC HOK: Butt in chair, Hands on keyboard.

The instruction is simple enough, and the concept, but I am more interested in the mindset.

Why the stumble?

For me, there is a lot of inertia when beginning a new chapter. Some of this comes down to how I outline. I have a huge piece of paper that lists all of the arcs unfolding in my story and the key scenes that take them from start to finish. Each character might have two or three lines down this chart, non-character movement might get a line, a mystery plot or discovery plot will be there. Together, the chart represents all the strands of DNA that will eventually form the living, breathing story. Once I have that worked out, I start organizing these key scenes into chapters and identify where I need additional scenes to bridge two points on this map. I’ll try to combine things in ways that make sense and hammer out the order. When it is all said and done I have a list of chapters for my story along with bullet points of what each arc looks like going into each chapter, and what each arc looks like going out of each chapter.

That sounds just delightful I’m sure, but there is one little problem: Nowhere have I figured out how I’m supposed to get from the input to the output. This is where my discovery writer wakes up and helps keep my story organic.

Or at least, he’s supposed to wake up. Turns out he’s more the wildly indecisive procrastinating type.

As I stare at the blank Scrivener document–the bullets noted over on the right–I start trying to find the best way to get from A to B. The problem is, there are a million ways to get from A to B. How do I find the right one? How do I find the one that will serve my story best? The one that also brings in world building and tension? The one whose setting most captivates the reader? The one that hits every beat just right?

I know what you are thinking: “But you are such a brilliant writer, you probably find the best solution on your first shot!”

Oh, you weren’t thinking that? How rude.

In any case, moving right along to…

How to write your scene perfectly.

You can’t. Quit writing and get another hobby.

How to write your scene.

This is the tough bit, the part that stops people from making headway. The story in your head feels like the perfect story. It feels like you just need to find the right words to get it out. It feels like the wrong words won’t do the story justice.

None of that is true, I’m sorry to say. There might be concepts in your head, movie-like scenes even, a sense of the characters… but until you write something down, there is no story, in your head or otherwise.


The story is only what you can get on the page. So what happens when the version you write doesn’t seem to fulfill your conceptual expectations?

Just keep swimming.

That comes back to the crux of the issue. In order to write your scene, you have to be okay with writing a crappy version of it first. Give yourself permission to have a little literary indigestion, and don’t worry about it. The way forward–the ONLY way forward–is to accept that much of your first draft will stink. The ideas will be overdone, off the mark, the characters will act inconsistently, you’ll leave out things you meant to include, you’ll include things you meant to leave out, you’ll pick crappy settings, your tension will be off the mark, etc.

That doesn’t mean you’ve sabotaged your story. It doesn’t mean much of anything, except that you are a little closer to your goal.

This cannot be understated. The key to writing your scene is to just write it and don’t give a damn if the thing you end up with stinks like yesterday’s garbage.

I know I went with the Finding Nemo thing, but let’s switch quickly to golf.

Think of your first draft as your driver. You’ll cover more yards with that first swing than any subsequent hit, but there is no expectation that you’ll land in the hole. That is no excuse not to swing. You take the shot, you see where it lands, then you start from there and figure out how to get closer. It might take a few hits, each with a slightly different tool, each employing a slightly different technique. Each hit will also take you closer and closer until you end up right where you want to be.

So what does it matter, really, if you botch the drive? Who really cares if you accidentally send the damn thing for a swim fifty yards off the course? When it’s time for the next shot you’ll just pull out your nine-iron and hit it again, in the right direction this time. Maybe there are a few scenes you’ll have to hit pretty hard in that second draft, but so what? On this course, there is no par. Play until you run out of bird-names to grade the strokes. Doesn’t matter at all.

Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Accept the fact that your second draft will be way better. Your third, better than that. No matter how you feel or how impenetrable a new chapter might seem… Just. Keep. Swimming.

A page stuffed with crappy, amateur words, in a big stinking messy pile, is nothing at all to worry about. It is closer to the goal than you were before, and that’s what you want.

… Even if you are writing in Whale.

Walking in the dark

I’m continuing to make progress on the Lunhina Trilogy, discovering the plot as I advance. While I am enjoying the process, I find it a lot harder to break into a new chapter. Without a clear plan forward, my confidence holds me back as I second guess the best place to start, the best info to drop, and the best place to end.

I think the reason for this is I know I could write the same chapter a dozen different ways… so how do I pick out the best one? I don’t want to keep rewriting the same chapters with different directions just to see, so I am relying on intuition. I suppose like anything else, this is something that will strengthen as I go. I’ll lean on feedback from my writers group to help me focus.

The other interesting thing I am finding is when I do finally lay out the plan for a chapter, it ends up becoming two or three when written. It seems that I overestimate how much I can get done in just a couple thousand words.  I am curious to see how all this pans out as it goes out for feedback, as it could be a sign I am laying words with a heavy hand, or it might just mean the organic nature of the character’s movement requires more time to complete.

Well, that was unexpected!

Lunhina: 10.8% Draft 1

I had my first genuine “wow, I didn’t expect that” moment while writing today.  It was quite extraordinary… something I have read in other authors, but did not quite believe.  How can a character really tell you, the author, what is going to happen?

Well, turns out they can. Without an outline, you really become the character as you write, and you live with them in the moment, documenting what occurs. I was doing this in a Kinius scene, and I arrived near the end of the scene where he is injured on a boat, understaffed, and running for home.

I knew I couldn’t end the scene there… something more needed to happen, something interesting or character building at least. It seemed to me the enemy needed to find them before I could close the chapter.

BUT, I don’t want them dead! I need these characters still. How can a Galley of a hundred men catch a longboat of five, and the five come out alive (more or less)?

I stared at the page for a while on that one, and then stalled a bit by writing Kinius as he squirms and thinks.  And then— BOOM. Idea. It came from his mind as I was playing it out, not my authorial-outlining mind.  I went with it, cleaned it a bit, and I like it!  This was not in my outline at all, but it worked great.