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.

Alpha Readers

It took me a couple of months of spinning my wheels and not really making any progress, but I have finally broken free from my writers block and pushed myself to a good place.  I have about 25K words down on the page, and a pretty solid outline (minus a few specific-specifics) up to the ~75% mark in my story, then again from 90% until the end.

Now that the hair-pulling and self-pitying is safely behind me, I can spot a couple patterns in the debris field when I look over my shoulder. As the dozens of spiders / bots following this blog know, I’m in the early writing stage of my second-ever novel. This means I am still basically new to the whole process, and every slight variation I attempt becomes my first ever experiment with that variation. Some of these experiments work to my benefit, others to my detriment, but until I blunder ahead I don’t know the one from the other.

My first story came into being from within a bubble.

I was well past the 80% mark (with a clear outline of the finish) before I broke that isolation and shared a single word with alpha readers over on FWO. This wasn’t by grand design… I don’t know any writers in my personal life, and my wife does’t “get” fantasy, so that is just how it happened. In the course of workshopping that manuscript, I developed a great group of peers, and my writing capabilities certainly improved. I got all the way to the end of the manuscript with one particular partner, the mid point with another, and a couple others worked with me through the first third of the novel. By the time I got that much input, I’d learned so much that I was no longer excited by the story. It was a fun first attempt with some elements done well, many lacking, but it didn’t have the fundamentals woven in to make it a really great story. Fine, no big deal. On to book number 2!

Eager to keep a good thing going, I wasted no time connecting with some old faces, and some new, over at FWO, and I began posting my new words almost as soon as they hit my Scrivener document. I sprinted ahead, full of momentum, and the feedback started rolling in.

Then two bad things happened at the same time.

First, I discovered that the “gardener” method of writing wasn’t really for me… I need an outline. So I sat down and started outlining. It wasn’t hard — I love planning out the story and world-building the features, then finding clever ways for things to intersect. In any case, it is another crucial part of storytelling I need to keep practicing to get good.

This change of gears slowed my momentum, and as I was etching out character arcs, feedback continued to roll in. I was a couple chapters ahead of my alpha readers, so I continued to post while I worked in the background. Then the second bad thing happened.

Already weak on momentum, I was hit with the realization that my story was not manifesting the way I wanted it to. I had things planned later in the book, but the seeds weren’t planting, the character quirks weren’t coming through, too many things weren’t working for too many people! WHAT TO DO!?

Well I did what any semi-panicked novice writer would, and immediately began rewriting what I already had, trying to “fix” things so that the story was setting up the grand impact I wanted it to have.  I couldn’t allow my alpha readers go read through the whole thing and be left scratching their heads and telling me, in the end, the story didn’t really have any punch to it!  Could I?

This began a very negative feedback loop, the escape from which took over two months.

Now that I am out, I’ve learned three very important things about myself.

Momentum is essential. I’ve heard this said by other authors as well, particularly Brandon Sanderson, so I had a hunch the same might be true for me. Well it is. Each time I had to second guess where I was going, or change gears for something technical/secondary, it became harder and harder to keep going forward.

Workshopping too early is bad. I made a concerted effort to file away my feedback into a folder, expecting to dive into it in earnest only when I finished the first draft. I read everything as it came in, of course, so I could make notes of things I should adjust on the fly. Something about a character wasn’t working? I can pivot as I went. A motivation didn’t come through? I better find a way to mention it again.

This turned out to be poison, and I just don’t have the personality to ignore what people are saying and what they think. I just have to start fixing things once I know there is an issue… which stops my forward movement, but leads me to bad solutions (e.g., why add another scene about motivation when I could just fix it in the first scene later during my revision?).

My writing is still novice, but that’s okay. This is a big one for me, and the one that will take the most self control to internalize. When I re-read my own writing, before sharing it with others, I generally hate it. I might like how it flows or what happens, but the prose itself… the descriptions, the sometimes clunky or confusing way I move around… it just irks me!  I CAN DO BETTER!

… well maybe I can, but the key is not to worry about doing it now. This ties back into #2, because I have a deep issue with sharing something that I am not proud of, which means before I can post anything for review I just have to give it a once- or twice- or three-time over before I can let it out into the wild. That energy drains directly away from my momentum, and it is poorly spent. I might bang out 10K words in a week, but 9K of them were rewrites to old material just so I could post it! And furthermore, when I still don’t land on prose that I really love, it just gets me down.

So back to the bubble I must go, at least for now.

This really upsets me. I enjoy the community I have at FWO, and I don’t want to lose connections with some of the people that I’ve been working with, but I have no choice. I need to be well ahead of the material I am posting so that I can be insulated from the feedback.  If I am just a chapter ahead (or less, as it was sometimes) the feedback has too direct a channel to influence my vector, to break my stride, or to otherwise get in my head. My plan now is to get to 60K words, and THEN start posting back on FWO.  I’ll do my best in the meantime to continue providing feedback to others, with the hope they will avail themselves to me when I am ready to try this again.

Well, with that — onward!

Creativity Fail

Somehow, somewhere, I picked up a writer’s block bug, and I just can’t seem to shake it. As the days became weeks, and now over a month, it has become clear that it won’t pass on its own. Breaking out of this rut will require some deliberation and work.

This hiccup serves as a signpost for me, with two distinct markers mounted upon it.  First, it means I have reached the end of the honeymoon stage in the Lunhina Trilogy. This is not to say the new setting and characters do not still excite me — they do — but it means the easy part is over.  I could write a thousand cool starts to stories.  The start is all about layering intrigue and finding different ways to introduce people.  The questions drive the introduction.  When you exit the “start” of the story then suddenly the plot lines need to go somewhere, and need to follow an interesting path along the way.  I can’t just wing this or throw it off the cuff, and thus the end of the honeymoon.

This also explains the second marker I see clearly before me.  I don’t like free writing, or “gardening” as GRRM calls it.  I was trying it in this book for two reasons: first, it was a reaction to my first story Sapphire Spawn, which had been outlined so tightly, all my characters suffocated before I pulled them through it.  Second, new writers are always encouraged to try different things until they know what really works for them. So I tried it.

It sucks.

That might be little harsh, but it doesn’t mesh with my personality, or my need for momentum. If I don’t know where to go next, I come to a hard stop between each chapter, and that doesn’t work for my style.

I’m in the process of pulling out what hair follicles remain to me as I try to lay down an outline that can carry me towards the endings I have planned.  This is at least productive.  Less productive has been an increase in my own crits with my informal writing groups, and other expenditures of my free time that could otherwise have gone to my story.  No more.  I’m putting myself into a mandatory time-out from all that until I get this sorted.  I hope to pull free in the next few nights and be on my way.