Thursday, June 16, 2011

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

Not quite yet... but someday.
So I’ve lectured you on the importance of writing a whole lot, all the time, and pretty much expressed that there’s no way to accomplish that other than buckling down and getting it done—that there’s no better way to do it than to do it.  And while there is no magical formula to getting a lot of writing on the page, there is a mindset you can put yourself in that will make it considerably easier.  For me, the only way that I can get a good amount of work done is to both come to terms with the fact that my first draft is going to be a piece of garbage and not allow myself to get hung up on the small details.

I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most important things that you can do as a writer, right there next to “knowing the written language”.  I probably can’t speak for everyone in the world, but when the average person has a story in their head—knows exactly what’s going to happen and when and with what characters—yet they find themselves stuck after a paragraph, it’s probably because they feel like they’re having a hard time putting what’s in their mind onto the page, or some small sentence or paragraph is tripping them up.

This was my main problem starting out.  I would be trying to describe, let’s say, how red a fire truck was, and having problems with the simple sentence structure.  I would have two thoughts that weren’t complete enough on their own but didn’t sound good stuck together with a semicolon.  I would be trying to explain just how red each part of the truck was, but finding the repeated word redundant and rapidly running out of words like “ruby” and “crimson”.  I would know where I needed to place certain thoughts in order to achieve the proper pacing but have trouble making the whole thing flow.  I would get hung up on this one stupid passage forever, and eventually get discouraged and just leave the computer and go do something else.  Apart from figuring out story details, this was my number one problem in writing; I would come upon a stumbling block and simply not know how to get around it.

Little did I know, there was a very easy solution to this problem.  I remember the very first time I came upon it…

I was going to put a picture of someone tearing
their hair out or something, but this is a lot funnier.
It was a few years ago, and I was working on the book that I am in fact working on right now.  (I don’t suggest leaving a book alone for that long without finishing it, but hey…  It happens.)  It was the first piece of work I had ever turned out that was more than a dozen or so pages long, and the journey so far had been a very rough one.  I had failed two NaNoWriMos with this one book alone and still hadn’t reached the fifty thousand word mark.  And on this particular night I was having one heck of a time with a particular sentence.  I was trying, quite simply, to say that my character went to sleep.  For some reason or another (to this day I’m still not sure why I was having so much trouble) I just couldn’t seem to get it right.  There was just a particular way I wanted it to sound, and I was trying to get some specific idea across.  I struggled with it for what must have been at least fifteen minutes.  I had been on a roll up to that point, and now I was frustrated beyond belief and wanting more than anything to just stop writing and forget about it.

Finally, when it became too much to handle, I stopped.  I didn’t stop writing however, and instead surprised myself with the following sentence:

“He might have said "goodnight" or something like it to Bremin, but the man seemed to have walked off somewhere and soon he WENT SLEEPT.”

I sat back and looked at my funny little sentence.  It wasn’t what I was trying to say, and was a lame bandage to say the least, but in one glorious moment I realized that it didn’t matter in the slightest.  I had been so hung up on this one little detail that I wasted fifteen minutes of good time.  I realized that I had been writing as though someone were going to read it when I was done. 

But you know what?  They’re not!
Original art courtesy of Jack Thomas

When you first write something, it’s what I cleverly like to call a first draft.  It’s so easy to get tripped up while writing your first draft because you want it to be as good a product as you see in your mind, but this is an evil and unhelpful habit that you absolutely have to break if you hope to get anything done.  This of course all stems from that nasty little thing called perfectionism, which is certainly not your friend.

In the words of Anne Lamott:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a [expletive deleted] first draft.”

In Ms. Lamott’s book, “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”, she goes into great detail about the importance of what I’ll call a “crappy first draft”.  In fact, she references that first draft for the better part of the book.  And I couldn’t possibly agree with her more.

On the first draft you should focus on just getting the work out there; you can set up the scenes, churn out the majority of the dialogue, establish the pacing, and just generally get the bulk of it onto the page.  But when it comes down to minor details, I implore you, just forget about them and move on.  If you’re stuck on a sentence for more than a minute, I suggest simply writing down a soulless description of what was supposed to happen and keep on going.  Can’t think of a way to move the action without sounding redundant?  Doesn’t matter; move on.  Can’t think of a proper way to describe the setting?  Who cares.  Can’t think of exactly how a certain character is supposed to look at the moment?  Fuhgeddaboudit!!!  When you reach the end of your story, you’re going to find yourself with a heaping pile of stinky pages that are going to need a whole lot of revising.  But you know what?  That stinky pile is there!  Tell me that you felt better about yourself when you hadn’t written it at all.

I will end this post with two analogies:

A very clear parallel to the art of writing.
 Firstly, writing is like cleaning someone off who’s been covered in mud.  They’re a sopping mess, positively slathered in an inch-thick layer of muck from head to toe.  The thought of getting them completely clean is daunting, but you’ve got to do it.  So how do you start the process?  Do you get behind their ears with Q-tips?  Do you scrape the dirt from under their fingernails?  No!  You get a hose and you spray the crap out of them!  You don’t worry about the finer details until you’ve gotten the bulk of the mud off.  Only then do you get a sponge and start getting the stuff that didn’t come off with the hose, and at the very end you go over the little finishing touches.  (Then you question them about how they got you to clean them off, when they could have done it themselves.)

My second analogy is that writing is a bit like sculpting.  You’re in the ceramics classroom and the teacher has set out big boxes of clay on the table at the center of the room.  To me, trying to write perfectly on the first draft is a bit like if you were to grab all the clay you needed and attempt to sculpt your entire art piece, right there in your hands, before you even put it on your table.  You would fumble with the whole thing, having a hard time nailing the details when you didn’t even have the basic shape down yet.  This is not how you sculpt something.  Instead, you plop all the clay you need down in your workspace and get to molding it vaguely into what you’re trying to achieve.  Then, when it’s finally starting to come together, your hands are free to shape each part slowly and eventually get to work on the little details.

Believe me, the second you allow yourself to say something like “WENT SLEEPT” will be the second you multiply your writing output by a factor of about a million.  And you know what?  Chances are, when you come back to that passage later with a refreshed and practiced mind, you’ll be able to much better articulate what you were originally trying to say.  And if you’re like me, you might even realize that what you were trying to say wasn’t that important at all, and you’ll end up coming up with something even better! 

So just try it.  If you do and you regret the early manuscript you’ve got in front of you, I’ll buy you some fries.

And for anyone looking for a book on writing that will inspire you, I haven’t found a book as wonderful as Bird By Bird.  Anyone who’s ever considered writing about anything on any subject should give this book a read.    

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