LETTER FROM THE FRONT: WRITING TIPS

I’ve been writing. I stepped away from Unity and this blog to do a writing project, which is now over.

A writing project is a menacing jungle full of traps and enemies. The enemies may be projected out from behind your eyeballs, but the traps are very real. I’ve have spent years learning about all of them, and I have the closet full of horrific half-manuscripts to prove it. Lately I’ve had to pass through some dark places I had hitherto managed to avoid, and now I’m back with some simple tips that may help light your journey through that darkness. Some of these are surely either dead obvious, or so particular to my own process as to be useless, but maybe there’s something here you can take with you.

#1. MAP YOUR WAY OUT

No, I don’t mean actual drawn maps. I mean that when you dread sitting down to your story, because Mr. Jones has to get to the barber or whatever, and you don’t know how the fuck he does it, and your last paragraph is about a bluebird, and jesus christ will this thing ever end, are you going MAD???
Calm down.
Set your actual current draft aside and open a new file called “what_has_to_happen_for_this_chapter_to_be_over.txt” A totally blank file. Now, picturing that awesome ending you’ve already got basically DONE in your head, step yourself through how you get there, as though you were making a list ahead of going down to the grocery, drug and hardware stores the night before a hurricane. “OK Fred has to get his passport photo taken, Rachel has to go to court and plead no contest..” as you start to really articulate all the details that are holding you back in the story, you realize that some are either readily solvable or non-issues. Some are still problems, of course, but now you have a much clearer idea of where you want to go and how you want to get there, and what you need to spend energy giving to the audience versus what the audience is willing to take on faith.

#2. AS YOU NEAR THE END > START A PROJECT NOTES FILE (IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY)

One of the things that will keep you from the finish line is that you’ll have a cool idea, but think, “oh, this means I have to go back and restructure some things to make this work, but I like this so much I want to make it work, so let’s…” and you pick up the shovel and your enthusiasm falls out of your butt.
Don’t stop your forward momentum. If your new idea requires rewrites of earlier material, take a few sentences of notes in the alternate document of “project_revision_ideas.txt”, just to get the idea out of your head. Then, continue as you were, with the assumption that the work has already been done, the past has already been corrected. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trust the past to explain itself later; do not go back to it and kick cans around while you still have work to do in the moment of the story. A great advantage of this technique is that when the time does come for you to gird your loins for the next draft, why look, you already have what’s basically a roadmap to the weak spots. As an optional aside to this:

#3. USE COLORS 

You might be amazed at the power of this technique: when something is obviously not quite right, but difficult or impossible to make right at this very moment… write FIX THIS next to it and make it bright pink and bold. Then move on to the next paragraph and keep going. If you move far enough ahead, the next time you open the manuscript and see that, you’ll be like, oh, right, and do a sentence or two that writes out your original half-assed flailing at an idea and replaces it with an actual idea that you worked out below in the meantime. This is preferable to spending hours banging your head on this one part because it had to be just right just then. Colors, shapes, pictures or links to pictures: if you can’t the words you want on paper, it’s OK to just put down a signpost or a reference, as long its clear enough that you’ll know what it means later. This is a technique stolen from programming, where early code is studded with TODO and HACK FIX THIS. Don’t let contemplation of tomorrow’s work keep you from doing today’s.

#4. AS YOU NEAR THE END > ANTICTIPATE AND EMBRACE “POST-PRODUCTION”

Making a complete first draft is like passing a god damned kidney stone, you definitely don’t want to go back into that bathroom for at least a little while. However, whatever indexing, appendixing, formatting, and bow-wrapping details your particular project requires still stand between you and rung zero, which is the first person who is going to read it and tell you it sucks. Don’t be passing around raw unformatted files of rambling text. You don’t buttonhole people on the street and yell at them unceasingly, do you? Have some manners. Respect the potential person whom you are asking to read your work by presenting them with something that is not visually worse than what they already have to read during the course of the day. Going back over your work in various ways just to make it more visually presentable is a necessary part of finishing, and if you’ve already adopted a grim death march attitude by three quarters through your first draft, you are just not going to have the stomach for it. As you near the end, anticipate what you are going to need to do so it’s not a surprise, and recognize that writing THE END doesn’t mean you can run out into the street with it. BUT, heed the corollary:

#5. DON’T DO FORMATTING WORK IN THE MIDDLE OF A DRAFT

More generally: don’t do anything during a draft that could potentially result in multiple conflicting versions of a draft. If you catch yourself copying draft text from one program to another, slap yourself. How many problems are you trying to cause for yourself here? Seriously? You want to spend hours reconciling multiple versions of a second or third draft?
You can do pretty stuff between drafts. If you started in a spiral notebook, finish the draft in the damn notebook. If you started on a PC, finish on a PC and do the next draft on your new Mac or whatever. Never split a draft.
The reason this happens is because writing requires you to switch between states of intense concentration and kind of mind-wandering states, and it’s gratifying in a masturbatory way to idly reformat your draft. You are walking down the devil’s path if you do this. Find something else to do while daydreaming. I hear some people enjoy Sudoku.

#6. GET TO THE PART YOU WANT TO WRITE TODAY (OR TONIGHT) AND WRITE THAT

An example: in your story, Farmer Bob purchases and wrecks a Maserati. In order to do this, he has to fleece some bankers and relatives, and perform various identity sleight-of-hand tricks. You feel compelled to make that part real because this is a realistic story, but the story started in your mind with this dream of Bob hauling ass on a twisty Iowa two-lane, and that’s all you can think about as you write him in the banker’s office, submitting his loan application and twisting his cap in his hands… The point is, any of your precious god-given time you manage to carve out to sit down to do the work, write the part you want to write. It’s the least you can do for yourself. If you feel a need to sketch out some justification for getting to that part, give it a sentence or two. That stuff you write when you are seized by an idea and write what you want is always going to be loved and admired and actually read the most of anything you do, because it has your fire and your heart. If instead you are always having to set up a tedious house of cards to push your characters to where you want them to be, like a desperate Axis general shuffling units around a mock battlefield with one of those little pushbrooms… well, you’re fucked, you’ve lost the thread. If you pursue the part you want to write, one of several things will happen: 1. Once your mind is free of the obsession of the part you wanted to write, it will naturally turn to other thoughts and any necessary exposition will fill that space. Then you write it and you’re good. Or 2: if the part you wrote just isn’t workable, you gained a deeper and necessary understanding of the story you really wanted to tell. Maybe the Maserati episode happens in a dream Bob has when he falls asleep driving the tractor. Maybe that dream never even makes it to the final draft, but your understanding of it informs Bob’s character and makes your work better. Never fear that you are wasting time because you are writing the part you want to write, that’s never the case.

#7.YOUR AUDIENCE NEEDS LESS EXPOSITION THAN YOU THINK THEY DO

A scene of two characters speaking about events in the present, if written skillfully and with the intent to do so, can cast strong light and shadow on any character’s past, while never insulting the audience with a blunt disclosure that doesn’t suit the conversations or the characters. An example: Billy has been in prison for five years. When his mother and his fiancee meet for the first time, for lunch, don’t feel compelled to have either of them trumpet this fact just because it’s the most important fact in their relationship. For this very reason, have them act like real people would, and tiptoe around the particulars of the subject, until the audience is wondering “what happened to this guy, did he get sick, did he go visit a guru in Tibet?” This segues nicely into:

#8. YOUR AUDIENCE WANTS TO DO SOME (EASY) WORK (THAT MAKES THEM FEEL CLEVER)

Your audience did not come to your entertainment to have every question they might consider answered immediately. By the same token they probably did not come to sit through some inscrutable outpouring of free assosciations. They probably came to participate in a give-and-take with you, that is enetrtaining, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally rewarding. They want to leave your work feeling like they know the world a little better, and they can’t do this if you don’t give them anything to think about. Conceal and reveal. Exposition and (ugh) “world-building” are not things you do at the beginning of a story, like the yellow Star Wars text crawling up the screen, to ground your audience in the self-imposed rules of your fiction, unless you are the worst kind of hack. If your fictional world (be it Castle Azgoth or 1973 Jersey City) has boundaries, and common knowledge, and things that mean certain death, let the reader learn about those things alongside the characters that they have become invested with (if you reach page 2, you are probably invested with a character). Don’t profess: let characters experience the world, and bring the reader along. The same goes for realism: don’t tell us the husband suspects infiedlity, show us late nights alone while the wife is at the office, and callers that hang up when they hear a man’s voice. Trust the reader a little bit and the reader will be more interested. Treat the reader like a moron and they will hang up on your story.

#9 EMBRACE GENRE, REJECT GENRE, COMMENT ON GENRE 

Cliches get a bad rap. cliches are the Jungian archetypes of colloquial speech. Don’t be afraid of an idea because it seems too familiar. There is nothing new under the sun… except you and your perspective on the stories we’ve all heard a thousand times already. If you have a new way to tell it, the whole world might listen.