Silk’s Post #120 — As I promised in my last post, I’m on a mission to find useful tactics to help overcome my (and maybe your) self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.
Why? Because I’ve sworn off writing about why I haven’t made progress on my writing.
Last week, I explored the tactic of using milestones – points in the process where the writer reaches some new level that marks progress in the writer’s journey – in order to break up the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable “legs”.
Here’s another tactic I’ve been thinking about …
Writer’s Journey Tactic #2: Notes to Self
Did you ever start writing a scene – a scene you’ve already outlined, or at least imagined – and found yourself dead in the water before you even get started because you keep running into research roadblocks?
Your protagonist, a bounty hunter, is running down an alley in a dodgy part of, let’s say, Seattle, with a couple of enforcers from a biker gang in pursuit after he tried, unsuccessfully, to take the gang’s leader into custody for jumping bail. (How did he get himself into this mess? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along, so just roll with it).
Okay, so he hears the rumble of the bikes approaching, ducks behind a dumpster, and pulls his Glock out of his holster, and then …
Wait. Would he be carrying a Glock, or something else? What kind of holster would he have, or would he have one at all? What kind of weapons would the pursuers be carrying? And what neighbourhood is this, anyway? Where would you find dodgy alleys in Seattle? Would it be in a neighbourhood with steep hills? Near the waterfront, or maybe a highway, or an unlit park?
It sounded so simple in outline. Guy gets chased into an alley and makes a narrow escape.
But now you’re actually in the alley and, although you feel like you’ve already researched this story to death, you realize that you need to know a lot more details to make that escape work in a believable way. Details that need yet more research at a nitty gritty level. And your writing flow … comes … to … a … frustrating … halt.
You have three choices:
- Stop writing and research the weapons and specific location, or
- Make it generic enough that the details won’t really matter, or
- Make it up in as much vivid detail as you can milk out of your own writer’s imagination, and flag it with a NOTE TO SELF that reminds you to check the details later
I don’t know about you, but I’ve bogged myself down by choosing Door #1 too many times to count. And I’ve read too many lazy, mediocre scenes where the author obviously chose Door #2 and never revisited the results.
Door #3 seems like a logical way to go. You don’t interrupt your writing flow, but you don’t compromise the authenticity of the scene by filling in the unknown blanks with familiar, generic clichés.
Of course, you could just “sketch” the scene and deal with it in rewrite, rather than exercise your full imagination and creativity. Either way, you’ll have to come back to it later and do the work.
But I think generic, flabby writing is habit-forming and should be avoided. It’s one thing to write a great scene that has a few details wrong and needs to be fixed later. It’s a completely different thing to write a flat, dead scene and then try to come back later and breathe life into it.
The main thing is to keep the writing fire going – give it the oxygen of imagination. Don’t interrupt your flow with an hour of research when you’re hot … or douse it with cold, lifeless prose because you’re afraid you’re going to get a detail wrong.
Of course, you do have to do your research – we’ve all been told over and over. But you’ll never be able to research every life-like detail of every scene in advance. That would mean you’d have to anticipate every single thing you’ll put in your book before you sit down to write it. Maybe this would work for extremely conscientious – not to say obsessive – planners and outliners. But for pantsers? Forget it!
The NOTES TO SELF tactic also works for other writing roadblocks. I recently read a good, short post on flagging areas with style problems that someone sent me a link to (unfortunately I can’t find it now, wouldn’t you know). The basic premise was that when you get stuck on a description, or a grammatical issue, or you aren’t happy with the way a paragraph is working, just flag the roadblock with the word FIX, and keep on writing. The only thing I’d worry about is using style flags as a kind of crutch, because I think it’s hard to pump up a story with a lot of stylistic “flat tires” by applying patches later on.
This NOTES TO SELF tactic also raises a perennial research issue: how much advance research is enough research?
I wish there was a simple rule of thumb on research, but I suspect there is not. So much depends on your genre, topic, setting and other elements. Historical fiction necessarily demands more research, for instance, while fantasy gives authors permission to build their storyworlds mostly out of their own imaginations.
If there is a common sense principle to follow, it’s probably this: research the basic, critical elements that will support the foundation of a story in advance. This will help avoid major authenticity blunders that could kill the story premise or necessitate large chunks of rewriting. This kind of research is largely left-brain work.
When it comes to writing “colour”, though, I think the right brain does most of the heavy lifting. The kind of experiential detail that really puts the reader in the scene comes from the writer’s five senses and imagination. It doesn’t benefit from description that sounds like a Wikipedia dump.
Once you’re in the heat of writing, don’t let research roadblocks get in your way. Flag what needs checking and keep on going. Because nothing kills the joy of writing quicker than a stop-and-go traffic jam of needless interruptions.