On Not Looking Back

November 27, 2009

A couple of days ago I hit the 50,000 word count for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story – a horror western set in the Montana territory in 1880 – is barely halfway through, and it’s undeniably first-draft quality. It has characters suddenly appearing without prior setup because I realized they were necessary, several scenes that don’t particularly make sense, and enough cliche to pad a whole Roland Emmerich movie, but that’s okay.

It’s okay because 50,000 words of terrible first-draft is better than no words at all.

Anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo has probably had the experience of someone asking them what it’s all about. When you explain it most people nod politely, say “cool”, then go away thinking you’re insane, but some folks say exactly what’s on their mind. The conversation often goes something like this:

“NaNoWriMo is where you have to write 50,000 words in a month.”

“Cool, what do you win?”

“Err, Nothing.”

“Then what’s the point?”

Well the point is to spend an intensive month training yourself in the most difficult (and most important) discipline of fiction writing: The fine art of NOT LOOKING BACK.

Some authors might be able to write scene-by-scene, revising and polishing each one as they go, but in my experience such people are about as rare as the Dalai Lama. In the vast majority of cases to stop and look back before you reach the finish line means certain death for the story.

During a first draft, you have to write like the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels. You have to write like that big wall of fire from Independence Day is only ten feet behind you, throwing cars and people around with CGI abandon. You wouldn’t stop and look back in those situations. But what many people don’t realize is when you’re writing a story, there’s something coming along behind you too, and it’s just as dangerous as hell hounds or tidal waves of flame. It’s a huge wall of procrastination and perfectionism, and if you let it catch up with you well, there goes the neighborhood…

My wife (bless her genius little heart) put it very succinctly. She said that writing a story is like giving birth to a baby: You can’t stop to clean up a baby halfway through the birthing process. You just have to push and push and push. What comes out will be ugly and bloody, but then you can clean it up and start to nurture its growth from there.

I can’t stress enough how important coming to understand this concept has been to me. I’ve been an aspiring writer my entire life, and as a younger adult, I completed countless finely-imagined, beautifully-polished single scenes. I have a big box full of them. Any one of them could have been part of a decent story, if it wasn’t for the fact that I killed them by stopping and looking back.

So to all aspiring fiction writers out there, I implore you to participate in NaNoWriMo next November. Because it doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, nor how perfect your grammar, nor how unique your characters, nor how well-imagined your scenes. If you don’t learn the fine art of Not Looking Back, you risk forever being a writer of unfinished work.


A sense of ease

September 1, 2009

When I was in my early twenties I had a brief love affair with golf. I would spend hours at the driving range, hitting my basket of Titleist feverishly towards the furthest flags (and sometimes at the ball retrieval vehicle).

I even took a few lessons with the local pro, and it was during those lessons I learned something amazing: the furthest, most accurate hits are the ones that feel the easiest.

Golfers talk of a “sweet spot” and boy do you know when you’ve hit it. You feel nothing at all – no impact vibration in the club, barely any sound even – it’s like you just swung through thin air, and yet there goes that ball, into the distance, in a beautiful, arrow-straight arc.

By comparison, there are those shots where you think too hard, spend long minutes lining yourself up, adjusting your grip, angling the club head, thinking about your posture, and the end result is a horrific clang that leaves your wrists feeling like you just hit an Abrams tank with a baseball bat.

I never could master that sweet spot, so I gave up golf.

As I read and study the works of professional authors I admire, I get the same feeling that I did when I used to watch the pro swing effortlessly through the ball. There’s the same strange sense of ease in their work. It doesn’t matter if the style is chatty and loose or crisp and polished, the ease is still present.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples, the first from Stephen King’s epic tale of the apocalypse, The Stand:

She walked very slowly, even more slowly than she felt she had to, because even at eight-thirty the sun was fat and powerful. She didn’t sweat much — there wasn’t enough excess flesh on her bones to wring the sweat out of — but by the time she’d reached the Goodella’s mailbox, she had to rest a bit. She sat in the shade of their pepper tree and ate a few fig bars. Not an eagle or taxicab in sight, either. She cackled a little at that, got up, brushed the crumbs off her dress, and went on. Nope, no taxicabs. The Lord helped those that helped themselves. All the same, she could feel her joints tuning up; tonight there would be a concert.

And here’s another from The Screaming Woman by the inimitable Ray Bradbury:

My name is Margaret Leary and I’m ten years old and in the fifth grade at Central School. I haven’t any brothers or sisters, but I’ve got a nice father and mother except they don’t pay much attention to me. And anyway, we never thought we’d have anything to do with a murdered woman.
When you’re just living on a street like we live on, you don’t think awful things are going to happen, like shooting or stabbing or burying people under the ground, practically in your back yard. And when it does happen, you don’t believe it. You just go on buttering your toast or baking a cake.

Regardless of content, did you feel how easy that was? I don’t know about you, but personally I didn’t stop reading once to consider the mechanics of the writing. There were no clever turns of phrase that yanked me out of the flow, no uncommon words that had me reaching for the dictionary, no places where an awkward sentence forced me go back to reread. But style issues aside, there’s something else there too – a feeling that the authors didn’t have to work too hard to achieve the words. Almost a feeling that they relaxed, took faith in innate storytelling skill, and let the pen do the rest of the work.

I constantly find myself amazed by this almost indefinable sense of ease I see in the work of the best authors. I wonder what us amateurs can do to to foster it in our own work?

Perhaps it’s just a case of writing so much, for so many years, that it becomes possible to tell a story without having to go back for too many re-writes. I’ve found that I can definitely re-work a story to death if I go at it for too long. As terrible as first drafts usually are – they are also often the most fluid, natural and honest version of the story you’re trying to tell. Maybe the sense of ease that the pros display is nothing more than the ability to almost nail it first time round – so they get to keep most of that magic. Maybe it’s being so familiar with the tools of the trade that they really don’t have to work too hard. Maybe it’s something else entirely.

Please comment and let me know your thoughts…