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Marginal Notes

Bombing Through It


Back in the nineties, before social networking or even blogs had been invented, I belonged to a chat list for published writers. You carried on a slow conversation with like-minded people by sending e-mails to a central server, which then sent them out to all members of the list. Tom Clancy, another list member, used to give a piece of advice to writers who were stuck at various stages of the writing process: “Just write the damned book.”

I think of that advice whenever potential clients ask me to read over the first few chapters of their work in progress, to make sure they’re “on the right track.” They don’t seem to realize that there is no track. When you write your first draft, you lay the tracks as you go. As you follow your story, you may find out that a minor character moves to the center of the action, or that a plot twist you’ve been building toward for a hundred pages just won’t work. Or your story may simply transform into something else as you write it. In its original draft, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was magical realism, with Simon having genuine mystical visions and sacrificing himself willingly at the end.

The process is a little different if you work from a detailed outline, but not much. True, you do have an idea of where you’re going when you actually begin writing. But some of the creativity and surprise – the getting to know the story and characters – that other writers experience with the first draft, you get with the outline. And no matter how detailed your outline might be, you should still treat it more as a guide than a rulebook. The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity. Stories are organic. You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis.

Still, the problem those clients are looking to me to solve is real -- a lot of writers get lost in the middle of their first draft. One reason may be a lack of confidence and drive. I find it’s usually second novels that I’m asked to keep on track. Many writers enter the field because they’re burning to tell a particular story. But after the first novel is done and they launch into the second one, they often lack the passion for the story that got them through the first novel. After The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan began and abandoned seven different second novels -- at one point breaking out in hives -- before writing The Kitchen God’s Wife.

You can also trip up on your first draft by focusing on the mechanics of writing – like the beginning writer who recently complained on the Writer Unboxed Facebook site that, whenever she read a how-to-write book, she felt like she was going about it wrong. It’s easy to get so obsessed with the technical details – how you’re managing your micro-tension, if you’re giving your readers enough physical description to imagine the scene, whether your antagonist is sufficiently balanced or your dialogue is pithy enough – that you can’t find your story. You’re like the centipede who was asked which leg she lifted first when she walked – and never walked again.

On the other hand, not having a firm enough grasp of the basic skills of storytelling can also run a first draft into the ground. If your descriptions are inept, then your locations will never take on reality. Flaws in your management of point of view can keep your characters from coming to life. So what you’re writing may feel flabby, impotent, just plain wrong, which makes it hard to keep going.

So how do you thread the needle between being aware of the mechanics of writing and ignoring them enough to focus on your characters?

During the discussions on last month’s article, I came up with a metaphor from my life as an organist. If you’ve ever seen a gifted organist working at full throttle, both hands busy on two or more keyboards and both feet going on the pedalboard (This is NOT me), you can see that the instrument demands good technique. But when you play, you can’t think about which finger to put where or whether to use heel or toe on which pedal. Instead, you have to be focused on the music – on hitting the right balance between the various voices or building a phrase toward resolution. But all that technique still has to be there, buried in your muscle memory and at work even though you’re not paying attention to it.

When I’m learning a new piece, I eventually reach the point where I can, as one of my former instructors put it, “bomb through it.” I’ve gone over the whole piece slowly often enough to get an overall sense of what the composer was trying to do. I’ve repeated some of the tricky passages until I can stumble through them. Then it’s time to take the whole piece more or less at tempo. And the idea is just to keep going, no matter how many wrong notes I hit, no matter how much it sounds like a train wreck. Just forget technique, forget problems, and stay with the music, feeling it come to life, getting to know it.

My wife once attended a series of writing workshops given by Madeline L’Engle. For one exercise, Ms. L’Engle told them they could think about their story for as long as they wanted. Then they had simply to sit down and write as fast as they could for an hour and a half. Essentially, they were told to bomb through it.

This is what first drafts are like. You should have already developed your writing techniques – from reading good literature and books on writing (or the good advice you get here), from talking to fellow writers, from asking questions on Writer Unboxed’s Facebook page. Then you forget about technique and focus on your characters and where they take you, trusting that you know enough to stumble on through. There will be plenty of time later to come back and clean up your story so that it works more effectively. But your first draft is where you learn what the story really is, where you first get to know it. So just keep going, no matter how awkward the writing feels or whether you’re leaving plot threads hanging. Just bomb through it.

Write the damned book.