Friday, November 20, 2009

Just Write The Next Word Down

I was going to do a sort of follow up to my poll from last week about protagonists, and tie that in with Davin's recent discussion of sincerity and Lady Glamis' discussion of honesty, but I've been sick this week and I'm still not feeling quite right in the head, so I'm going to just fall back upon some practical advice for first drafts.

I'm reaching a stage in my own first draft where I've essentially already discovered the main things about the characters and the story and I'm sort of doing mechanics, by which I mean that I'm writing scenes that set up the inciting incident at the end of Act One. It remains interesting reading, I think, but on the writing end it can be more like playing a game of chess (strategizing and suchlike) than, say, falling in love. If you know what I mean. If you don't, bear with me and take my word for it that the similes above are fantastically accurate but I'm still too dragged down by illness to explain why.

Where was I? Oh, yes: I am at a place in my first draft where writing is now a lot like work and not a lot like artistic visionary trance, and I'm really laboring to start each scene. In fact, I find myself thinking about avoiding the draft because right now the work is hard work and I'm essentially a lazy old man. I sit down to my notebook, pen in hand, and don't know what to write because I think the next scene is going to be a real bitch, so I go off and make myself a cuppa or throw in some laundry and in the end I don't write anything at all.

The best way I have found to combat this is to simply write the next word down, even if it's the wrong word. In fact, the less likely the word is to be the right word, the better. For example, I'm writing a story about two men in Colonial America, so if I need a scene about these two going to a tavern to meet a third person but I have no point of entry into the scene, I'll write down something like "peacocks" because that's so obviously not the right word. But then I make myself finish the sentence that begins with "peacocks" because nature abhors a vacuum and I abhor an unfinished sentence in a manuscript.

Why does this help me? Because it usually forces me to come up with the right words. Sometimes it takes a paragraph or a page of rubbish about peacocks, but writing about the wrong stuff for a few minutes reminds me of what the right things are for that particular passage, and I'm able to bring the writing back into focus and get on with the scene.

Sometimes, the clearly wrong idea will spark something cool, too, and suddenly I'll have a brilliant passage about peacocks that I'd never have put in originally. The argument could be made that I chose "peacocks" or whatever because, subconsciously, this is really what I wanted to put into the book at this point, but I don't care about that because the trick is to get writing again and if I've tricked myself into writing something I subconsciously thought should go into the book, then well done me, right?

The larger point, of course, is that books are written one word at a time, and there is nobody but you to add those next words, so you have to do it all by yourself. I believe Neil Gaiman had some inspiring thoughts about just this very thing, and possibly later I'll find a link to them. No matter.

If you are stuck, then just write the next word down, even if it's wrong. Even if it's "the next word." Simply having something there on the page forces you to think about the story, and the more wrong what you've got is, the better your chances of correcting it with something that's right.

Anyone have any other simple but effective tricks for getting past those momentary "I have no idea what comes next" pauses in our writing, especially during first drafts?


  1. Suddenly, your eel scene makes so much sense.

  2. I just got to a point in your book about the king eating eels. I grinned from ear to ear.

    I like this post, Scott. Even if you're sick, you've done a good job of helping me see what makes us writers - the ability to fight our way out of the little trenches we dig ourselves into. Peacocks can helps us get there.

    I've used this trick in poetry before, and it works splendidly.

    I just had to come comment today. I haven't even answered the comments on my post from yesterday. I should probably do that, but my time is more limited on the net lately.

    You're right about the honesty thing in your comment yesterday - I didn't know what I meant either. I probably shouldn't have even mentioned honesty in the first place. There's so many categories it can fit into. I think the one I was trying to shove it into is being an honest enough writer to not try and manipulate our readers, or more importantly ourselves, into writing what is not representative of who we are or what we have envisioned. Laziness often breeds dishonesty (in my experience). Many times in my writing I've avoided things because it seemed like too much work.

    I'm going to go read more of your book now. Happy Friday, and feel better soon. :)

  3. I think this technique works really well. I don't think I ever stray so far from the story to write something like peacocks, though. I usually have at least a very foggy idea of something else that should go into the story, not necessarily the next scene, but a future scene perhaps. So, I'll write something that approaches that blurry scene, fragments of sentences or unfocused thoughts that at least allow me to sketch in the missing piece. That's one thing.

    The other thing I do if I get stuck is to pop in one of m favorite DVDs. There are usually two reasons why I'm not writing. 1. I don't know what to write, in which case I'll do what I mentioned in the first paragraph. 2. I'll suspect that something more exciting is going on in the rest of the world, in which case, having a DVD on somehow convinces me that this isn't true anymore. I think it makes me feel like I'm multi-tasking, which makes writing feel like less of a waste of time.

  4. Davin: You're very droll, Mr. Malasarn. The eels were a quite deliberate addition to the novel, ta awfully. The drinking scene in Act Two? That was a search for what came next. Look for peacocks to show up in Chapter Eight of "Cocke & Bull," though. In fact, I may have used "peacocks" in this post because I'm thinking that a certain English captain will be something of a peacock. Don't know. Ideas are everywhere; we just need to pick them up and dust them off.

    So you're telling me that when I'm stuck in my draft, I can put "Gosford Park" into the DVD and that'll get me writing again? I do the "sketching" thing, too. A lot. A good chunk of my first and second revisions are going back and fleshing out scenes that were only sketches the first time out.

    Michelle: There are more eels to come after that scene.

    It's possible that I stole this technique from a poetry class I took long ago. Now that you mention it, it sounds familiar. A lot of my writing has to do with specific imagery, and forcing myself to deal with a totally inappropriate image will get me to think up the appropriate one and that's enough to get me writing.

    I think laziness is at the root of most poor writing.

  5. Scott, this is exactly the post I needed right now. So thanks.

    One problem I'm finding in my recently started novel is that it has evolved (of course) as I go, but it leaves me with unplanned characters or professions or intellectual issues (like one character loves a very real post-feminist activist who shall remain nameless because I don't love her and therefore don't know enough about her, but this character adores her and parrots what does the activist think on a particular issue--that kind of thing)

    Anyway, so I know, really, almost every scene through the beginning, most of the middle and definitely the end. And maybe it's the whole novel writing month going on and everyone talking about word counts, but I feel these competing pressures--do I "just write" and jack up that word count and "get something down" and sweat the details later or do I stop and research, which can take days and days and result in no writing?

    Since I know the story, I, too am at the hard work part--and isn't researching third wave feminism so interesting and therefore easy??

    Any thoughts on how much you have to "know" during your first draft? And when you get to something you didn't know would be in your novel, do you stop and research a lot, a little, or just guess and fix it later?

    This is probably way too long with your sickness--sorry!

  6. Going for a walk often works for me. Something about the physical action combined with change of scenery, and I find whole scenes writing themselves in my head.
    Also, this being the first time I've tried NaNo, I find that saying I will write 2K a day and saying to my characters 'okay then what do you need to do now?' is working well. They keep stepping up with stuff. When I re-read after this month is over, I don't know what I will find but right now it feels on target.

  7. Jennifer: I think everyone handles research differently, but what I do generally is make my outline while doing a ton of research and trying to see what I know that I don't know, and plan to research those areas. At some point, usually when I've read more than I can possibly keep straight, I start writing the actual first draft and I know that the first couple of chapter will have to be revised pretty heavily as the fictional world comes together over the course of several chapters. Still, I try to just keep moving forward at all times. If I run against a gap in my knowledge that will absolutely stop me from moving forward, I either write something anyway, just making stuff up with the intention of fixing it later, or I will take a day or two off to read and take notes. But those are the only options I allow myself (except on sick days like today).

    How much do you have to "know" during first drafts? Enough to write a story that won't have to undergo major character and plot revisions. Things about setting and technology and clothing and people's jobs can all be fixed later. In my current draft, I refer to matches (which had not yet been invented in 1749) and a box of money (which will also be a problem), but I'm leaving them be until I finish the ms; I'll deal with those sorts of things in the revisions.

  8. Suddenly, your eel scene makes so much sense.

    The post was insightful, but Davis response totally sealed it for me!

    I just ask myself, "And then what happened?"

    Someone says or does something. Even it they only stare at a flower, that opens a description of the flower (NOTE: I don't have any actual scenes where someone stares at a flower. Yet).

    I think I read somewhere the Hemingway used to always a half-written sentence when he finished a writing session, so when he picked back up he would know what to write (i.e. the rest of that sentence). Cool concept. I have yet to try that, though.

  9. So i've been doing laundry and walking up and down the stairs for no apparent reason and reading blogs when I should be writing.

    You've convinced me. Now I am going back to my stuck chapter and write "peacock." If nothing comes from it, I'll just blame you.

  10. Thanks, Scott. Sometimes t's hard to know when knowing the details is necessary to move forward and when it is a way to procrastinate.

    But sometimes if I think about a scene that really feels like "work" it's because I don't know enough.

    So I guess it's about sorting out the procrastinatory impulse from the legitimate need to know.

    I don't think the kind of details I need would result in major character or plot revisions, but they could result in some scenes being more like sketches and I don't want a rough draft that has a bunch of scene sketches strung together. If that makes sense.

  11. Tricia: I don't do word count goals. I just know when I'm working at a good pace and when I'm not.

    Rick: I just ask myself, "And then what happened?"

    That doesn't work for me because, usually, by the time I get to actual prose-writing, I already know what happened. My problem is generally that, while I know the action about to take place, I don't have a way into the scene. Scenes that are just about plot points bore me, so I have to find something else that the scene is about, and write that while also covering the plot point. Sort of.

    Today at lunch I decided to try getting into Chapter Eight, which features a certain Captain Penner. So I wrote "Captain Richard Penner was wrapped in a long cloak of wolf skins over his uniform" and hoped for the best. A few hundred words came after that, but I may just start the chapter over again with the sentence, "The only visible parts of Captain Richard Penner's head were the tips of his nose and ears." Or I might start some other way. As I say, I know what comes next, I just don't quite know how it comes. The how is at least as important as the what.

    Yat-Yee: If nothing else, your ms will be longer and suddenly the story will involve peacocks. I call that progress.

  12. Oh, I love this post! It made me laugh and learn, two things that work wonderfully together.

    I feel like I might have written about 1,500 "next words" last night because my main character suddenly decided she'd like to utilize a greater percentage of her heart but she's not quite sure how to go about doing it.

    And peacocks. Sorry, I had to laugh out loud. In this very manuscript with my increased heart utilizing character I have a description of a secondary character's silk shirt that is likened to a peacock and while it could have turned out to be something I dashed away later on, I really feel it has some artistic merit in the book now and I think I might just have to keep it.

    Thanks for the post!

  13. Great post. I'm a big believer in writing the next word, even if it's wrong. I've even written whole scenes that started with a paragraph of BLAHBLAHBLAH just to get it going.:)

  14. Nothing breaks a block like writing. I've been completely stuck on a ms, with no idea of how to get from here to the ending I envisioned over there, but a simple bout of just writing some junk down fixed that (Write or Die helped, strangely).

    I think I'm saying that you're absolutely right. Write something down, even if it sucks, even if doesn't make sense. Just write.

    I'd never thought about writing a randome word down, though. Thanks for adding another weapon to the arsenal, good sir!

  15. Been there, done that, got the unfinishe dshort stories to prove it.

    For my major work, the trilogy, I have a different approach. It usually involves writing a letter or email to my family. Because no matter what else I do, it all comes back to the novel, and what my characters are doing, and I can't help but report out on my progress.

    So that is how I kick start my writing - by writing something totally unconnected.

    And in between inspirations verbiage once I get started, I clean, do laundry, iron last weeks laundry, and rearrange my sock drawer when the specifics need more thought than staring at the white space on the page.

    I think you're right - any word will do, as long as another follows after. Eventually it will make a sentence, and enough of those make a viable paragraph. Or not - we all like to edit and revise when we can't originally, so at least we're leaving gems for ourselves to correct later - and continue in the writing process.

    Great post Scott. Thanks.


  16. Oh, BTW, most of those letters and e-mails get trashed before they go out because they are just ramblings and confuse anyone but another writer if they were recieved.


  17. I write in big red letters 'AND THEN SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENS' then just carry on from the next bit that I have already figured out.


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