Raymond Chandler once wrote, “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” Lester Dent, in his Master Fiction Plot Formula, wrote that, in the second 1500 words, the author should “shovel more grief onto the hero.”
In one of my writing groups, I have a friend who had been, until recently, struggling to stick with a particular project. She loved her story ideas and dove into them with gusto every time, but sooner or later, she’d get bogged down and become frustrated. As we analyzed the possible reasons behind this one night, hoping to shake her loose from her writer’s block, it became apparent that she was fighting her characters. Since she works in the computer-game industry designing games, she is very good at world-building, she told us, but it was something of a curse for her with regards to fiction, because she needed to know everything about all of it — the world, her characters, the plot — before she started writing. She was, she told us later, strangling her characters.
The rest of us in the group suggested various approaches to help her break free of this, but all of them had one thing in common: she needed to just “let go” and write that first draft, not worrying about how it all fit together, and then make it make sense later, during revisions. She tried very hard to adhere to this advice, but it was still a struggle.
Then, two things happened. My friend started attending a series of author gatherings called Sit Down, Shut Up, and Write (SDSU&W for short), and I made mention of Chandler’s quote (though at the time, I miss-attributed it to Dent). For whatever reason, the dam finally broke for my friend. She was able to shake herself out of her rut and begin performing what she calls “brain barf.” The environment encouraged her, because at these SDSU&W meetings, everyone visits for 15 minutes and then gets to work — no exceptions. It helped that she had others around her doing the very same thing she wanted to do — writing — but, she said, it also helped that I had given her the freedom to let the story tell itself to her, rather than the other way around.
By imagining two guys coming through the door in her story, my friend suddenly had liberated herself from the need to know how everything was going to work; she could just “take dictation” from the world and characters, letting them do their thing without her choke hold on them stifling the process. It was a glorious victory for her (she averages about 1k words on those nights and weekends when she attends an SDSU&W session now).
Every chunk of writing advice out there at some point or another boils it all down to, “just write.” But hearing it and understanding it, living it, are two different things. Beginning writers get caught up in the need to be good from the get-go, but writing is like any skill; you have to be bad at it initially and practice until you get better. No one picks up a guitar for the first time and plays beautiful songs; no one hits a baseball well the first time they hoist a bat, either. Why do we think that we should write beautiful and moving prose the first time we try? The first ten books you write are going to be crap; let them be, understanding that they’re equivalent to hours of guitar or baseball practice. You’re not wasting your time with them, just like you’re not wasting your time going to lessons or the ball field. But in order to practice writing, you have to be able to let go and have the story tell itself.
Even seasoned authors need to remember that the first draft is solely for the purpose of getting the ideas down and doesn’t even need to make complete sense. Just write it and fix it later. But if you’re still struggling to get past the need for it all to “work,” try moving yourself to unfamiliar territory (a coffeeshop or library), surround yourself with other people who are also writing, and best of all, when in doubt about what should happen next in your story, maybe two guys with guns should come through the door.