Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to Do Your Worst

Originally published on my website on 11/23/10 (www.lisalregan.com)

I read an article in Writers Digest once about how to beat writer’s block. I remember exactly one thing from that article which has served me well through the years. It was a quote from Raymond Carver. Incidentally and probably unfortunately for me, I haven’t read anything by Raymond Carver. I hope to remedy that one day. Anyway, the quote was this:
“When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

In other words, to jumpstart your story, put something outlandish in the mix and see what happens. You might not keep it in the final draft but it might just get the juices flowing again. I’ve done this both literally (i.e. an actual man coming through the door with a gun in his hand) and figuratively (i.e. something completely outrageous plot-wise) and it really does work. This is probably the best piece of advice for jumpstarting your story I’ve ever read.

I tried doing that with WIP-1, the work I’m totally stuck on, but the problem with that book is that there are lots of men with guns coming through doors and lots of outlandish things going on so I actually can’t think of anything unusual enough to jumpstart THAT story. But I’m still working on WIP-2.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had writer’s “block” per se. I’ve had paralysis for sure. I’ve had crises of confidence which caused paralysis. I’ve had awkwardness. That happened to me last night. It’s been a very bad few days for writing—holidays coming up, family things to take care of, work, sick child—so last night I thought, “Let me just get one small scene out of the way.” It was almost all dialogue, how badly could I screw that up? I was very tired, knew I should go to bed. I knew that if I was going to spend fifteen minutes writing a scene there were probably fifty other things I SHOULD be doing other than that. Housework left undone. Bills left unpaid. Emails left unanswered. But that’s the thing. If you never take that fifteen minutes, your book never gets written.

So I did it. I got out my pen and paper and went to work. It felt horrible. It felt like the most awkward piece of writing I’ve ever done. But I kept going because I know that I can edit it or even write a whole new version later. Incidentally, I reread it tonight and it’s not nearly as bad as I thought. Most of it will probably end up in the final draft.

That leads me to the second best piece of advice about writing that I’ve ever read and this one I’ve read in various forms from various sources and basically it comes down to this: just keep going. Push through. Keep writing. Just do it. Get it out. Get it on the page. It’s good advice. Because you’re going to spend hours and hours revising and editing later before you come up with a viable draft. So do your worst.

Have a man walk through the door holding a gun and then do your worst.

3 comments:

  1. This concept, oddly enough, reminds me of the newspaper jumbles. Follow my logic for a minute and I'll elaborate. You get a bunch of letters like 'PTUDIN'. Now if you are like me and can't immediately see the real word mixed in there you'll begin the descrambling of the letters. It becomes a brainstorming session between the piece of paper I'm scribbling on and my brain. I'll traverse through a dozen iterations before I come to the conclusion, 'Pundit'. More importantly though, I had to start somewhere. I had to write down that first mixed up bunch of letters that I knew was nowhere near a real word, but needed to be written down to get my brain jump-started (to use your words.) So yeah, I definitely agree... get the pen flowing, write anything. The brain has a funny way of connecting the dots when you do.

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  2. Paralysis: check.
    Crises of confidence: check.
    Awkwardness: check.

    I like the "have a man walk through the door holding a gun", and if that doesn't work, there's always the woman holding a machete, the child holding a cage-with-something-in-it and - in real emergencies - the giraffe holding a banana!

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  3. Mike: I LOVE that analogy. So true. That actually helped me over the weekend when I was struggling to write a scene!

    K.C.: hah hah, I love it! Especially the woman holding a machete.

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