Saturday, August 1, 2009

Magic Feathers, Magic Bullets, and Double-Edged Swords

Yes, this is a triple-blog-entry day. Tomorrow, there is a strong possibility of another "Pictures of Okinawastan" entry, so stay tuned.

But I had a writing blog entry in mah brainz, and it needs to come out before I finish throwing myself into Playing With Fire. (which is probably going to be done in the next couple of days...again, stay tuned)

Scarlett blogged recently about the concepts of magic feathers and magic bullets. Her commentary can be found hyuh. I've also mentioned this subject from time to time, such as hyuh and hyuh.

Today, I will address something that's along the same lines as Scarlett's entry above, but from a slightly different angle. Much like hers, I'm talking about the dark side of the search for the magic feather: When the search for the cure becomes the illness. But in this instance, I'm not discussing magic feathers as they pertain to characters, but to the writer himself/herself.

In other words: What can I do to make the writing process easier/faster/more efficient?

In my early days as a writer, I tried all kinds of methods of outlining. Anything you can imagine: Old school outlines. Excel spreadsheets. Sticky notes on posterboard. Notecards. I also tried all kinds of other magic bullets that were - in my mind - going to make my story better, more thorough, more...whatever: Detailed character bios. Maps. Extensive back story. Plot arcs.

All of these things had their pros and con, but there was one drawback that they all shared. One single, glaring drawback that reduced every last one of them to festering boils of fail.

Ready for this?

They used
time and energy
that could have been used
writing the story

Time and energy spent seeking a simple(!) solution is time and energy that could have been spent tackling the problem in the first place.

So, I'm going to solve the problem for you: There is no simple solution. It doesn't exist. No matter how many ways you outline, no matter how carefully color-coded your character bio notecards and sticky note plot arcs are, you still have to write the story.

By all means, find the best way for you to stay organized, keep track of your outline if you use one, etc. Organization is certainly important. I'm so OCD about organization it's not even funny. I have Excel spreadsheets that track word counts, chapter numbers, and plot developments. My outline is actually written as an Excel spreadsheet (I'm not kidding).

The key, though, is that it's simply organization, not a magic bullet to make the story simply happen with less effort. I spend maybe a day putting together the initial outline and setting up a very brief sheet to keep track of characters (so Teri doesn't end up with blue eyes in one chapter and brown in another, and Ian's dragon tattoo doesn't migrate from his right bicep to his left). I use the sheet to loosely outline the story, get the sequence of events lined up so that things will make sense, and maybe make a few notes as needed.

A day. Tops.

Anything beyond that is simply - to use a Scarlettism - faffing about. Doing anything but writing for the purpose of doing anything but writing. That's not to say that you need to put yours together in a day...I just know myself, and I know that anything past that is simply screwing around. If it takes you longer to put an outline together, don't worry about it...but be aware of how you're using your time. Is your stack of notecards actually helpful, or would you really be okay jotting the same information - in 1/10 the time - in a Word document so you can get to work writing? Do you really need to go over bullets 20-25 again, or are you avoiding that blinking cursor in that endless void of white beneath the words "Chapter 1"?

Before (and during) any task that relates to your story but isn't actually writing your story, ask yourself - and answer honestly - if it's a necessary step, or if it's just a neatly dressed excuse for not writing. If it is, carry on. If not, you know what must be done.

There are no shortcuts. None.

I take that back. There is one shortcut.


Throw away the notecards, sticky notes, reams of excruciatingly detailed outlines, and character bios. Sit down. Write the story.

"But! But!" I hear you crying out from behind your computer screen. "What if something's missing from the outline? What if I've overlooked something? What if...?"

Just start writing. If you hit a speedbump, adjust your outline accordingly and keep writing. There is nothing so catastrophic that it can't be fixed on revision. Nothing, that is, except a blank page.

The "writing the story" is the one step that cannot be avoided. It's the one step between "idea" and "finished product" that is absolutely mandatory. It's the "taxes" part of "death and taxes". Come to that, it's probably the "death" part, since taxes can be evaded, even if it's not legal. Short of ghostwriting or plagiarism, writing is unavoidable. In essence, writing is its own magic bullet. Without it, your story is literally nothing.

Stop looking for the shortcut. It's right there in front of you. It's in that maddening blank space beneath the words "Chapter 1".

And now that I've gotten this excuse for not working on Playing With Fire for ten minutes out of my head, it's time to get back to working on Playing With Fire.


  1. I totally agree with this one. I learned it the hard way (well almost learned).

  2. I have nothing to add to this except I agree 100% and your festering boils of fail are, paradoxically enough, made of win!

  3. Bang on.


    Totes love you.


  4. Yeah. It's a simple answer but so few people want simple answers. They want egostrokerah and permission to wangst when the only thing capable of getting the book written is BICHOK.

    Too simple for some people. They wanted complicated justification for their non-existent writer's block.