Six impossible things

Doing it

There is a thing my exercise coach occasionally says to me that is deeply annoying because it is so very, very true:  Knowing how to do exercises does not make you fit; you have to actually do the exercises.

This turns out to be fundamentally true of a huge number of real-life skills, from cooking to piloting an airplane to brain surgery. It isn’t enough to know the theory behind how to do things; if you want to be even halfway competent, you have to practice.

Which is not to say that theory is useless. There are quite a few physical exercises that can mess up your muscles, joints, and tendons fairly badly if you (or your coach) don’t have the theoretical background that tells you how and how not to do them, and why you should or shouldn’t bend/stretch/lift in this or that particular way.

The basic idea applies to writing as much as any other skill. It’s just a bit more difficult to apply. If you do situps, pushups, or squats wrong, it usually become obvious fairly quickly – you can see it or feel it yourself, or an even mildly knowledgeable friend will point out that your form is off, and if neither of those happens and you keep it up, it starts to hurt. It’s pretty hard to ignore shooting pains in your shoulder/hip/knee/back when you’ve screwed up the mechanics of your form.

Writing doesn’t come with such inherent markers. It’s perfectly possible to spend months working on something where you’re so focused on, say, structure that you don’t even notice that you are reinforcing your tendency to under-describe places, or get vague and hand-wavy whenever the action starts. Because there aren’t any physical signals to make it obvious that something is going wrong.

The closest thing writing has to exercise’s ow-ow-ouch-I’d-better-stop-doing-this is writer’s block. Your keyboard or pen won’t give you an electric shock when your characters start going wooden or your plot starts to resemble fishnet stockings, but if you’ve gone far enough off the rails, sometimes your backbrain will shut things down and refuse to cooperate until you figure out what the problem is and how to fix it.

Far too many writers give up at this point. The inspiration fairy has wandered off, they feel, so they set the project aside and start something new. Very occasionally, they get enough practice that by the time they run across the unfinished manuscript years later, they’re enough better that it is obvious what to do, so they finish it. More commonly, they end up with a huge stack of works-making-no-progress and nothing whatever that’s finished.

Other writers work at the stuck bit for a while, but give up when they realize just how much time and energy and effort it is going to take to fix the problem. Some of us get to this point and spend months resisting the massive rewrite that fixing things is obviously going to take. My personal experience is that this is a) pointless (if it is clear that I am going to have to rewrite fourteen chapters to fix the situation, hunting desperately for an alternate, easier, less time-consuming fix will not work), and b) inescapable (by this time in my career, I know that when I realize I need to rewrite fourteen chapters, I will have to do it…and I still resist doing it for months on end). About all I can do is stubbornly keep coming back to the work until the resistance gives in and I actually start rewriting.

When you notice yourself repeatedly getting stuck on the same category of problem – it’s always the transition scene, or the action bit, or unpacking the neutronium-density summary, or whatever – it may by time to do some deliberate practice. Because knowing what the problem is, and knowing eighty-seven different theories about how it ought to be done, is not enough; you have to actually do the fixing. And all the theoretical knowledge in the world won’t tell you how to decide whether, in this story with your characters and that situation, you need to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was raining on Mungo that morning.” Nothing beats actual writing.

And this is where differences among writers really come into play. I purely hate exercises and prompts; I want to do my “writing practice” by writing pay copy if I possibly can. So I can’t exactly make tested recommendations. Also, some “writing practice” is best done by diagramming an action scene as if it were a football play, or drawing maps, or making a picture-board, or watching TV with the sound off (or the picture off). It depends on what you feel you need to learn to do.

What I can say is that practice is important; that you need to decide what you need/want to learn; and that you then need to think about and design some way that you think will help you learn it. Maybe that means figuring out how you would go about explaining and teaching your ten-year-old self how to do what you do now; maybe it means taking a class from someone; maybe it means starting a writing journal in which you alternate trying to write William Faulkner’s stories in Hemingway’s style and vice versa; maybe it means trying to rewrite “MacBeth” in haiku; maybe it means writing a test story in a genre you hate.

Whatever it is, figuring it out isn’t enough. Once you know something that might help, you have to do it.

  1. Reminds me of the old dictum that you have a million words of crap inside you and you have to write them all out before you can produce anything worth reading.

  2. My stuck/resistance spot frequently comes from realizing at some point in the writing process that the ending I’m headed for is crap. I also suffer from weak motivation (The driving force for the main characters in two of my larger works is simply that they want to go home. It worked for Dorothy, I guess, but….)

    I can’t think of any exercises one can do to come up with better endings. Being told to “come up with a dozen different ways to end the story” doesn’t help when I can’t come up with a single decent one.

    • Who said they have to be decent?

      This sounds like a brainstorming exercise, which means that ANY ending is worth listing. After you have the dozen different ways, you figure out which ones are decent. (See our host’s recent post on brainstorming. :))

    • …when I can’t come up with a single decent one.

      Er…how do you know they’re not any good? I’ve been told that often the writer is the worst judge of his or her own work. So, I just wanted to check: are you alone judging your endings? I tend to rely on my first reader to point out to me where something isn’t working.

      • If the writer thinks the idea sucks, it doesn’t really matter what others might think; he’s unlikely to get very far working toward a goal he’s unhappy with.

        Which is not to say that outside input might not be useful, perhaps in getting that list of a dozen up to 20 or more. The notion being that if you get all the crap ideas out of the way, something better might come through.

  3. I get stuck from one of three causes.

    1. Static friction, where I need to just push myself to start writing, because it’s easier to keep going once I’m in motion.

    2. Need to scout ahead, where I have to noodle/brainstorm/outline the next scene or chapter or several chapters in greater detail before I can tackle actually writing them.

    3. Took a wrong turn, where I have to go back to the wrong turn and rewrite from that point forward.

    The trouble is figuring out which kind of stuck I’m suffering in any given case. Because the three kinds of stuck all look alike at first, and the three solutions are all different.

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