Free Advice: Writing Whilst In The Weeds

F**k Frost If you’re in the restaurant biz, you’ll hear it: “I’m in the weeds.” It’s waiter-waitress-cook lingo for, “I can’t keep up with my orders or my tables.”

I like the image. So I’m taking it. Mine! *swipe*

Writing is an act of crawling through the weeds.

If you’d prefer something a wee more romantic, fine: writing is the act of wandering through a dark forest.

Me, though, I like the weeds visual. Belly sliding against the wet ground. Feeling along with just your hands. Nettles stinging. Bugs crawling. What lies ahead, even in sun, remains obscured by the thicket.

For me — and, as always, Your Mileage May Totally Vary So Shut Up About It Already, YMMTVSSUAIA — writing is always this, forever this, endlessly this. No matter what the project, at some point you have to get down on your belly and slither through the mud and the grass, and you can’t really see what’s coming, all you can do is pull yourself along and hope that you come out safely on the other side without contracting, I dunno, bog herpes or something.

For the most part, I like being in the weeds. It’s isolating in a good way. It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. You get muddy enough, you feel like you’re really doing the work.

Problem is, you can spend too long in the weeds. You can lose your way, or feel as if you have. You stay too long down there on your hands and knees, you start to feel lost, disoriented. Anxiety and depression might start hunting you, a stalking hound just out of sight. Losing all sense of perspective isn’t good for you, which means it isn’t good for the story. And I assure you, the story is more important than you are.

So, I’ve concocted a few ways that I use to get out of the weeds. Do these things, or don’t do these things. Use them or discard them.

Tentpoles

I dunno what a “tent” has to do with “weeds,” and really, it’s too early for me to think about it. Maybe you pitch a tent somewhere in the weeds. Not sure, and I don’t care.

Point is, a tent can’t stand without some kind of tentpoles. You need to figure out what events in the plot or elements in the story must exist for your story — i.e. “the tent” — to stand. List them before you start the story. You need at least four to really make this work, I think, but you might do a dozen or more.

You might say, “Tom Shoots Evelyn In The Face With A Dart Gun.” That’s a tentpole, because your story can’t continue until that event occurs. Without it — and without the three other tentpoles — the tent is really just a blanket.

You don’t even necessarily need to put them in sequence. Just listing them can help. Point of this is that, when you’re feeling your way through the stagnant water and biting chiggers, you have the tentpoles to grab. Use them to pull yourself further. They’re markers. You grab one, you can tick it off the list. You tick one off the list, you know you’re closer to finishing this process and getting out of the weeds. That’s only a good thing.

Outlines, or, “Leashing the Butterfly”

This is the next step above “tentpoles.” Some writers don’t outline. Maybe you’re one of them.

I used to be. I used to think writing was this magical organic process — even whilst maintaining it as a craft and not an art, I still had this idea that the story would be best when it flowed from my fingertips. You can’t leash a butterfly, and so you cannot leash a story.

Bullshit! I’ve learned to leash the butterfly.

I’m now a proud outliner. The outline is more than just a handful of tentpoles. It’s a map. It’s cartography: you’re charting the territory early, so that when you crawl through it you know the landmarks and the trails. You can and will still go off those trails. You’ll still find that the story wanders away from the borders and boundaries and clearly-marked paths. That’s okay. But you’ll also find it’s easier to find the path again when (you guessed it) you’re stuck in the weeds.

Here’s the thing, too. It’s easy to assume that an outline is really just a dictation of the plot: you detail the sequence of events in order, and ZZZzZZzzzz, Christ, that’s boring.

Except, it’s not boring.

And, better yet, the outline isn’t just a sequence of events.

Okay, listen. A story is essentially two things on the surface. Things Happen (or better still, People Do Shit), and then, People Talk About Those Things. That’s it. That’s the surface of your story. You can’t do differently. You can’t really write a story where no variation of people doing things and then talking about them isn’t on the menu, because then it’s called “poetry.” (Hah! See what I did there? Silly poets. I kid!)

But, that’s just on the surface.

Below the surface, a lot more is going on. And your outline can and should account for the bugs and beasts that crawl in the clay below your squirming belly. Okay? For instance, when Lance and I talk about the script, or when Marty and I talk Shadowstories, it’s more than just, “Here’s what happens next.”

Each scene, each event or piece of dialogue, is burdened with doing a lot of stuff. It has to carry the ball forward on a number of fronts — especially in a script, when you have less than 120 pages (or thereabouts) to hammer home all the Awesomeness you want to hammer home. (As a sidenote, I will one day buy an ancient mansion and refer to it as Hammerhome. Or, perhaps, Hammarheim or something. Maybe even Der Mallethaus.) An “event” in your plot has to convey and move forward a character’s arc, it has to fire on the themes of the piece, it has to say something beyond, “Tom glumly fingers his prostate” or whatever is happening. Each scene is a multi-level structure: only one level is above the surface, and that’s What Happens or What People Talk About. But a lot goes on beneath the surface.

When you figure the outline, you figure what goes on above and below the surface of the story.

It provides a map that gets you out of the weeds. Anytime your hand falls on a toppled log or a grabs hold of a stubborn root, you know whether or not it’s all part of the “plan.”

The Bible

No, I don’t mean that you should read the Good Book. I mean you need to write your own.

The more work you do early on — think of Tentpoles as first tier, Outline as second tier, and The Bible as third tier — the easier it becomes when you’re in the weeds, because you’ll spend less time asking, “What now?” while down there.

What goes in your story bible? Anything and everything. A character quote. Description of a house, down to the light fixtures. A quick character sketch, literally or figuratively. A cool comment. A snippet from a poem you think speaks to the themes of your piece. Whatever. The more thought and effort you put in early, the less you have to worry when finding your way through the muck.

Kill Your Distractions

This is an easy one. Writers love distractions. Writers, for whatever hell-fucked reason, will do a lot of things not to write. All the way down to, “I think I need to clean the iguana’s cage. I do not yet possess an iguana, so I will spend the next week researching iguanas so, when I buy one next week, I will know how to properly care for my new iguana. I will name him Trogdor, or perhaps Fluffy, or even President Eisenhower.”

Cut that stuff out. Me, I have to turn off the Internet. I have a button on my router, and I just punch it, and it turns the Internet off. It’s a great power I wield, and I like to imagine that when I do it, none of you people can access the Internet, either.

The more distractions we have, the more time we spend in the weeds trying to get our bearings again and again, over and over, blah and blah.

The Wind-Up Brain

Your brain is a wonderful machine.

It’s a little like a computer.

Well, mine’s not. It’s more like a microwave.

Still, the point remains the same: you can set your brain to a task and then walk away from it. I’m not kidding. Try it. Before you go to bed or when you wake up in the morning, take a minute or two to frame a question or problem you’re having with your current story.

Examine it hard. Think the unholy shit out of it.

This is like winding-up a little toy.

Then, let it go. I mean it. Just loose it upon your brain. Stop thinking about it. Your brain will do some magical business. Your unconscious or subconscious mind (I dunno which is really responsible) will open a door, and a bunch of gnomes will run out, and these gnomes will attack your problem with little fidgety fingers. They’re basically doing the mental equivalent of unknotting a shoelace.

I promise you, at least half the time, you’ll wake up the next morning or go to bed and have a small epiphany.

Just don’t forget to feed the gnomes.

Stand Up, Dummy

Okay, sure, you put away the distractions, but you do have to know when to once more distract yourself.

Part of this is setting milestones, and those milestones can be bound up to your Tentpoles or the Outline, or maybe it’s just hitting a word- or page-count for the day.

Once you hit it, make sure to… well, stand-up. Literally. We’re in the weeds for a lot of the day as writers. Get up. Stretch your legs. Look above the nettles, and dry your pants off. Take a walk. Read a book. Eat a sandwich. Drink some tea. Whatever. Just get up. You’re the one in the weeds. You’ve chosen to be there.

So choose to get out of the weeds now and again.

Hopefully, these tips have helped.

If they haven’t, fuck, don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to hear your problems. I’ve got enough of my own. I don’t even know who you people are. Get out of my house. Why do I hear a llama bleating? Shoo!

5 comments

  • Coincidentally, I was actually arguing with someone else today about outlining. I don’t actually think that works for everyone. I prefer to do what I think of as a “soft outline.” I flesh out my characters and jot down notes on how they might interact with each other. I start with a premise, think of a good conflict with that premise and basically go from there. Sometimes I know what’ll happen at the end, sometimes I don’t.

    I don’t think there’s any One True Way to go about writing. I really think each writer needs to figure out what works for them.

    • John:

      Well, as noted, your mileage may vary. :)

      Yes, everybody writes a different way, and One True Way does not exist.

      My One True Way used to not involve outlining.

      As it turns out, My One True Way was actually just me being lazy.

      The materials I turn out are stronger the more I know going in than if I go in half-cocked. I resisted it for a long time, but for me, the proof was in the pudding.

      All that being said, if you ever decide for certain that screenwriting is the way you want to move, then you’ll definitely need to become comfortably with outlining — in that industry, you’ll find that certain things are expected.

      – c.

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