Lessons From The First Day Of Writing

The canyon walls cast long red shadows, and Gerald walked among them. He staggered, dragged the rifle behind him, the iron sights cutting a line in the stone like a dragon’s tooth. His hip burned; the fabric of his clothes lay matted against the wound where the bullet had grazed him, and with every step it pulled at the scab and stirred fresh blood. The pain went all the way down to his foot. Parts of his leg were numb. The rest of it felt like it hot coals were nesting in the marrow of his bones. (Gerald could almost hear the sizzle-pop of fat. Like bacon in a skillet or the popping of corn.)


And that’s how The Devil’s Gunsmith opens.

Not looking for critiques, by the way. If you like it, feel free to say so. If not, I ask that you politely keep your jaw shut. I’ll need criticism when this is done and I’ve gone over it with a rake to get out the burrs and knots, but until then, I just need to write it.

That’s what this post is about. After one day of writing (3k in the can, wooo!), have I learned a damn thing? Am I reminded of anything? You bet your soggy bottom I learned stuff, even on that first day of writing.

What did I learn? Ten lessons. No particular order. Saddle up, Nancy.

1: Bite-Sized Pieces, Nom Nom Nom

Write in small pieces. As Dan O’Shea says, write like you’re writing a book full of connected flash fiction. (Paraphrased, but the wisdom is his.) That’s not to say a chapter can’t be 3,000 words or 5,000 words or whatever, it just means — break it up on the pages. Separate it out with some asterisk breaks, page breaks, something. Why do this? What’s the value? Three things.

One: it’s easier to conceptualize on the page. You also move more quickly through the narrative. Less stress. Smaller bites and bytes. Swifter passage through the story. A big bag of win, right there.

Two: it’s easier to edit when you go back. You write a big honking chapter with big honking paragraphs, and it gets difficult to find the threads and extract them. Smaller pieces are like LEGO bricks: remove, replace.

Three: it’s easier to read on the page. I have no scientific proof of this, but I know my eye gets weary if I’m reading a chapter that goes on endlessly. Example: I love David Simon’s Homicide like you wouldn’t believe. But it has few breaks. It just goes and goes and goes like that goddamn battery bunny. It’s compelling reading, so I don’t mind, but the part I do mind is when I have to put the book down. I have nowhere to stop. No natural resting place for me and my eyes. Which means that when I go to pick it back up again, I’m half-lost. I’m forced to forever begin again in the middle of the book. It’s like a highway with no rest stops, no exits until the end.

2: I Love Having An Outline (Make Love To The Outline)

I love having an outline the same way I love having a map, a GPS, a cell phone and a knife in my car. These are all elements of comfort and safety. Do I need them always? No. Am I glad I have them? Lawds, yes.

This is how the day of writing works: I get out the outline. I open it. I leave it. Then I open the novel, and I start writing. The outline portion that comprises the day’s writing is, what, three lines? Gives some tentpole details, but not much more. It’s like a touchstone. An anchor keeping the boat from floating too far. I only needed to refer to it once or twice — “Oh, what was that thing I wanted to do?” — and that was that.

But what it did behind the scenes was wonderful. It gave me comfort because I knew if I needed it, I had a flashlight in the darkness. I also knew that I’d planned far enough ahead that I was aware of the general direction in which I was headed: even if I was straying, I knew how to find my center and get back on the road. So, to reiterate: I love, love, loooove having an outline.

Oh, another great thing: the outline makes me worry less about the next day’s writing. Which means less stress and mental baggage going into that morning (and we writers already have enough stress and baggage, thanks). I know what tomorrow brings. No need to worry about it tonight.

3: You Are Not The Outline’s Prison Bitch

As noted, the outline for the day’s writing is, what, three lines? A few terse descriptions, a handful of tentpole details. This is not the defeat of improvisation. This does not prevent riffing. The outline comprises only the sensible order of events so you know where you’re going — it fails to comprise all the things that make a story a story. The outline is mostly for the plot, not the story. And this is a good thing.

Were you to outline any book or movie, you’d find that what ends up on the page is inert: it’s largely dead, defunct, robbed of its magic. The magic is on the page, man. If the art in this lurks anywhere, it’s there. Waiting in the places where the outline will forever fail you.

The outline doesn’t handle dialogue. Or character gestures. Or a turn of phrase.

The outline fails to encompass all those details, all those brush-strokes.

The outline is your map. The map doesn’t show the trees or the secret roads. Neither does the outline. It’s a map that works when you need it, and stays quiet when you don’t. It’s not Ikea directions.

Jazz musicians still have to know how to play their instruments. They still have to know the difference between music and noise. They still have a sense for how it all can come together.

4: Now Is The Time To Play With Language

In my opening paragraph, you see the end line, blah blah blah, sizzle-pop of fat. It’s an egregious line. Too poetic, I think, and it is gumming up the works. I’ll cut it eventually, just to keep things moving. But now is the time for that kind of experimentation. A flourish here, a “color outside the lines” moment there. Hell, I’ll probably cut nine out of ten such instances, killing the darlings for being too precious, too preening, too “ooh look at me!”

But some might stay. Now’s the time to play around.

Experiment a little bit. Just to see.

You never know.

5: First: Eat Breakfast

Oops. Yeah, I didn’t do this. I wrote until 10AM and then realized, “Oh. Oh.” My stomach was displeased. I’m actually lucky I made it as far as I did without starting to get uber-hungry, but thankfully my body and brain didn’t engage in a bloody coup. So, hey! Head’s up: eat some fucking food next time, asshole. And don’t eat a lot of carbs. Especially sugars. The last thing I want is to start getting groggy. Gotta be alert.

6: Repeat After Me: “Conflict And Question, Conflict And Question”

What’s the conflict?

What’s the question?

What’s the conflict?

What’s the question?

Readers must be driven — they are cattle, you’re the cowboy. Drive the herd, goddamnit. You do so with the whip and the lash of, respectively, conflict and question. (Another word for question = “mystery.”) A reader is driven forth by wanting to know the resolution of conflict and wanting to know the answer to questions. Who killed this person? Who is this? What is so important about the red dress? Why is he speaking in code?

Is he going to die here?

Will he lose her forever?

What will happen if the bad guy steals back the Brass Donkey?

And so on, etc. forever anon.

7: Dialogue Is Tasty

Really just a corollary to the “bite-sized” bit, but dialogue is easy to write, easy to edit, and easy to read. Readers will find themselves skipping big hunks of description if they see dialogue on the page. Nobody wants a conversation interrupted. Not in person, not on the page. It flows nice. It plays elegantly in the mind’s ear. Good writing is as much about the mind’s ear as the mind’s eye. How does it sound?

Write lots of dialogue. It works. Sure, sure, you like setting, you like description.

You’re not writing an academic paper, Wendig.

You’re writing entertainment.

8: Questions To Keep In Mind

It’s nice when a post of mine actually continues to help me out. Again, I remind you that I wrote these posts for me first, you second. (Sorry.) This one — “Six Questions To Ask As You Write” — helped yesterday.

9: Just Write, Asshole

Lessons and advice and blah-blah-blah. Still, the best advice comes down to: just write. Yeah, I like to keep all kinds of shit in mind, but if that stuff ever starts to bog me down, fuck it. Kick it free. Shake it off like a dog shaking fleas. You can always write now, edit later. Sure, the preference is to write cleanly now to minimize editing later. Still, when you gotta ignore this stuff, ignore it. Oh, speaking of ignoring stuff…

10: The Wireless Router Has A Magical Button

That button is labeled: “Internet On/Off.”

You see where I’m going with this.

Click it. Shut the Internet up for a while.

Which reminds me —