To Get to the Other Side

I’ve run into a lot of walls in this life. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I’ve physically and literally run into walls, doors, rocky outcroppings, and once a gentleman of surprising breadth whose friends called him “Mac.” Do this enough times and, if you have any survival instinct at all, you develop a certain level of caution. You slow your step, pay attention, reach out to feel your way before you plunge headlong into the dark. This is smart. It is, in fact, an essential part of not being an idiot. But it’s also not necessarily the best way to get through walls.

I always feel a little shady handing out writing advice. After all, if I was sure of the alchemy that brought a book from idea to manuscript, I wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of Book 3 with fear in my eyes, right? But this is sound advice and it’s advice I myself need to remember so I’ll offer it up to you.

When I was writing Shadow & Bone, my mantra was “Just finish.” Let’s call this the Get to the Other Side Philosophy. Get through the wall. Get over the ravine. It doesn’t have to be pretty or clever or smart, you just have to get there. When you’re on the other side, looking back at the work you’ve done, you can take the time to refine, revise, obsess. But first you have to make it there.

Recently, a friend was dealing with the daunting process of writing his first synopsis. How to begin? If doctors are taught, “First do no harm,” then writers should be instructed, “First just write crap.” Inelegant? Perhaps. But you didn’t come here for the petit fours, and the business of writing occasionally calls for a battering ram instead of a polite tap at the door.

Being cautious is wise. Being tentative can be outright dangerous. Being cautious is judging the gap, then making the leap. Being tentative is judging the gap, second guessing, slowing your momentum, toppling into the breach.

When writing a first draft, write with abandon. Write fast. Put your head down and charge. I write with an outline because it makes it less likely that I’ll get stuck. But even while writing the outline, I’m just trying to get to the other side. If I get bogged down, I move on to the next thing. Then I go back again and again, filling in the blanks. I move quickly because it helps me to outrun the voice in my head, the voice of doubt and judgment and nitpickery.

In a way, writing asks that you be young, that you be fearless in the way that you were before the world taught you caution and diffidence. Sometimes, the wall is weak plywood, sometimes it’s sturdy oak, but very rarely is it solid brick. Take the bruises. Do some damage. The other side is closer than you think. When you reach it, look back. See? That door was just a wall until you barreled through.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “To Get to the Other Side

  1. selithewriter

    When I first began this post, I was like “I don’t agree.” (not really because I didn’t want to hear you out, but because I cannot, for the life of me, crap out 10,000 words that sound more intelligent than a ESOL second grader). However, as I read on, I see you make a good point. When you write, it’s more to “get to the other side,” and whether you achieve this with small goals (as I do) or the ENTIRE CHUNK OF MANUSCRIPT (as NaNoWriMo writers do), we begin for the sake of finishing. And when you forget that, you’re on hiatus😀

  2. Exactly! I often feel intimidated by those tweets that are like, “I wrote 5K words today!” because that’s not the way I work. But it’s really about not getting stuck, about getting out of your head and shutting off the internal editor enough that you can get work done instead of freezing up.

  3. Oh man. This was the best post ever and EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now, as I’m knee-deep in a first draft. Drafting is so terrifying because, as you said, there are so many opportunities to start doubting yourself and your story. I agree with you — barreling through that wall, with abandon, is the best way to go.

    You rock.

  4. This is exactly what I need to read today! I’m writing in my first draft, and have found myself toppling into the breach way too many times. I just need to shut out the doubts and plow through.

  5. Claire, I know what you mean about all those possibilities. I’m trying to learn to just put them down and work through them that way. Emy, you are going to rock your draft. I’m about to embark on Book 2 revisions so I’ll see you both on the other side😉

  6. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

    I was feeling like crap this week because of the whole “she finished her entire novel in two months” and “oh, you’re still in chapter seven? I’ve heard of authors who can round up a good first draft in a couple of weeks.”

    Question (and this might not be related at all): when you first wrote the story, did you bother with research at all? I’m writing about a time period/culture I know a bit about, but sometimes I feel as though I’m not covering all the angles.

  7. This is one of the tough things about being involved in the writing community online. We end up comparing ourselves to others too much and it just gives that critical internal voice too much fodder. Sometimes, it can be really good to unplug. (Harder to shut out in the real world😉

    As far as research goes, everyone is different, but my first (and VERY rough) draft was all about character with minimal world building. I hit the emotional beats and the major plot points, but it was really just a very elaborate outline with some big questions and options left open. I dug into my research before I began the second draft and it actually changed the narrative quite a lot. If you’re lucky, your research will inspire and excite you.

    Again, don’t get bogged down. World-building doesn’t happen over night. (Good gravy, did I just say Ravka wasn’t built in a day?) Immerse yourself in your research for a set period of time, then emerge and make yourself start that next draft. Figure out where the holes are, lather, rinse, repeat. Leave your perfectionism behind.

    Face the page alone every day, know that there will be highs and lows, feast and famine, be nice to yourself, and go for it!!

  8. Excellent message. What I found helpful to me was to think of my original draft as “Zero” where, as you say, the beats can get down. Then going back to start the world-building and such is the actual “First” draft. The freedom of thinking that way was empowering. I’m interested to read more of your thoughts on writing now. Thanks!

  9. Yes! Every day I tell myself two things: (1) writers write; and (2) I can’t edit a blank page. There is no solution but to power through. I find it very difficult to read most how-to books on writing for the sole reason that I learn by doing, not by reading about doing. This post was inspirational. Also, I run into things a lot, too.

  10. “I can’t edit a blank page.” So true! I may have to tape that one above my desk.

  11. Pingback: On First Drafts and Wordiness « Claire Legrand

  12. Pingback: Leigh Bardugo: Author of The Grisha Trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising

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