Just Go

James Scott Bell


I love writing about the craft of fiction. I love it because I had to teach myself how to write back when I was being told writing could not be learned. I had come to believe that (about 90% of me, anyway) because I’d taken a workshop in college with Raymond Carver, and I couldn’t do what he did. I didn’t really know that what he was doing (literary short stories) was clearly different from the kind of thing I wanted to do (e.g., Raymond Chandler). I just thought I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Anyway, you wake up one day knowing you have to figure out how to write or something inside you will wither up and die. So I set about to see if writing fiction could be learned, and I discovered it could. Along with good writing books and studying bestsellers, I started to get it. And after I got published, I started to teach it.

For me there are few things as enjoyable as learning a new technique, or getting a different perspective on an old one.

It’s kind of like golf. Golfers are always tinkering with their game, trying things out, seeing what works. It can begin, if you don’t watch it, to drive you a little bit mad. As you’re getting ready to tee off, you might find yourself thinking of the 22 most important things at point of impact– and immediately freeze up.

Which brings me to the point of this post. When you write, you have to write freely. You can’t let a lot of craft knowledge freeze you up.

Sometimes, those who are writing their next novel put too much stress on all the things they think they should be doing, and end up not doing much of anything.

When you write, write. And try to get a first draft done as quickly as possible. It’s best to concentrate on only a few basics and just go.

1. Make sure the stakes are high enough for the Lead. I advocate “death overhanging” as being the key to this. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological. If you look at the most popular novels out there, one or all of these are at work in the plot.

2. Make sure the opposition to the Lead is stronger than the Lead. Only then will readers truly be “worried” enough to read on.

3. Make sure your individual scenes are packed with tension or conflict. That means you never have a scene where everything is hunky-dory. At all times, in some way or other, there is worry, fear or outright confrontation.

And that’s about it. There will be more work to be done, of course. Especially upon revision. But as you go through your first draft, let these fundamentals guide you. Don’t freeze up thinking about myriad things.

Just go.

It’s between writing stints that you study and learn and adjust. A good golf teacher will tell you never to work on your swing in the middle of a round. Finish the round, and then go over to the practice tee and work on things. Review your fundamentals and if need be consult a teaching professional.

Keep learning, keep practicing, but when you write, write like it’s play. Get caught up in what you’re doing.

You writers out there, what do you concentrate on when getting that first draft down?

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25 thoughts on “Just Go

  1. The “just go” advice is something I’m going to take to heart for novel #2. To do that just go forth and write thing, I need to outline better before first draft and research better before first draft.

    One of the things that made manuscript #1 take so long is not outlining carefully. It caused many fits and starts while writing the draft because my mind was teeming with absolutely too many story angles. It’s one thing for your story to take an unexpected direction, but entirely another (and unhelpful thing) to be pulled in 50 million directions because you didn’t make those decisions before you came to the page.

    So many stories. So little time! It can psych you out if you’re not careful.

  2. The golf analogy works. Instead of “keep your left arm straight,” try “put your rear end in the chair.” Instead of “keep your eye on the ball,” work to “keep the primary conflict in mind.” And, like golf, although often there’s frustration involved, sometimes you hit one right down the middle of the fairway–in this case, you write a great scene or chapter–and it keeps you coming back.

    Thanks, coach. Want to play a practice round together sometime?

  3. Jim, I was so bad at golf that I finally wound up hiding my clubs so I would never find them and be tempted to go back out for another humiliating public experience. I hope my writing never comes to that. Your “just go” advice is spot on.

  4. BK, that’s good advice. One can “just go” without any preplanning, but there will be a lot of rabbit trails. For some, that works.

    Doc, I’ll play a round with you anytime. You’re right about that one shot that keeps you coming back. When we write a great scene, are caught up in it, look at it and think, Hey, that’s pretty good! — that’s what keeps us coming back.

    Joe, it took me a couple of years of practice to get to where I could go on a “real” course and not stink up the place. I started by hitting whiffle golf balls in the front yard with a 7 iron. I once took a big swing, lost the club in the air…it flipped end over end as my young son and I watched it…and landed between two parked cars. My son cracked up and said, That was awesome. Do it again!”

  5. Miniature golf is my game. Can’t remember the last time I played.:) I like those short putts that take me through all kinds of mini challenges. Those short putts remind me of scene writing.

    I’ve discovered during the novel I’m currently writing that using my Neo by AlphaSmart is helping a lot. I’m not letting myself freeze (and I use to)because I’m not editing as I go along.

    I’m also not writing in a linear way. Does that make sense? I’m just writing scenes. Now when I have to put that all together after the first draft I may look at it and wonder “what was I thinking?”

    Come to think of it, Jim, is there a recommended way to get that birds eye view of how it all fits together?

    Thanks for the encouragement

  6. I have tried so often to “just write”, if you’ll pardon the split infinitive, but the perfectionist in me never allowed that. Your post, in particular the advice “not to let knowledge of the craft freeze you up”, has stirred something – feels like I could use this to tell my inner perfectionist to shut up and let me get on with it.

    Thanks for this! :°)

  7. Great points – especially the encouragement to just go – write the first draft freely and quickly. When I’m absorbed in the process, that happens and it’s wonderful. On days when it’s a struggle – not so much. The tip about developing a strong antagonist resonated with me. My focus has been to make my protagonist active, compelling and believable. Need to balance that. Thanks.

  8. Jillian, I agree. The AlphaSmart is a great little device for writing because you can only see a few lines.

    As for bird’s eye view, I’m a Mac user and I love Scrivener for that very purpose. You can write scenes and summaries to your heart’s content and then switch them around.

  9. Good advice. When I’m not being driven by a deadline, I obsess endlessly about the opening page and first chapter. So I definitely need to “just write” during those times. When I have a deadline, I’m much better at getting past my first page/first chapter “block.”

  10. I have a neurotic tendency to revise as I go. I can’t move on until I’ve made a paragraph look presentable. I’m trying to get over myself and quit the “overparenting”.

  11. TL, I hear you. I love openings. But it’s still best to press on, finish, and only then revisit the opening. Many times, dropping chapter 1 and starting with chapter 2 works wonders. Even so, you’ll know a lot more and can tinker with the opening then.

  12. Wow! It’s great to read another’s thoughts. The struggles us writers go through to get to our end road, is truly a long travel. I have been struggling with my own writing for a while. I decided at one point to take a course taught be a published author. In the end I felt more detoured from writing cause I couldn’t follow my professor’s writing style. The writing bug in me wouldn’t stay quiet for long. It always resurface in me. Then I find myself trying to write again. The urge to write is something I decide I can’t silence and don’t want to. I owe myself that much, try to write.

  13. Good points, Jim. I try to concentrate on the basics that you and other great teachers have shared over the years: dialogue, plot, tension, etc. Later, after the first draft, I’ll go back and clean it up. The first go-around is not pretty, but I get it on paper and then move on.

    Have a great time on the WD Webair. Sorry I’ll miss it.

  14. at Glen Eyrie I heard you say similar things, and I wanted you to know that I’ve taken them to heart. What I learned from everyone there has let me get to the point where all of a sudden I have a story arc and 12000 words. And I just wanted to say thanks.

  15. The golf analogy is likely tiresome to the non-golfers but the parallels resonate.
    Have observed several friends get lost in analyzing the mechanics of their golf swing and lose focus on balance, rhythm and tempo. End result…bad shots and bad play.

    Writer’s can do the same. Get lost in craft aspects and lose sight of what makes it work. High stakes,compelling opposition with rampant tension and conflct.
    Perhaps it is easier and we can learn to write because it is more static and cerebral than golf. We have unlimited Mulligan’s and do-overs to rework and apply craft to our first drafts before they head down the fairway.
    BTW – picked up your book on revision and am enjoying. Good info and entertaining style. Has had me laughing a few times.
    Thanks

  16. Troy, I like to lightly revise my previous day’s work before moving on. But that’s as far as I go until I’m done with the first draft.

    WordsFreeMe: You feel that way ’cause you’re a writer. I went through exactly the same thing when I started. You’ll get there. Keep writing.

  17. Mark, first drafts are almost always, um, not as good looking as we’d like. Getting it down is all important. Thanks for the good word.

    darien, that’s fabulous. Thanks for the confirmation.

    Tom, thanks for that. I think the book will help when you get that first draft done. A lot of writers go at revision haphazardly. I want to help them get at it systematically.

  18. Your “Just Go” advice is something I’m doing for the first time in my WIP. I’m just putting my backside in a chair and writing. I’ve found that writing in longhand helps turn down that internal editor in me so that I can get down the first draft, and like others here, I write in scenes rather than linear.

    But the thing is I’ll have my first draft by the end of the month which is a new development for me.

    ‘Writing isn’t hard; it is putting your backside in a chair and writing that is difficult.’
    The War of Art

  19. I agree with what you said we should concentrate on and I’ve tried to do that, but I can’t say I’m always successful. I do fairly well with #3, but I struggle more with 1 and 2. I won’t bother to give you my excuse for that.

    When I write, one of the things I focus on is theme. The theme isn’t always clear at first, but when it is I begin writing with it in mind. The theme of my WIP has to do with rebuilding family relationships. The main plot deals with finding the family of a child who has lost his mother and who only knows his father as “the bad man.” In keeping with the theme, the subplots deal with other characters who are also struggling with rebuilding family and debating whether they should.

    I also try to keep it in mind that relationships are more interesting than what people do.

  20. This is a brilliant blog post and I’ve got it in a tab so I can click on it as I begin my new WIP. First drafts are painful for me; I adore revising and editing, when there’s already a half-shaped lump of clay on the wheel. And every time I jump into a brand new draft, I feel myself freezing up. Dreading.

    I now feel better armed. Thank you. 🙂

  21. James Scott Bell, you are my hero. I just finished Plot & Structure, and I’m amazed at what I’ve learned from you. Thank you!

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