Dana's Dojo, Week 2: Letting Go

Today in the Dojo: The importance of letting go so those 50,000 words can flow.


So, we’re beginning Week 2. By now, the early flush of excitement has probably drained, and it’s beginning to feel like a long, hard slog. You might be at the everything-I’m-writing-is-total-shit stage. If not, you’ll be there soon.

You’ve got to let go.

That’s a lesson I learned from bowling. I tried for months to improve my technique. I worked really, really hard to hit those pins, and ended up in the gutter nine times out of ten. The tenth time, I’d hit a pathetic one or two pins on the fringes. It’s safe to say I was the worst bowler on the circuit that year.

One day, in utter despair, I rolled the ball and walked away without even looking at it. Wasn’t trying to hit anything. Just lobbed it down the center and knew it was going to angle off into the gutter as it always did. I didn’t want to see that lazy curve mocking me anymore. So I was facing the group when they suddenly burst into cheers. I thought they were laughing at me until my mom yelled, “Honey, quick, it’s a strike!” I whipped around just in time to see the last pin topple and roll away. Earned a spiffy trophy for most improved player. And all because I’d given up and just let the ball go where it may. I stopped trying to be perfect. Nobody ever told me that was a path to success.

That lesson is paramount for success in NaNoWriMo: stop trying to make it perfect and just let it go. Just have fun. Forget the stakes. Forget technique. Stop getting in your own way.

I put all of this up here by way of saying: for all I tell you about technique and improvement and the craft, it won’t do you any good unless at some point you say, “That’s nice, Dana” and just go write. You shouldn’t be concentrating on the “rules” and the shoulds and shouldn’ts and what you want this to be and that horrible sense you’re going all wrong. Shut all that up, get out of the way of the story, and just let it go.

The best advice I was ever given in writing was this: internalize. That’s hard to do. So much easier to have Evil Editor Dana hanging over my shoulder telling me what I’ve done wrong. But she gets in my way. She paralyzes me. You’ve all watched figure skating, right? Do you see the coach out there during the Olympic performance screaming at the skater: “No, no, you’re setting yourself wrong! You’re not going to make that double axel! Pull in your arms! Watch those toe picks!” No. It’s just the skater out there, having learned all the rules, maybe thinking she needs to adjust her approach to this next jump a bit, but mostly she’s just skating. She’d fall on the ice in a tangled heap if Her Coach’s Voice was blaring at her the whole performance.

Writing is like figure skating. You spend a long time learning how to do it, a long time learning how to perfect it, learning tips and tricks and techniques and all that rot, you have a coach (or your Inner Editor) screaming at you during the practice runs until you begin thinking of new and creative things to do with sharpened plastic utensils, you read every bit of advice you get your hands on – and then you have to turn it all off. Forget it. Don’t let it enter your mind except for those minor course corrections. When you get to the end of the routine, the big performance, the story, you discover that even though you weren’t keeping that stuff in the forefront of your conscious mind, you’ve somehow managed to pull it off. You internalized the “rules.” They’re second nature now. And, unlike figure skating, we can go back and correct those rough spots where our technique was a little shaky or we fell flat-out. The only appropriate place for your Internal Editor to come to the fore is when you’re revising, and even then, if it ain’t constructive criticism, you need to fire that fucker.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson I have to relearn every year or so. I end up letting Evil Editor Dana perch on the chair next to me and blare away. I want to be perfect so badly I forget how to get out of my own way and just write. I mean, for crying out loud (which I frequently do), it’s a rough draft. Underscore: Rough! It’s allowed to be imperfect. It’s allowed to be unpolished! Flaws can be fixed! That’s what find and replace functions are for – if I started spelling a character’s name wrong, it’s not the end of the world. If I left a plot thread dangling, I can tuck it back into the narrative later. No problem!

And while you can’t see it while you’re yelling at yourself for being The Most Horrible Writer in the World, you’re probably doing fine. You’ve probably got more of the guidelines to good writing flowing through your subconscious mind than you realize.

A friend of mine put it this way after he read the Transitions article:

“While reading, I realized I do the things you describe, but on a sort of unconscious level. Like a trapeze flyer, I work without a net and feel my way along. If I had to focus consciously too much on the mechanics of writing, I think I would lose the thread of my story.

But that’s just me. Every writer writes his or her own way. I prefer the seat-of-my-pants method while others like to proceed systematically. Tomato/tomahto, I guess.”

Thank you, William. Couldn’t have said it better myself, which is why I’m quoting you. (As an aside, if you want some really rich, smooth language that flows like poetry and turns life into lyrics, check out William Starr Moake.)

Let go. Let go of the need to write perfect prose on the first go. Let go of the doubt that this is worth doing. Let go of the fears you’ve got of not making word counts or surviving the experience. Let go of shoulds and musts and have-tos. Get out of your own way.

You can do this.

Dana's Dojo, Week 2: Letting Go
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8 thoughts on “Dana's Dojo, Week 2: Letting Go

  1. 2

    Good advice for working on my paper right now too. Way too easy to be thinking about all those other things I could do to add to it, but really I just need to sit down and crank some writing out. When that happens I’m way more productive than I am otherwise, like checking google+ and seeing you posted this :)

  2. 3

    Hmm… interesting perspective, and makes me think my comment about how writing “just feels like I’m having a conversation. I don’t think about too much.” wasn’t as hopelessly naive as it felt at the time.

  3. 4

    Hmm. I think this is something that RPing taught me to do, although I never realized it. I’ve done text-based RP for years. In RP, you don’t really have time to worry about how awesome or polished your writing is; you just need to write the next part of the scene. If you take more than a couple days at it, your RP partners are likely to start whining and asking where that next post is. So, while I would occasionally drag my feet a bit if I couldn’t quite think of what the character would do, eventually I’d force myself to sit down and write whatever.

    Now that I’m writing something that is longer form, I realize how helpful this was. I hear people talking about the Internal Editor… it doesn’t bother me. I already killed the problem editor years ago. When I’m writing, I’ve got someone in the back of my head checking for plotholes and occasionally asking questions about logic, but as long as those mostly check out, I’m okay. I’m more focuses on listening to the rhythm of the story and having that right. Anything else can be fixed later, because it’s only a first draft. Right now I just want to know where the story will go.

  4. 5

    “TK” is your friend.

    TK is old newspaper layout shorthand for “to come.”

    If you get to a spot where you need a description, and it’s not working, put in [description TK] and move on. Use the square brackets so it’s obviously not a parenthetical, and you can search for them later. Don’t have a name for that NPC yet? [TK Doe]. What car is the guy driving? [Make/model TK].

    This frequently helps me get past the hangup of “I need to describe this room, but it’s not coming out right.”

  5. 6

    My best fiction writing comes from my characters telling me what happened, not vice-versa. In the late stages of recently writing my MS thesis, I discovered that my most lucid explanations came when I let the data talk to me, much like characters might, and tell me what was going on. Only when I finish those kinds of conversations is the Inner Editor particularly helpful.

    I knew about this for fiction writing, of course, but it was a surprise when I finally realized it was true for scientific writing as well.


  6. 7

    I like your advice better than the advice I’ve seen on the actual Nano site. A lot of it, even the weekly ‘professional’ advice is really heinous. I feel like I’m being talked down to. I really didn’t like Letham’s week 2 advice of ‘ignore mundane details.’ In fantasy, the mundane details help ground the story. The best fantasy I’ve read has a really perverse focus (sometimes) on the mundane details. My boyfriend and I were just talking about this last night. It’s a level of commitment to realism that makes the characters seem like people, not caricatures. You can add that someone is going the bathroom without getting too into detail because, you know, people and animals, have to get rid of waste. But his ‘never mention doors’ advice gave me the perverse inspiration to make sure I mentioned my characters do, in fact, live in a world where people go through doorways. I got a very sweet looking door out of the deal.

  7. 8

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. I feel like the more practice I get at writing, the more I enjoy the spirit of NaNo rather than the challenge itself. I find the resource forums incredibly useful, but I like to use NaNo as more of a guideline to encourage my own writing rather than fuss over their rules. If it gets people writing, that’s great, but I think a lot of people really get bogged down in particulars, judging by all the panicked questions of “omg, is this okay?” The pep talks this year are less than impressive as well. I find that reading writing blogs has been much more helpful and given me better advice than their pep talks so far.

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