Monday, March 21, 2011

Writing is Like Fixing the Toaster

Last week I was asked to help update another blog I post to. We were trying to add a couple of new features to the sidebar and the person who set up the blog template has a really busy schedule and didn’t have time to update it. Unfortunately, the blog was not a standard out of the box template. It was written in straight HTML so I couldn’t just find the widget and add it.

The good news is that the code was done by a professional coder, so it was neatly laid out and well documented. The bad news is that I am not a programmer. So I did what I usually do when I’m trying to fix something. I dug around inside and started playing with stuff (being careful not to permanently change anything until I’d figured it out.)

First, I found what appeared to be a complete section of code for one of the existing sidebar boxes, and deleted it. Then I looked at a preview version to see what I had done. Turns out I hadn’t gotten all the code for that box. I tried it again, and appeared to have succeeded. Next I reset the code to its original form and pasted in the code I had deleted before—creating a second copy of that box. With a little more messing around, I was able to create a new box, add the spacing images above and below it, and eventually paste in the new code for the widget I was adding.

My wife likes that I can fix most things around the house. Again, I follow a pretty standard procedure. Poke around, being careful not to break anything, see if I can figure out how it works, then determine, whether or not it is something I should try to fix myself or hand off to a professional. I recently saved about $500 by replacing the circuit board in our furnace myself. (While being EXTREMELY careful to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that could explode, suffocate, burst into flames, etc.)

Partly I’m telling you this to brag a little. I mean seriously, when you find something that’s broken and fix it to like new (or better than new) status, you want to get all the applause you can. Am I right?

Mostly though, I’m telling you this because I think it relates to writing. The curse of many writers (especially those that are new to the craft) is that we want everything to come from our imagination to the paper perfectly the first time. We read a book we like, and in our minds we imagine our favorite author penning those words exactly the way we read them on the first try.

In reality, writing is a lot more like dabbling in programming code or fixing an appliance. Let’s divide writing into a couple of sections.

1) Before You Open the Hood—When fixing an appliance, the first thing you do is a little research. Any information available on-line? It’s much easier if you can find instructions (and warnings) from people who do this a lot and know what you are about to try. When I added my widgets, I Googled the issue I was looking at and got some good help. 

In writing, this is the part where you play with the story in your head. Do you know what is going to happen? What if you did this? What if you tried that? Recently you read a great book where the author did a, b, and c. Any chance you could use that kind of set up in your story? Do a little freestyle internet research, where you start with one thing and follow various links to see what you can find. I can’t stress enough the value of thinking before writing.

2) Dig In—This is the part that scares most people off. Both in writing and fixing things. Do I really know what I’m doing"? What if I screw something up?

In fixing something, the first and foremost goal is not to screw it up any worse than it already is. So a little caution is a good thing.

In writing, you have no such worries. You started with a blank screen or piece of paper. At the end of the day, the worst thing you will have is a blank screen or paper. As long as you put down words, you have something to work with. To quote some editor, “You can’t edit nothing.” But you can always improve what you have written, Will it be perfect? Not if you’re like me and 99% of the rest of the writers out there. Will it even make it into the final version? Maybe not. Will it take you a step closer to the final version absolutely.

The beginning of a story can be one of the most daunting things for a writer. Until you put a word down on paper, the story can be perfect inside your head. As soon as you start writing, problems arise. What makes it even worse is that often you don’t know your characters, voice, or even exactly where the story is going until you’re well into it.

A good friend of mine, and fellow critique group member, Annette Lyon, doesn’t put chapter numbers on her first few chapters for this very reason. It lets her dive into the story without the anxiety of thinking, “This is the first word, sentence, page, that my reader will see.” Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. You can figure that out later. The key is to get writing.

3) Figure Out How It Works—This is actually my favorite part of writing. You are not finalizing anything. You are not committed to any course of direction. You are just fiddling. The other day, the door that goes from our garage to our house stopped swinging closed by itself. My wife pointed this out to me, and after a week or two of complaining every time someone forgot and didn’t close the door all the way, I examined the mechanism. It turns out there are two spring-loaded hinges. So are they broken now and need to be replaced or can I fix them? Well first I have to figure out how they work. There has to be some way to loosen and tighten them or you would never be able to get them on an open door in the first place. Hmmm, a hex bolt. What’s this little pin do? Sproing! Ahh, it holds the spring in place.

Same deal with your writing. So often we stop because we are afraid of drawing our character wrong. But remember, there is nothing to break here. The worst that happens is that you erase and start over. Character boring? Try a new voice or angle or gender or age. Give her a twitch or a have him be starting a new diet. Play with your story until you figure out how it works and where it’s going. Stuck on a scene? I have the perfect fix for you. Add this note. “Something cool happens here.” Then continue writing the part you know. The magic is that later in the story you will discover precisely what should go there.

In a nutshell, give yourself permission to make mistakes.

4) Fix It—If you have made it to this point, hurray! You are well on your way to success. As long as you actually have written an entire story to fix. If you have written three pages and are now going back to edit those pages, stop it!!! Didn’t you read anything I just said? How can you fix your story when you haven’t put in the blood, sweat and tears to discover how it works?

Get as much of it done as you can before going back and fixing. One you do start fixing, the the key is to view your story like a house full of furniture. Move it around. Try a new look. Keep playing until it feels right to you. then move on to the next room. I tend to do a lot of this.

She peeked around the corner. Her feet kicked up a loose piece of carpet and a beetle scurried out from the dirt.

“Do you hear anything?” he asked.

What were they doing here anyway? If her mother knew what she’d been doing. She would be toast.

The ancient hotel creaked like a battleship in a rough sea.


Hmm, what if I build up to the bug, but make it even creepier?        

“Do you hear anything?” he asked.

The ancient hotel creaked like a battleship in a rough sea. “No.”

What were they doing here anyway? If her mother knew she’d returned to the abandoned building, she would be toast.

As she peeked around the corner, her foot kicked up a loose piece of carpet and a nest of tiny black spiders darted out of the darkness up the wall and across the floor. One climbed up her shoe and leaped onto her bare ankle.

Same basic story, but we move things around a little, fix some grammar, and add a nasty little detail to crank up the tension. You can do the same thing with entire chapters. What if the police chief doesn’t learn that his wife is missing until after he discovers the note?

Not everything I try to fix works out. Sometimes I have to give it up as a lost cause. That may happen to your stories on occasion too. But that’s okay. It’s part of the process. By getting rid of the junk it’s easier to discover the gems. The key is to not let the enormity of the project, your inexperience, or hiccups in the process stop you. The only book you don’t learn from is the one you never try to write.

And remember, it’s by giving yourself permission to fail that you allow yourself the opportunity to succeed.


David Glenn said...

Good advice. Thanks for sharing. And can you let me know how I can sign up for this storytellers thing in May?

Jeff Savage said...


Good to hear from you. You can register here.

Deb said...

I'm currently in the "Fix It" stage. So far it's been less about moving the furniture around and more about refurnishing the entire room. But, hey, like you said, hurray for making it this far :)

Blue said...

Jeff, I have concluded that you are hands-down the best advice-giver around. I love all your posts. Thank you for the time and wisdom you share with everyone on the internets.


Donna Weaver said...

Great post. For me, as I've been "fixing" my ms, I've also been learning along the way, so it's like I'm doing what Dave Farland suggests and have various types of edits. The order just had no rhyme or reason as to order.

Deirdra Eden-Coppel said...

Hi Jeff,

I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Fantastic Fantasy Award.

Go to and pick up your award.


M. G. Pereira said...

"Until you put a word down on paper, the story can be perfect inside your head. As soon as you start writing, problems arise" My personal favorite part, both of your post and in writing. I feel the story looks worse than it did in my head once it's on paper, but then I can make it look better once I start editing. Yay editing haha

Kate said...

Are you interested in doing some school visits and a signing at our local library? Email me at kate at katrinapalmer dot com

Out of the Best Books said...

I totally agree that it scary to get the stuff from your brain to paper. Thanks for the sage advice.

Betsy Love said...

Jeff, I love your blog post. I soooo needed to hear that today as I'm writing a great story, but so far the words stink! But if I don't get it on paper, I can't fix it later. 63,000+ words later and it needs major fixing. But at least I have something to fix. Thanks for the encouragement!

Betsy Love said...

By the way...How DID you get the fish to swim around your book. That is just plain awesome!