There is a direction that bulldozers go. That direction is called “forward”. When you consider vehicles that can look to a point some ways off and decide to just go toward it in a straight line, it tops the list (unless you picked a tank, in which case you’re overlooking the unnecessary military hardware and ignoring the very useful blade on the bulldozer). A bulldozer does not ignore obstacles so much as it sees them, refuses to care, and plows right on ahead anyway.
Let’s face it, one of the main reasons people fail to finish a writing project is that some obstacle pops up (let’s ignore real life intruding and stick to manuscript difficulties). Finding a way past those is a huge help to getting through an initial draft. After that there are plenty of places to find feedback on where to go with it from there. The problem is, no one can give feedback if there is nothing to give feedback on.
What Are We Stuck On?
When I conceptualize a story, I start with a concept and some characters. I get an idea of the plot and I start brainstorming scenes. There is nothing necessarily written down at this point. These are the things that my mind wanders to when idle. Long drives, showers, standing in line at the grocery store, these are all times when a highlight reel of my nascent story is playing out in my head. I’ll go through the same scene multiple times, trying it different ways until finally I can’t conceive of it going any other way. That’s a finished scene.
The problem comes that after a time, my story development has left me with an archipelago of disconnected scenes. I know the opening scene, the climax, the end, and some number of bits and pieces along the way. When I start writing, the opening will go just fine – I’ve played it out in my head enough times that I know how it needs to go. After that I might find myself at the end of the part I know clearly. I can see the next part that I know well enough to write in my sleep, but the path between is filled with unshaped clay, a sodden, unformed lump of potential narrative that explains how where I am becomes where I want to be.
“What comes next?”
This is the question you need to learn to both ask and answer. You know where you want to be, but there is no path that you can see to get you there. Fortunately, you don’t have to see it. You just have to see your destination and keep it in mind as you repeatedly ask yourself “what comes next”. You don’t need a grandiose plan for the intervening parts, let inspiration strike along the way. Let the characters who have run loose in your mind for weeks, months, or even years do what their natures would have them do. Trying to always think what the story needs is cheating. You have the framework of your story already laid out. What you need is to let your characters develop. You do that by exposing them to the pit-stops between the highlights you’ve planned out.
If you can’t answer “what comes next?”, then reframe the question from the perspective of the protagonist. If you get stuck on what the protagonist would do, consider a minor character. If even your minor characters are stuck, either consider what your antagonists would be up to and how that might drive the story along. All you need to keep an eye on is your next little island of story that you already have planned out and who your characters are. Let them become the characters you’ve imagined them to be and keep on moving.
But What About…
Admittedly, this isn’t necessarily an elegant method. You may be stumbling along blindly and overlooking things like continuity, pacing, and characterization. Great! This realization means that you are at least aware of the flaws in your draft. Find a nice safe spot to write them all down so you can go back later to fix them. Early readers are a great source of these sort of critiques as well. Gather up everything you can because the sooner you resolve all those issues the sooner your draft is ready for a proper editor. Writing isn’t like brain surgery, you can go back and clean things up if you make a mess of it in the first go-round.
Sometimes a major construction project can disrupt the local geology. You may find that volcanic activity has caused a change to one of your little islands of known plot. In translating your swirl of imagined action into words, things need to get nailed down. Every so often you’ll find that in doing so, you had to alter little details. That seaside tavern was better suited to the scene you wrote than the dusty crossroads you had always envisioned. You realize that brigands intent solely on plunder would attack from cover with bows rather than stand in the road with swords and announce themselves.
Before you decide that you’ve made some mistake, consider that the best-laid battle plans never survive contact with the enemy. They are a guideline and if you got your story from start to finish, the casualties of the page can rest easy knowing they gave themselves up for a worthy cause. Accept the changes as what your story needed to become and integrate them as they ended up, even if it differed from your initial vision.
Why Not Just Write the Easy Parts First?
I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do this. I’m sure there are plenty of authors who have done so and been very successful. However I can see two flaws with this method.
Imagine that you have gone ahead and written all the best parts…
- You now are writing in between finished pieces. When you catch back up later as you fill in, you have to make sure that you have lined everything up to drop in seamlessly. While this is something that can be corrected later in revisions, it’s like writing prequels to your best scenes. You have to spend a lot of mental energy looking forward to make sure you get the edges to line up.
- Let’s say you’re writing a manuscript that will be six months in the writing. You finish up your highlights in two months. You now have four months left to finish up your novel with all the best parts already written! All you left yourself were the necessary narrative to get between them. While you might one day come to love some of your in-between chapters and scenes, you haven’t been looking forward to them because you haven’t even known what they are until they’re going down onto the page. You have eaten your dessert first and are left with nothing but veggies to eat the rest of the day.
You made a list of all you found wrong. You went back and made all the fixes you could think of. The next step? Crank up the engine on that bulldozer once more and level the grade. Start at the beginning and read your own draft critically. Don’t worry too much about grammar and spelling (by all means, fix anything you find, but don’t obsess at this point), but look at the story. Maybe you changed how a character speaks over the course of the book and you need to update the early chapters to match. Maybe you took a few too many liberties with explaining things and you want to show a bit more, or maybe you showed too much and gave away what ought to have been a surprise for later. Either way, go through and fix what you see that needs fixing, but go straight through so you have to address everything once more, now with full knowledge of what comes later (and feel free to keep a second copy of your manuscript open in another window to use as reference instead of jumping back and forth in one.
In the end, some number of runs through your draft will put it in a condition that you can send out to your editor. They’ll lay down a nice top coat and help you pave it. You don’t want to drive over a road that’s been paved by a bulldozer. Your editor’s steamroller will smooth it out much better.
Nice analogy. As a BETA reader I’m feeling a little guilty at enjoying the story too much to look for any of those bumps that need to be leveled. Truly, there were very few. Waiting for the next chapters to unfold!
Great post. A title for the ages, the kind that can stick with you and be a huge help just for knowing those words…
And, I was worried an article might peak with just that, but this goes further. You captured just how it is, some problems need to be bulldozed past and noted for later, while other moments need poking around one “what if” at a time.
I so wish I’d had this last year, when I got to about 30,000 words (a notorious spot; writers agree) and spent months redoing that chapter and everything around it. Writing needs to work, but more than anything it needs to be *done* so we can get it into shape and learn from it.
Funny, I like to talk about starting each day’s writing as a “scary bicycle,” something we always think we’ve forgotten how to ride. But all that bike needs is to get moving, before it can turn bulldozer right under us.
Glad to help. There are lots of advocates of the “just get it written” philosophy, but I like the bulldozer analogy because it tries to make the process a bit more relatable. Instead of “just writing”, it gives you an idea how to get unstuck, aim for a point you can see in the distance, and just plot a course for it.