I really wish I could remember where I got this advice from, but I think it was an undergraduate poetry class, the sort of class where you learn about all the different formalist things with poetry and then go on to write a whole lot of bad poems, the sort of bad poems that Poet Laureate Billy Collins described as the 200 bad poems everyone has inside them and has to get out before they start writing anything good. The advice was that when it comes to picking a title for a poem, you write down your first idea. …Then another idea. Then another. And another. And you keep coming up with titles until you have fifteen of the damn things. The first few come easily, and they’re often quite bad. Somewhere around 6-10 you’ll have some really interesting ideas, and then around 11 or 12 you just get terrible ideas but you write them down anyways just to get the exercise over with, though sometimes something interesting will emerge towards the end, so stick with it. Just as every person has 200 bad poems in them they have to clear out before getting to the good stuff, every poem has 5-10 bad titles in it that have to be cleared out before a good title emerges.
I think the same goes for a lot of other areas in writing, especially developing characters and plots.
Imagine wanting to write a political thriller along the lines of House of Cards and working on the main character. First idea, he’s outwardly charming, but inwardly ruthless, basically the same guy as Frank on House of Cards. Okay, put a pin in that idea, what’s the next one? Instead of being charming, he’s a known bully, but people fear him too much to stop his march to power. Okay, next. He’s a genuine idealist being corrupted by the political game. Next. Genuine idealist who actually struggles to play the game and isn’t rising in power. Next. Someone with no policy ambitions but has fallen into the job because of their family’s political history. Next. A younger idealist who hates the old guard of his party more than the opposition. An older politician near the end of his career who suddenly decides to say screw it and start acting on his ideals. An older politician who used to be an idealist, but who has just been beaten down and now only cares about protecting his legacy even at the expense of his former ideals. On and on and on, ad infinitum. Eventually we get to a character we can see some real appeal in who doesn’t feel like the same thing we’ve seen over and over.
We can do this with even smaller elements of the character. Let’s say we go with the older timer who is selling out his ideals to protect his public legacy. Okay… what state is he from? He’s different if he’s from New York than if from Florida, West Virginia, Idaho, Illinois, or Alaska. What’s his family like? Wife is dead, estranged from his three adult kids. That’s on possibility. No immediate family, so all he has is legacy. That’s another. Perfectly happy nuclear family with lots of grand kids — makes us wonder why legacy is so important to him. And so the process goes on and one. Maybe we can’t come up with 15 different family structures, but there’s a very strong chance that the first idea is far from the best one.
Gut vs Grind
What I’m getting at here is that the writing process is often inappropriately romanticized. Where do ideas come from? The ether. They just bubble up from inside. You snatch them out of a passing breeze. You can’t just force it, man!”
If you write from your gut, you should be aware of something which not many people like to be told, but which I think we all recognize the truth of after some reflection: Your gut is a lazy cliched hack. …You might not be, but your gut sure is.
If you write only whenever the spirit moves you, you won’t be writing very much, not unless you’re also dropping a lot of psychedelics. And if you write the first idea you have at any moment, you’re going to end up writing the most obvious, cliched, predictable stuff possible.
Your gut likes the familiar and safe. Your gut’s main concern is survival. Eat something strange and unfamiliar and you risk death. But writing is the opposite. Tell a safe, familiar story and you risk death. Your gut answers “what happens next” by looking at what it’s seen before and filling in the most likely, predictable thing. Great for figuring out what comes next if you think about climbing the fence into the lion enclosure at a zoo, not so good for what figuring out what should happen in your story.
The Grind in Action
As an example of the grind being superior to the gut, I’ll give an example from a story I’m working on. The premise is that an adjunct college professor is moonlighting at a small dive bar when the owner/GM goes missing and the professor has to take over, and ya know, hilarity ensues. So it’s the first night when the owner is a no-show, and someone is going to come in to complicate the life of our professor qua bar tender, but who?
So think about the scenario. Junior literature professor is working part time at a bar, and someone comes in. Who should that be?
If your answer was “a student” then you had the same first thought I did, and I suspect the same first thought most of us would have. In fact, it was the first six ideas I had. It took me that many different variations to get to “maybe not a student at all.”
Here’s the process of ideas I had when grinding it out: A current student. An attractive female student. A former student. A student, but not any of his. An underage student with an obvious fake ID. A former student who has now graduated. A fellow professor from his department. His department chair. The Dean who doesn’t know him from Adam. Parents visiting for a Parent’s Day. [Now that this point it occurs to me to have something unrelated to his teaching job, so I just go with something completely wild.] A biker gang. [This inspires a similar, but less fantastical idea.] A couple local obnoxious drunks.
Bingo. Took me a dozen tries to get there.
Our protagonist is unexpectedly put in charge of the bar, so what does he have to deal with? Not the awkwardness of running into someone from the university. He has to deal with being in charge by throwing a couple goombas out. Now I don’t know about you, but I like that idea a lot more. An awkward run-in can happen later.
I know the temptation to go with the first idea is strong. It feels great to see the page fill up with text. And there’s nothing really wrong with just writing as it comes to you — so long as you realize what you’re doing is really just warming up.
It sounds completely counter-intuitive to say that grinding things out produces more creative results but… grinding it out produces more creative results.