NaNo Tip No. 10: Don’t Skip the Tricky Bits

I hope you all saw Scott’s tip yesterday, the first of a series on meta-documents. Though now that I use Scrivener, I no longer use meta-documents. Or, rather, I do but they’re all incorporated into the one Scrivener document so it doesn’t feel like lots of different documents.

But I digress: on to today’s tip which has nothing to do with meta-documents and also kind of contradicts my previous tip about using square brackets. It emerges from a conversation I had with the marvellous Sarah Rees Brennan. It turns out that she does not skip the boring or tricky bits but instead bribes herself into writing them. Her reward is to write the fun scene on the other side of the tricky bit. So if she doesn’t write the scene she’s been avoiding then she’s not allowed to write the scene she really wants to write.

There are many reasons for doing this but the most frequently cited one is that if you skip all the hard bits—as I advised you to do in the square bracket post—you may never finish the book. As Zeborah puts it:

It means I write all the easy parts of the book first, meaning I have to write all the hard parts later in a single chunk, meaning I probably won’t finish the book. Whereas if I force myself to write entirely in order, I can use a future easy-and-fun scene as a reward for getting through a hard scene.

Another reason not to skip tricky scenes is that sometimes you don’t know whether a scene is going to be hard until you’ve written it. I can’t tell you how many times a scene I was dreading has turned out to be easy and vice versa. A slightly spoilery Liar example after the cut:

In the third part of Liar there’s the climactic scene in Yayeko Shoji’s apartment between Micah and Yayeko and her mother and daughter. This scene was not in the first few drafts of the book and was suggested by Karen Joy Fowler and my wonderful Australian editor, Jodie Webster. As soon as they said it I knew they were right. It was exactly what the book was missing. However, I wasn’t sure I could write it. I thought it would be ridiculously hard. I whinged to Scott, who told me not to be a wuss and write the damn scene, as I have told him many times.1 Which I did in about half an hour with no difficulty at all. It’s probably my favourite scene in the whole book.

What if the “hard” scene you’re skipping is just as easy to write as that one was? What happens when the “easy” scene you write first turns out to be really hard? Will it put you off ever writing the “hard” scenes?

Obviously all of this depends on what kind of writer you are. It will also depend on the book. Sometimes scene skipping is just the ticket. Other times not so much. Sometimes it will turn out that the reason you’re skipping the scene is because it doesn’t belong in your book. Rule number ten of Elmore Leonard’s writing advice is to skip the boring bits.

There you have it: don’t skip the tricky bits! (Unless you need to.)

  1. We get to trade off on who is bad cop and who is good. Oops! TMI. []

16 comments

  1. Jennifer on #

    I dunno, I kind of like your bracket idea for things that would require a lot more work/research in order to be written. Which, odds are, you aren’t going to figure out exactly how a bomb works within the 15 days you have left to write during November or whatever.

    Now, the sucky thing is that you’ll have to go back and add it in IF you get to the point of rewriting it, but at least you didn’t stop doing NaNo because you thought, “Crap, I have to research explosions now….”

  2. PixelFish on #

    I think mixing this rule with the prior one works. The brackets rule is for in-depth research-intensive bits that would require you to derail your current momentum onto another track. Writing the tricky bits is where you keep on bulling your way through the story, even when you don’t want to. So I don’t see them as contradictory, just situational.

    (I had to skip a scene…I realised I had put in TWO shop scenes right next to each other. One was merely tying through a thread from something my character’s mother had said earlier, but was non-essential to the plot. The other was absolutely essential to the plot, which was good, because it was the more fun scene to write anyway. I kept getting stuck on scene one, and realised it was a case of Chandler’s getting people in and out of rooms but with no consequence. So I axed it.)

  3. wandering-dreamer on #

    I know that I’m in the tricky spot now where I need to go back in and put more stuff in (this has got to be the first time in my life that I have underestimated how long a story will be) and I’ll probably have to bribe myself to get going on it. Once I get into it I know that it’ll go fine, I’m just too intimated to start!

  4. Rhiannon Hart on #

    I’m all about the bribes. I don’t skip unless it’s for research, and only then if I’m on a roll. And I’m the sorta girl who likes to research, so it’s never a pain.

    Massive props to you and Scott. These are great tips, thank you!

  5. Jonathan on #

    I’m a huge fan of at least attempting the tricky bits knowing that I’m coming back to them. At the very least it provides a springboard from which to flesh out and tighten up (can you do both at once?) those difficult scenes. Like you said, you never can tell when the tricky stuff turns into easy stuff and vice versa so you might as well get in there. Of course, that’s what works for me. I have yet to try to write a novel out of sequence.

  6. Andy on #

    RE: “the climactic scene in Yayeko Shoji’s apartment between Micah and Yayeko and her mother and daughter”–I’ve read it at least twice, and I’m still not sure what really happens! But, I think, considering the rest of the book, that’s kinda what you’re going for? :)

  7. Eve on #

    Not sure if Scott knows this, but his site is apparently “NSFW”…
    I tried to check out his post, and this is the error I got:
    URL: http://scottwesterfeld.com/blog/?p=1899
    Rating: Dangerous
    Threat details: Verified fraudulent page or threat source.
    This is according to “Trend Micro Incorporated.” :( Makes me sad, I’d like to read his tips.

  8. Brynne on #

    I’m a fan of the write-it-straight-through method. For this year’s NaNoWriMo novel I outlined extensively in addition to keeping meta documents (which I normally do anyway) so even if I knew a scene was going to be difficult, I knew what came next and that somehow just made it easier. There are a couple places at the end, though (I pumped out a 57,000 word first draft in six days…so the rest of WriMo is my EdMo), that I know are in desperate need of attention because of the “hard to write” factor. I think (I hope) it’ll be easier now.

    This novel didn’t have a great deal of hard bits, but the last one I wrote had a scene where I knew I would have to kill off one of my absolute favorite characters. I thought I would enjoy the experience, but I ended up making myself cry and having to stop at the end of the chapter because it was so painful.

  9. Team Toshi Banana on #

    That is really interesting advice. I think both ideas make sense. Maybe the square brackets thing is for details you would have to decide on, like a character’s name, and the advice about just writing something would be for a scene that you are not excited about writing. I’m definitely going to use this technique while writing my NaNoWriMo novel!
    I have been reading all the NaNo tips, but I didn’t think of commenting until now. Thanks for the great advice!

  10. V on #

    I’m at the point where all the scenes seem hard to write and watching TV shows that I previously wouldn’t have touched with three brooms stuck together with masking tape is starting to look like an appealing option if it means I don’t have to sit down at my desk.
    Also, that last sentence should probably be three separate ones.

  11. Keith on #

    I like that payoff idea. It’s always good to be able to give yourself a congratulatory pat on the back. And even if it’s a terrible first draft, it is done and out there. Tasty ice cream treats would probably work too right?

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