I like shooting guns. I’m not what you’d call a gun nut. I don’t breathe them or anything like that, but I do enjoy putting holes in paper occasionally and don’t get to do it as often as I’d like. I know lots of guys who are crazier about guns than I am, though, and I’ve learned a lot from them about marksmanship and such.
Now, that doesn’t mean I’m some super-sniper. Doesn’t mean I can figure ballistics and trajectories in my head. Far from it. I suck too much at math for that to ever happen.
But, at the same time, I grew up in the South, and I grew up in a family that owned guns. When deer season came around in the fall, I knew opening week meant I wouldn’t see much of Dad. He’d leave before sunup and it would be well after dark before he got home. I’ve never been that dedicated as a deer hunter, but I do like doing it. Took a long time for me to come around to liking it, but I do it when I can.
That means I grew up shooting guns, and I was always a good shot. I’m not saying that to brag. It’s a statement of fact. It’s not something I acquired. If you doubt that, see paragraph two above. Some people are able to do certain things without putting much thought into it. I can’t do math to save my life, but my brother is a carpenter and craftsmen who can do a lot of that kind of stuff in his head. I was always pretty good at lowering my sights on something and hitting it.
Until I started putting too much thought into it.
See, back when I was in the Army, I could hit the three-hundred yard target with open sights. No optics, no 3-9 x 40 scope, no sniper tactics. Just aim and shoot. The way it’s supposed to be.
Then I became friends with the above-mentioned gun crazy guys, the ones who know all about ballistics and trajectories and holding your breath and controlling your heartbeat and I started thinking maybe I wasn’t such a good shot after all and overthinking things when it came to shooting.
The result of that run-on sentence I just wrote? I can’t shoot very well with open sights these days. I’ve been using optics too much, lining up crosshairs rather than my front and rear sights and my open-sights skills have suffered.
I can’t say for sure that the same thing has happened with my writing. I mean, it’s definitely improved, come up to the modern standard. I’m not about to gripe about it or put it down any more than I will about the skills I’ve learned from shooting with optics.
But it does make me wonder if we can overthink things, maybe things that get the Inner Editor nagging at us while we work. So many writing articles out there advise us to turn off that Inner Editor when we write, but at the same time they tell us we’ve got to do this and that to make our writing better.
What’s to keep us from letting that Inner Editor loose while we’re writing and ruining what we’re doing? Can we know too much about the writing process and, as a result, we sometimes get writer’s block because we can’t get past the idea that what we’re doing during that first draft phase just isn’t up to snuff?
I gotta wonder.
I can remember a time when I wrote effortlessly. Well, relatively so, if you get my drift. Writing is never effortless, no matter how good it’s going. But there are times when the words just fly out of the ends of our fingers, when it feels more like taking dictation than creating because the creating part is going so well we’re doing all we can to just keep up with the movie in our heads.
Man, ain’t them times great?
At least until they slam to a halt like a car that’s just hit a concrete barrier.
And we’re left sitting there asking, “WTF?”
We sit there looking at the monitor (or whatever medium you use) and wondering where it went. Now, writing is suddenly like trying to catch smoke. We peer at the words and they’re not that great after all. The blinking cursor mocks us, teases us, says we’re not up to snuff.
We lock up.
“What’s wrong with it?” we ask ourselves. “Where did I go off-track?”
We start looking back over the manuscript, picking it apart, balking at every typo and inconsistency, telling ourselves that the good writing we thought we were doing was really just a pipe dream. Maybe we had too much coffee. Or not enough. Too much sugar on our cereal this morning, maybe we should have eaten eggs and toast instead.
Or maybe we need to slap Inner Editor on the back of the head and tell it to shut the bleep up. Tell it not to call us we’ll call you. Until then, jus’ chill, my brother.
If only it were that easy.
Sometimes, yeah, we need to rework what we did while we were in that fever dream, especially when you write seat-of-the-pants as I do. I deleted entire scenes—literally thousands of words—from the Startup manuscript, rabbit trails that seemed good at the time but didn’t work out or contribute in the end. Nice scenes, for the most part, and good writing. Not to mention good practice at writing. But they didn’t add to the story in any significant way and they had to go. They’re still there, in the original draft, when I want to look at them again. You never know when, on a subsequent edit, they might come in handy again, even if only as a point of reference for you to mention them in the story. Or maybe I can adapt them and use them in a later story. Who knows?
Point being, I can’t come out and say it actually hurts for us to learn the things that’ll make us a better writer. You know, tightening up your sentences, maybe even deleting some of them. Rewording, taking out all the thats you can, stuff like that.
But don’t overdo it. And certainly don’t do it at all during the first draft stage. I once knew a writer who started a Douglas Adams type spoof sf story and wrote thirty pages…and then decided to go back and polish it up.
And then polish it some more.
Maybe change it up here, and that meant changing it there, too.
Three months later, he still had about thirty pages. They didn’t really resemble the original thirty pages, and we could all debate whether or not they were better. But either way, he really hadn’t made progress.
I don’t know that he ever made any.
Don’t overthink it. Just write the damn thing. Let the thinking come later, when you’re done and it’s all done on paper, so to speak.
Meantime, just line up the sights and shoot.
Chances are, you’ll hit your target.