Writing Advice Sucks #2: How forgetting shit might make you a better writer

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Last week I talked about the mechanics of thrillers and writing to trends.

This week I want to talk about why forgetting shit can be really valuable.

I’m the kind of writer who needs an outline. I respect people who can write by the seat of their pants—that ain’t me. My outlines don’t need to be super intense (usually a couple of sentences per chapter), and a lot of times I’ll diverge from them. But I need a general sense of where I’m going.

I learned this as I was writing my first book, New Yorked, which took me five years to finish. I was just writing blindly, and had to keep finding my path. I re-wrote it from the ground up twice. It tried to outline it three or four times after I’d already written it.

I went into my second book, City of Rose, with a solid outline, and it took me four or five months to write.

Which, granted, I knew my character and I found my process, and I had more confidence. But the outline helped a lot.

Remember: writing advice is mostly bullshit and you have to take what works for you and trash the rest. Maybe outlines don’t work for you. That’s fine! But I do have a trick for them. I even found another place to apply that trick, in my research.

(I stole this idea from a friend of mine, who does it for his short stories, which is another application…)

I wrote the outline for City of Rose. Then I threw it out. A few days later, I rewrote it. I did that a few times until I thought it was ready.

That’s the trick: don’t be afraid to trash your work.

Because if you get rid of it, you remember the good stuff, because it’s good. You forget the bad stuff because it’s boring, or not important, or just plain bad. And all the connections that weren’t clicking just yet, you have time to mull them over.

I think the writing/trashing part is pretty important to the process. To get it down on paper so you can really focus on it. And then getting rid of it feels cathartic. Because if you can get rid of it, you can get rid of anything. Nothing is precious.

The good ideas remain. That’s how you know they’re good.

It’s important to note, so I say it again, an outline isn’t gospel. There were a few points where I veered off, or found while writing that something needed to be moved or added or eliminated.

Think of an outline as a roadmap. You can cut around construction or take a longer route to get in some sightseeing—but you’ll arrive at your destination (the completion of the first draft) so much sooner if you’ve got some semblance of a plan. I do, at least.

And by allowing myself to forget stuff, I don’t get wedded to things that aren’t working. That’s an easy trap to fall into. You have an idea, and even if it doesn’t really work, you want it to, so you hammer at it until the square peg fits into the round hole.

Except it doesn’t really fit. It’s easier to deal with stuff like that before you’ve put them into a book. After that, once you really realize it doesn’t fit, then you’re doing triage on your draft. That’s when blood gets everywhere.

I’ve started doing this with research, too.

I keep a Google Doc for every project I’m working on, and that Doc becomes a repository for links and pictures and half-formed ideas. Right now I’m reading a lot of non-fiction books in the course of researching my next book.

I like to set challenges for myself, and my challenge for this book is: undertake the most in-depth and complicated research I’ve ever done for a book, and make it readable. Kind of like what Andy Weir did with Artemis—lots of really intense science and world-building that aids the narrative, rather than detracts from it.

As I’m doing this, I come across a lot of details I love, and want to include, but in the back of my head I know are probably not going to be important to the story.

Those details are mostly harmless. But they can also turn into rabbit holes, where I tumble down and spend too much time there, rather than doing the only thing in this process that matters: writing.

I recently read a non-fiction book that was really helpful, and I took so many notes, stopping every few pages to jot something down—it slowed me to a point that the book became a chore to read.

So I stopped. I read the book. I internalized it and understood it the best I could, but I stopped making myself feel like I needed to produce a book report—to extract every single word that might be valuable.

(Though, I am moving nearly all of my research-reads to eBook, so I can highlight and search. That, at least, is nice and easy.)

But, I think it’s better to internalize the information, and trust that the important bits will settle in, rather than drive yourself nuts feeling like you have to memorize everything.

It’s about trusting yourself. Which is hard! Because every time you start a new book (and someone else said this on Twitter recently but I don’t remember who) it feels like you’re looking at a mountain and also you forgot how to climb a mountain, even though you’ve done it already.

And none of this is to say: don’t take any notes. I still take a ton of notes. My Google Doc for The Warehouse ended up being 70-something pages, and a lot of those pages were links.

None of this might work for you, but if you find yourself losing your path or falling down rabbit holes, maybe give it a try!

Don’t sweat the details. Throw stuff out. Allow yourself to forget. Most of the time what you forget isn’t important anyway.

The good ideas will remain. That’s how you know they’re good.

Last week’s essay went over pretty well. I’ve got more coming up. If you want to keep up (and also get some groovy book recommendations), sign up for my newsletter.

Last week I gave away hardcover copies of The Woman from Prague (winners: Lorrine Thompson and Timothy Weed). I may be giving away more stuff soon and it doesn’t matter if you’re a new subscriber or a newsletter OG, so you might want to get in there.

I’m excited about the book recommendations, and since I’ll be sending out my first newsletter soon, I’ll probably recommend four or five really good ones.

Finally, in the words of Jay-Z, I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man, so I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you the last Ash McKenna novel drops next month and is available for pre-order here.

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