Don’t Think!

Recently I wrote an “author’s tip” for The Knight Agency (my agency for YA books, also known as TKA) newsletter. It was a truncated version of what follows:

If I could pass on one piece of advice to aspiring writers, it would be this: Don’t Think! More accurately: Don’t Think While You’re Writing Your First Draft. That means don’t plot, characterize, research, or explore the major themes of your novel while you’re laying down the ideas that propelled you to write in the first place. During that initial outpouring of story, thinking–which includes planning, studying, or otherwise intellectualizing your project–is the enemy. Thinking will have you rewriting the first sentence a hundred times. It will curdle your initial brilliant idea and turn it into a stagnant cliche. It will convince you that your novel is stupid and not worth finishing.

I know. I’ve been there. As an inveterate thinker–that is, someone who solves problems by thinking them through (rather than, say, grasping their emotional import or taking immediate action), my usual desire, when planning a book, is to pin down every plot point, every relationship, every minute bit of research, before I even begin.

To some degree, this is okay. If you’re writing about Tokyo in 1912, as I currently am, you need to know what clothes people were wearing, what the general political climate was, what sort of transportation was used (Here’s a surprise: In 1912, Tokyo was criss-crossed by canals, and the major mode of transport was by boat), and so on, meaning that a certain amount of research is called for. Likewise, although some writers will disagree with me on this point, I believe it is necessary to know in advance of writing anything as long and complex as a novel what the story line will be.

But that is where the thinking should end. After abandoning a half-dozen novels before page 100 because I couldn’t justify their imperfection, I’ve learned that passion, not intellect, is the raw material of art. The first draft of a novel ought to be an exhilarating, thrill-a-minute ride in which your creativity soars, untrammeled, to new heights. Let yourself be inspired by your own words. Fall into your story with the passion of a lover. If you get stuck, draw a line or a series of asterisks, and move on to the next place where you can fly again. Remember, you can correct every mistake. You can rewrite every awkward sentence once you’re finished with the first draft. But you cannot infuse a creative spark into a safe, academic screed. And without that spark, the work will be meaningless, to both the author and the reader.

So to any fledgling writers who may be reading this, I say go! Don’t be sensible. Don’t imagine your success or your humiliation. Don’t analyze. Don’t compare.

Don’t think.

Just leap onto the page, and let it take you on the ride of your life. Believe me, it’s more fun that way.

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