Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writers: Get Out of Your Head

By Jamie Todd Rubin, @jamietr

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Jamie Todd Rubin to the blog today. I was introduced to Jamie through a mutual friend (the always lovely Juliette Wade), who said "you have to meet Jamie, he's great." (Paraphrasing a bit, Juliette is much more eloquent than I). I did and he is, so I'm happy to have him here talking about something I think we all struggle with from time to time. Knowing what to do with all the writing advice we get.
Jamie is a science fiction writer and blogger with stories appearing in Analog, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine and 40K Books. He wrote the Wayward Time Traveler column on science fiction for SF Signal, and occasionally appears on the SF Signal podcast. Jamie also writes occasional book review and interview columns for InterGalactic Medicine Show.

His interest in the history of science fiction led him to begin his Vacation in the Golden Age, a series of biweekly posts reviewing each issue of Astounding Science Fiction from July 1939 through December 1950.

He is the Evernote Ambassador for paperless lifestyle, writing frequently about going paperless.

Jamie lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and two children.

Take it away Jamie...

It has been my experience that the science fiction and fantasy community is the most helpful bunch of people I’ve encountered when it comes to new writers. The (sometimes unspoken) motto of the community is “pay it forward” and it has been this way since before the very first world science fiction convention back in the summer of 1939. One side-effect of this pay-it-forward mentality is that it feeds on itself. A newbie writer who makes a few sales will also want to pay it forward. The result of this is an ocean of advice that--if you are not careful--you can drown in.

After I completed James Gunn’s excellent online workshop in short fiction in the summer of 2008, I felt that I was drowning in all of this advice. When I sat down to write a story, I would face the page, write a sentence, and then think: Did I hit on at least three senses there? Does that sentence hook the reader? Does it lead naturally into the next sentence? Am I still inside my main character’s POV? Did I say “he shrieked” instead of “he said”? Am I using too many attributions? Does that dialog sound like a substitute for exposition?

With all of this going through my head, you can imagine that writing slowed to a crawl. I turned to my friend and fellow science fiction writer Michael A. Burstein and the advice he gave me has made all of the difference since. He told me that it was perfectly natural to go through this process and that over time, these questions that were slowing me down would fade into the background and become a natural part of my writing experience. It reminded me of a baseball coach who was constantly telling us to “get out of your head” when we were slumping at the plate.

Getting out of your head doesn’t mean forgetting everything you’ve learned about the craft of writing. It just means allowing your experience to apply it naturally to what you write--as opposed to forcing it into your story. This lesson was reiterated to me recently with a story that I sold to Daily Science Fiction.

I’d felt like I was in a slump--same as I was back in those days when I played baseball. I was overthinking my stories. Normally when I write a short story, I have an idea and a notion of how the story will end. The rest I make up as I go along. But during this slump, I found myself trying to be clever. I was outlining every scene, tying things together in a neat bow before I wrote a single word. The result, as you might imagine, wasn’t very good. Rejection slip followed rejection slip. It was like striking out at the plate and I could hear the coach (this time, it was Michael Burstein’s voice) saying, “Get out of your head.”

What did the trick for me was an exercise in my local writers group. We had a “prompt” session in which we were given a prompt and had something like 20 or 30 minutes to write a story from the prompt, after which we would read what we wrote to the group. The prompt we received that day was to begin a story with the following piece of dialog: “You’ll never believe what came in the mail today.” For me, the exercise was like magic. Knowing I had only 20 minutes to write a story kept me out of my head. I focused on writing an amusing, clever story making the most unexpected use of the prompt that I could think of.

When I read the story to the group, I was surprised by the positive response it received. I tucked it away for a while and almost forgot about it.

Then one day, a few months ago, I remembered the story. I pulled it out, re-read it, made some changes to it that made it feel more like a complete story. (Remember, I’d written it 20 minutes.) I then send the story to some trusted writer-friends, Ken Liu and Damien Walters Grintalis. They responded with some good feedback and I made a few more changes and sent the story off to Daily Science Fiction. Word of the sale to Daily SF reached me a few weeks ago and the story will appear there in the coming months.

This experience made me look back at the other stories that I’ve written (all of them!) and the ones that I’ve sold (half a dozen of them). And do you know what I found? Those stories that I sold were ones that--it seems to me--I was able to get out of my head during the writing of them. In many ways, they felt easier to write than the stories that I hadn’t sold. I struggled less with them. I suspect this was because I was applying what I’ve learned over the years more naturally, as a part of my whole experience, rather than trying to force it onto the page.

This trick of getting out of your head and allowing experience to take over was not an easy one for me to learn, but like anything, the more I do it, the better I get at it. These days, I try my best not to overthink my stories. I’m not looking for neat bows, I’m looking for good stories. And what I am really looking for are those stories that seem to write themselves. Those stories are the sweet spot, the home run of the writing game. When I am working on a story that seems to be writing itself, I am more confident because experience tells me I’ll sell it. And the confidence I feel makes it easier to work on the story.

I still read lots of posts on how to improve my writing. I still go to my writers group and ask fellow writers to look at my stories. I still seek out advice on how to improve. But I am learning to take the advice and absorb it into my experience, rather than attempt to apply each piece of advice to every line in a story. I get out of my head and let writer inside me take over.


  1. This is actually quite comforting; I'm horrible at following checklists because I'd rather just write.

    It's helpful, too. I have at least one story which is getting strangled by a nice tidy bow. Thanks, Jamie!

  2. Thanks, Jamie.

    More inexperienced fiction writers may not be skilled or confident enough to apply your technique, but more experienced wordsmiths should try your technique...

  3. Wonderful advice! Thanks for sharing. I'm currently in a Creative Writing program and I am inundated with "what you SHOULD do" and "what you should NOT do" in every class. However, when it's all said and done, stepping outside of yourself and your head knowledge and writing with your gut usually turns out the best work. You can always edit later!


  4. Thanks for sharing a "balanced" approach. A very good reminder. Everything in moderation and go with your gut...(and then revise!)

  5. Makes a lot of sense. Very similar to what we say in our writers' group which is to tell your Inner Editor to shut up when you are writing the draft. But your way is catchier. ;) Not easy to do, but a helpful reminder.

    We also do weekly hour-long word wars to help us focus on cranking out story and not worry so much about doing it "right." Then when time is up, we share our counts and add up the numbers from everyone who joined in to give our group total. Lots of fun to see how much we can do as a group in a short span of time.

  6. I needed this post. I have been over thinking my writing a lot lately. I knew I had to improve my craft, so I have been reading every piece of writing knowledge in site, and because of all this new advice, I have been dissecting every sentence I write on the page. Oh what POV am I in? oh no, that's an adverb, I'm starting to tell here. It has taken the fun out of the writing to be honest, none of that spontaneous "genus" is there anymore. I guess you need to learn it, then forget it, and hope that just knowing will improve your writing a long the way.

  7. I find trying to turn off that internal editor like being told 'not to think about the Pink Elephant in the room'. It's great advice, but hard to do. But I am encouraged you say it gets easier over time. I just hope not too much time! Thanks for your encouragement. I also love the pay it forward attitude.

  8. You have NO IDEA how much this helped me this morning! I swear, I try to absorb every single bit of writing advice and apply it to my work, but darn, it gets a bit overwhelming. This is a good reminder to let it flow.

  9. I've feel I've been reading myself into writer paralysis and so needed this post too. My latest analogy relates to learning dance steps. My brain knows what it wants my feet and arms to do, but there is a definite disconnect. Same with getting that story down.

    Thanks for a great and much needed post. Best wishes with all your endeavors, Jamie :)

  10. Thanks so much for sharing. This was the perfect writing advice for me today.

  11. Great advice! As Sean Connery said in the movie Finding Forrester: The key to writing is to write. You write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head.

    Also, nice shot of the Royal typewriter! Love me some manual machines!