Liam’s bath toys, soggy library books, and the perils of autopilot for writers

Here’s Liam in the midst of his

 What does my little boy’s bath time have to do with writing?

Let me start by describing Liam’s pre-bath routine: once the bath water is running, Liam grabs this basket of toys he has in the bathroom and starts pitching them into the tub one by one. There are about a zillion neon-colored plastic things and rubber ducks, but eventually he runs out. At that point, either I put him into the bathtub as well or he will find something else to throw in. Like the basket. Or the toilet paper stand. Or anything else that’s not nailed down. If we chose to store, I don’t know, a small stack of library books in that bathroom, they would now be a small, wet stack of library books swirling amid his rubber ducks.

My library books would be wet because once Liam is in his everything-in-the-tub mode, it’s hard to stop him. We writer types go on autopilot like that sometimes, too, tossing certain stuff (that description, a character type, certain ways of resolving conflict, chapter openings) into our drafts without a lot of thought to what it’s going to add to the experience. (And let me tell you: even if Liam throws them in, he is not crazy about swimming with library books.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not dissing automatic writing (like freewrites, where you just scribble or type and see what comes out). In fact, I’m a huge fan of zero drafting. It’s pretty much how I manage to get started writing anything.

Autopilot, though, is more or less the enemy. Two-dimensional secondary characters usually get written on autopilot. So does bad dialogue. And I’m guessing that when I can’t really say why I’m writing in first or third person, it’s because I just went on autopilot and did the thing I did last time.

Here’s my (unsolicited) advice: if you realize you just did your day’s writing on autopilot, don’t panic. Just flag that passage and know that, at some point, you need to go back and make sure you’re making decisions, not settling into familiar ruts. For now, you can keep writing; if you’re in the middle of a big project, chances are you haven’t derailed anything by a day of autopilot.

Eventually, though, you’ll need to make sure there are no soggy library books in your tub.


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