Friday, July 1, 2011

The Magic Bullet

The Magic Bullet. It’s a trope common to fantasy and horror, the projectile that stops a monster dead in its tracks. It breaks the unbreakable spells, kills the unkillable monsters. The best known Magic Bullet is an actual bullet, made of silver; useful for stopping werewolves, but the Magic Bullet can be anything. Vampires get a stake through the heart. H.G. Wells’ Martians were brought down by the simple bacteria that we can (mostly) co-exist with (though wouldn’t it have been interesting to see a sequel in which humanity has to deal with whatever bugs came over with those Martians?). Spells are broken by love’s first kiss. If I wanted to, I’m sure I could venture over to TV Tropes and find dozens of other variations on the Magic Bullet, but I want to get some writing done today.

Writers want to have a Magic Bullet. Read through the threads on Absolute Write and you can find tons of posts seeking the Magic Bullet. The most obvious ones are along the lines of “How do I break through this Writer’s Block?” but even seemingly-innocuous threads bearing titles like ‘Where does your inspiration come from?’ and ‘How do you stay motivated?’ can be thinly veiled – and, possibly, subconscious – searches for Magic Bullets.

The idea of a Magic Bullet is kind of nice. It’s something we can call upon when we’re stuck in a particularly tight plot point, where we’ve got our characters in a bind and we can’t quite figure out how to get them out of it. We need one when we ask ourselves the critical question “What happens next?” and find we haven’t got a clue, or when we’re so close to the ending but come to the realization that it won’t work, and we can’t seem to find a way to make it work. And so we take to the forums and blogs and books, and look for the Magic Bullet, the Secret Formula, the Ancient Incantation that will kill the beast, break the spell, or unblock the mind and make it all seem clear. It must be out there; but where?

I hate to break it to you, but I have to: It doesn’t exist. I think the five followers who read this blog regularly already know this, and most of you who followed the link from my AW sig to here also know this, but I’ll say it again: There is no Magic Bullet. There is no Secret Formula. There is no mysterious stranger who will meet you in a dark parking lot and whisper what you need to hear to get you going. When you’re stuck, there is no Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to ‘lobbest towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’ Sad to say, but true.

But that’s not to say we should despair; far from it. We have a weapon of our own, a weapon that does not require a gun or a slingshot like a Silver Bullet, isn’t as messy as a stake in the heart, or as noisy as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and it’s with us all the time.

It’s called ‘The Brain.’

I’ve spent a lot of my writing time this week being frustrated. There were a number of distractions in the early part of the week that stopped me from really getting going, that stopped me from building momentum, and it showed. Wednesday and Thursday I was stuck again, flipping back and forth through the printed version of my WiP, going over my notes, and scrolling up and down the on-screen version. I struggled with the question ‘What comes next?’ because the revisions I’ve made require some changes going forward, and I just couldn’t quite grasp what those changes should be (this is compounded by the fact I’ve reordered some things in the new version and what was page 250 in my printed version has now moved to page 138. Organizational issues). I needed a Magic Bullet.

I took a shower instead, and found my Magic Bullet.

No, wait, I just said there is no such thing, but I found the solution for my problems while showering. How?

I thought about my story.

I stood in the shower and thought. I thought about the scenes I had just finished, and was happy with. I thought about where it would go from there, thought about the dialogue and actions, what needed to happen, and what I wanted to happen, and the problems started to wash away, just like the soap and shampoo. When I got out of the shower, I dried myself off just enough to not ruin my notebook, sat on the edge of the tub, and wrote a page and a half. Voilà! Problem solved!

The Magic Bullet is much more fun, and it maintains the air of ‘The Mysterious Author.’ There’s definitely a Cool Factor to saying “It just came to me,” or “It was like I saw giant, Fourth of July fireworks exploding in the sky, and I knew what came next!” That’s much more fun than “I spent hours thinking about it, writing and rewriting, and I finally worked it all out,” isn’t it? But the reality is, if you stop writing, and stop thinking, you’re almost certainly more likely to lose your story than find a Magic Bullet. 

My advice doesn’t come with credibility in the form of dozens of bestseller novels that you’ve read and loved, but really, doesn’t it make sense? When you’re stuck, just think. Think about what came before, and what might come next. Think about that scene that’s giving you so much trouble, play it in your head, jot down words and possibilities. At some point your brain – your brain, your mind – will find the right combination, and the world will make sense again. That’s the trick right there. The only Magic Bullet we have is The Brain, and that’s the most powerful weapon there is.


  1. When I read the title, I thought you were going to be writing about blenders today. (See: The Magic Bullet) Haha

    You have a great point. Seeking that Magic Bullet is exhausting and, at the end of the day, we end up having to search within ourselves. Nine times out of ten, the answer was there all along. :)

  2. Oh, my, that was painful! I watched the first minute or two wondering what a smoothie maker had to do with a Magic Bullet, then I saw what was written on the side of the blender, haha.

    I suppose I should say that sometimes it is helpful to step away, to put your mind to something else. Sometimes the solution to your 'stuck' problem is deeper in your mind and needs to rise to the surface in its own time, or maybe needs some other association to poke it and make it come loose. But at least for me it's all about thinking and playing around with different possibilities.

  3. In a way, it is comforting that there is no "magic bullet." That means that we have the answer inside ourselves (hope this doesn't sound too sappy) and there isn't some elusive secret from which we've been excluded.

    I agree with what Carrie said: Accepting that there is no secret to success cuts down on a lot of wasted time.


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