My father served for many years in the British Army. Growing up, he taught me a lot of hard-won lessons. Some of it has been applicable to daily life and some of it, after a long second glance, has even helped me become a better writer.
Take the Four Fs, a military maxim designed as the layman’s guide to battlefield tactics. The Fs in question are find, fix, flank and finish. The idea is wonderfully simplistic. Find the enemy’s position, fix him in place by pinning him down with covering fire, then outflank said fixed position. Lastly, finish him off.
Now this universal piece of tactical doctrine has helped me more times than I care to count when I’m out paintballing, but yesterday it struck me that I take a similar approach to writing.
Everybody approaches differently, but speaking (very) broadly there are three ways to write a novel – in a linear fashion, from start to finish, working backwards from the finish to the start, or plunging in at a given scene and expanding out from that. Traditionally I preferred the linear “start at the start” method, if only because I mistakenly believe that it was the “right way to do it.” A few months ago however I realised that there was a much more efficient way to approach my writing.
Imagine briefly that a novel is a battlezone. The toughest scenes, the ones you don’t want to write because you’re worried you haven’t got what it takes to nail it (not the ones you don’t want to write because they’d too boring – those shouldn’t exist!) are your enemies. Approach them using the four Fs.
FIND your enemies, those hard-as-nails scenes that are really making you question whether you should be writing at all. Tough scenes can pop out of nowhere, your synopsis won’t always flag them up. I only unearth them when I come to them from having started with the linear approach. So, once you’ve identified the enemy,
FIX it in place with a watertight mini-synopsis. Even if you can’t bear to start writing the scene itself, establish a thorough blow-by-blow guide on how you want it to play out. This helps because you’re actually partially writing the scene, but you’re not worried about making every line publishable-perfect. That comes later. After you’ve set out how you’re going to play it, you do my favourite bit and
FLANK it! That’s right, skip on right past that nasty scene. Linear purists will be feeling decidedly queasy having read that line but trust me, it can work. If a scene is seriously making you want to stop writing, blast past it. Get straight onto something you really love later on. I do it during almost every writing session now. This approach can very easily let you down – I detail consequences below – but don’t imagine that just because you’re not writing Chapter 6 immediately after Chapter 5 that you’re somehow not a real novelist.
FINISH IT – do not neglect this F just because it’s the last one! This is actually the most important point. You’re not neglecting your enemy scenes just because they intimidate you. The idea of flanking them and moving on is to build your confidence and firm up your writing so that you can come back and do what this F says – finish them! You Fixed them with a mini-synopsis for a reason. Use it!
A word of caution – you can have too many enemy scenes. The Four Fs should only be applied to the very toughest, nastiest ones, those that make you want to stop writing altogether. We all have those days. But if you apply the Fs to every 2nd chapter, you’ll only have written half the book when you reach the end. The purpose of the Four Fs is to isolate the tough stuff into little tiny pockets you can come back and hammer later on.
Again, everyone writes differently. I just thought I’d share something I found personally effective. But the bottom line is this; do whatever it takes to get that novel finished!
Also, thanks dad.