The Blitzkrieg Method
Continuing our new series on First Drafts …
Blitzkrieg is German for “lightning war.” It’s a technique of battle that was developed in the ‘30s by certain German and British generals, foremost among them Heinz Guderian, and put into practice with spectacular success by the Germans in the assaults on France, Poland, and the Soviet Union at the start of WWII.
Blitzkrieg is also a great way to write the first draft of a novel.
The first principle of blitzkrieg is break through the enemy and drive as fast as you can into his rear areas.
In blitzkrieg, the attacking force stops for nothing. If it encounters heavy resistance in one area, it simply bypasses that area and keeps advancing. This works in war because the bypassed enemy, fearing it will be cut off from resupply and reinforcement, often packs up and runs without firing a shot.
Blitzkrieg is psychological as much as physical. The attacking force is energized and empowered by its orders to be aggressive, to strike hard and fast, to keep moving no matter what. The attacking force is fortified emotionally by the knowiedge that it possesses the initiative, it is dictating the action. The enemy can only react. We, the attacking force, can act.
This is exactly the mindset that the novelist needs in writing a first draft.
Those empty pages that lie before us … they are not neutral. They are dug in, ready and eager to resist us. Their power is Resistance. Those blank pages are the equivalent of hundreds of miles of barbed wire, minefields, bunkers and powerfully-entrenched defensive forces.
How are we going to overcome these forces, particularly when we ourselves may be outnumbered, outgunned, out-resourced?
Hit the enemy fast, hit him hard, get into his rear and throw his forces into confusion.
In last week’s post, we cited a technique described by novelist Matt Quirk. He calls it “using TK,” meaning the editor’s mark for “to come.” When we hit a difficult spot in our first draft, Matt says, simply write “TK” and keep moving. We’ll come back later, he says, and mop up that pocket of resistance.
This is blitzkrieg.
This is lightning war.
The weapons of blitzkrieg are illuminating for us novelists as well. They are weapons of speed and mobility, weapons meant to move fast rather than bring to bear overwhelming firepower. Tanks, aircraft (particularly dive bombers and fighter planes used in close support of ground troops), and mechanized infantry are the arms of blitzkrieg. Their role is not to pulverize the enemy in a straight-up slugfest, but to break through his defenses using speed and audacity and to drive as quickly and as deeply as possible into his rear areas.
That’s your job and mine as novelists in a first draft. Start fast. Roll hard. Stop for nothing. Bypass strongpoints of the enemy. Get to the final objective—THE END—as quickly as we can, even if it means we’re ragged and exhausted and running on fumes.
In June of 1967, the Israeli armored division under Gen. Israel Tal lay poised on the Egyptian frontier, knowing it was going to have to drive through seven enemy divisions to reach its objective, the Suez Canal, on the far side of the Sinai desert. Here is how Gen. Tal concluded his address to his troops:
Now I’m going to tell you something very severe. En brera. “No alternative.” The battle tomorrow will be life and death. Each man will assault to the end, taking no account of casualties. There will be no retreat. No halt, no hesitation. Only forward assault.
Our novel, yours and mine, is life and death too. The enemy, Resistance, will employ every ruse, every stratagem, every dirty trick to sap our will and break our momentum. His ally is time. The longer he can drag out the fight, the more likely you and I will be to run out of resources, to lose our will, to quit.
The last thing you and I want, embarking on the first draft of a novel or a screenplay, is to get bogged down in a war of attrition. Resistance is too strong. It will defeat us if we let it suck us into a grind-it-out struggle in the trenches.
Strike fast. Strike hard. Stop for nothing till you reach the objective.
Momentum is everything in a first draft.
“Strike fast. Strike hard. Stop for nothing till you reach the objective.” Oh, so refreshing… No languishing over every expression, or employing artistic flourish. No way. I actually used TK in client work this week and it was fabulously freeing! This week I will blitzkrieg, and report later. Yes, sir!
This post brings to mind what you wrote in “The War of Art” or “Do the Work” (I’m not near my copies, so I couldn’t fact-check) – get the first draft down as if the devil was chasing you with a pitchfork. Great advice then, great advice now – as always, thanks!
When I was fresh out of the “On Writing” stupor, believing in magic, I tried this method and failed.
Along came a voice in the wilderness.
After a couple months of reading Shawn’s back list blog posts and getting caught up on the Story Grid (this was pre-publication of the book) I wrote my first novel in 21 days, about 75K words.
I say this because sometimes we forget that when a battle is launched without some kind of plan and objective, it’s easy to get lost and then stomped on by the resisting army (Resistance-Satan-the devil-the Evil One-our own destructive imago-He Who Should Not Be Named-the Shadow-etc).
I suffer from two problems I have yet to lick:
I’m a horrible speller. I mean so bad that the auto-correct cannot help me.
And I view TK like a fly on a piece of cheesecake.
So, when I’m first drafting, leaving behind misspelled words and TK has proven very difficult.
I guess it’s my ocd and anal retentiveness.
I will attempt to consciously use the advice of the masters and see if it doesn’t become freeing instead of limiting.
This is a hard thing to do: Practice a new skill set.
As always, thank you Steve for beating these war drums because some of us (me) have walls to crack open (yet).
Recently my night class teacher told me I should turn off my spell check when I am writing free fall. This was after telling us we would do well to free fall as a warm up before we write (She is teaching us personal essays)
As it happens, I attend free fall fridays, 10 to noon, where the group picks a “prompt” and then we write like mad for about 15 minutes. One of our best and most interesting writers, Jim, acknowledges that free fall is the only time he writes without editing as he goes, which is hard for him, and so he really values our group. Me too.
I heard that free fall was invented by Canadian writer W.O. Mitchell.
I might try this, but man, the thought of it is difficult.
Leaving behind misspelled words just “feels” wrong.
In other words, at this point, I’m more likely to get “stopped” because of errors, rather than getting “stopped” because I’ve slowed down to fix them.
I’ll sometimes take the time to write the difficult word a bunch of times, in an attempt to learn it.
I still can’t spell lietenant without trying five times… Lieutenant, there. I have a bit of a speech impediment and I was taught, unfortunately, in the 1970’s when teachers were facinated, there, another word I cannot spell, facinated, nope, see…facanated? Nope…anyway, I can’t spell that word for the life of me. Teachers in the 1970’s were teaching “Whole Word” and not phonics.
So I cannot spell fascinated unless I try about 3 or 4 times…
So, if I’d been drafting this I’d have stopped at the first misspelling and tried to sound it out, then tried different ways, as I ended up doing to make my point.
I don’t know about leaving errors and TK.
But I’m not opposed to trying new things.
Here’s a new thing:
My name isn’t Victor Frankle, but I can’t help but remember his theory of paradoxical intention. I wonder what would happen if you intentionally misspelled words on every line.
You have, my fellow writer, my sympathy. (and congratulations on writing all those words)
As a Captian of Bering Sea fishing boats, I used to tell my crew “boys, we are going to keep leaning foward, we may trip, but we will fall in the direction we need to go.” Momentum is a sweet thing to experience… Most excellent as usual Steve, yours is on of the few I keep.
Blitzkrieg sounds like a more deliberate and strategic description. I usually call it a “vomit” draft.
That’s also the term Bob Dylan used to describe his initial 20-page (!) draft of what became “Like A Rolling Stone”.
The concept of initiative, or momentum, is key to games and sports, as well. In chess, the initiative is worth a material deficit. Defense is a difficult art. Most grandmasters prefer to attack, for the reasons you state. We see the same in sports, where the word momentum is very important. A team with lesser talent will win if it has the momentum. There is, as you say, an emotion component to initiative and momentum, wherever it occurs. And that is key.
There are writers, I think Vonnegut was one, who are rather meticulous. I once read that Vonnegut never left a page until he was finished with it. That is, he did all his revisions on that page, then moved to the next one, going through first and multiple drafts, page by page. Other writers work that way, too. It takes a certain mind-set or personality, perhaps a different kind of confidence. But many need the blitzkrieg and TK approach, because otherwise, as you say, they’ll never get to The End.
I like it! Strike hard and fast – great info. Thanks for sharing.
I really like the way you used the illustration all the way through the the writing. It kept my attention.
It’s a really good way to explain the need on the first draft to just keep going. The Story Grid podcast has been saying the same thing.
Thanks for sharing. Whilst I’m not anyway near to being good enough for a first draft, the principles can help me in learning the craft and publishing on my blog consistently.