Really, there’s no right or wrong way to go about writing a story. I’ve already touched on how I start one, but what about the process? Some people like to plan things out. Some people like to simply write by the seat of their pants. Some people are probably like me, somewhere in the middle.
My usual process is initiated by the beginning inspiration. I either hear the character’s voice and transcribe, or scenes and ideas come to me and I take notes. Then if I’m really good I just write. If (or when) I’m not physically writing, I’m thinking about the story so that ideas will come to me. Usually I try to find music that suits the mood of the idea(s) and let scenes take shape in my mind (kind of like the colored waves of a music visualizer). This is important to me, because usually after I think of the beginning of a story, my mind wanders toward the end of it. Maybe not the very last sentence, but the high point. With that ending in mind, I let scenes in-between come to me. They may be pivotal scenes. They may be snatches of conversations or cool moments. I welcome anything and everything.
Then, after I’ve got enough scenes and ideas, I write by the seat of my pants until I reach them. Sometimes I have to let scenes go. Most of the time, I make my way to my coveted goal points. Surprisingly, this isn’t as difficult as I think it sounds on paper.
I’m guessing that people who plan things out know exactly what their scenes need to achieve, the ins and outs of their characters, and in what order the events should occur. This is a good thing. Let’s say one has written a substantial outline of a novel. The characters and the plot are all pretty much figured out on the page, so it’s a matter of expanding what’s already there. This is awesome! And I’ll write more on why in a bit. But I imagine a downside would be that there isn’t much room for the characters to come into their own. Knowing a character up front is great, but what if that character ends up being a bigger or lesser part of the story, or mucks everything up with what he or she wants to do? There is also the risk that readers will get the feeling that the story was a bunch of points that the author hit. Of course, I’m not saying everyone has these issues.
On the flip side, those who write by the seat of their pants have the advantage of that feeling of surprise, of letting characters be themselves in a story that they shape. Personally, I love those moments when great lines come out onto the page and surprise me. This method has its downside as well, however. Often a book will morph as the writing continues. It may end up being a completely different book from what one intends at the start. And this could be a good thing, reveal the true story that wants to be told. But revisions may be much more harrowing because one is trying to wrangle the story together. There could be a lot of bloated or unnecessary scenes, too many characters, entire subplots that need to be done away with, one can imagine whatever else.
Some writers start with outlines, let the story go in different directions in the writing process, then possibly change the outlines around to suit the new directions. I think that’s smart. I’m partial to my process because I want the element of surprise and I rely on discovering as I write and I seem to be pretty good with writing towards my goals–my ideas and scenes. Sometimes I have a general plan for events–this needs to happen, then this, then later this–but often I have to trust my instincts that the story will do what it must. I think my process in the in-between has really taken shape thanks to grad school.
Here’s something that I find interesting, because it was an incredible learning experience:
I very rarely write outlines for stories these days. (I can’t say never.) But when I sat down and listened to the assignments for my first graduate screenwriting workshop, I was nervous. Basically, the first half of the academic quarter was devoted to story planning and outlines. And I had so much trouble wrangling my story idea into a feasible outline based on feedback every week. Really, I worked harder in that class than the others. And when we started actually writing pages for our scripts, there were still doubts among my peers and my professor about my plans. But you know what? Writing that first script was easier than I thought it would be. Because I had a full outline, I was able to look at what needed to happen, then simply write the scenes one by one. I completed a full first draft in ten weeks, from idea to pages.
It definitely opened my eyes to what is possible by playing with guidelines. I have a lot of respect for people who can work with outlines like that, because I know how much effort must go into that process. (I took another screenwriting workshop, and then a tv writing workshop. Yes, I did want to torture myself, how did you know?) However, I don’t know if that process is right for my fiction work. I’d like to stick with planning some, not all; I thrive in the process of discovery. I think part of the reason outlining is so effective as a screenwriting technique in general, though, is that the screenplay is a smaller, confined space to work in. There’s generally a certain range of pages that a script can be. The novel or novella or short story will become what it is. Lots of writers sit down to write a short story and realize that the characters in their heads won’t stop talking or doing.
I was given the critique once that I should just sit down and write without thinking about any conventions or limiting myself by categorizing my story. This shocked me, because that is how I write; as I said, I love it when my stories surprise me. It goes to show that at times writing may not reflect process. It’s possible to wrangle wild stories into chaptered novels and outlined tales can be spontaneous. It just takes some good old fashioned creativity. Thank goodness we’re writers.
What’s your process like? Any thoughts on strengths or disadvantages of the different methods?
Since she was a baby, the dead and the dying have been drawn to Meridian Sozu. On her sixteenth birthday she is at the scene of a deadly car crash, and her world as she knows it is irrevocably changed. She is separated from her family and sent to live with her aunt, who is also named Meridian. Once our narrator completes the difficult trek there, she learns the truth: she is a Fenestra, a being who helps souls in death, also a being who is being hunted by those with dark agendas.
I’m going to be honest. I have been hauling home tons of books from the library just because of interesting covers or premises, putting them in my summer to-read pile. For some time now, I’ve gotten into the habit of reading the first few lines or even the first page of each book before putting it down to do more pressing things. Even though most of those first glimpses are interesting, when I opened Meridian, I couldn’t put it down until the library closed hours later.
The narration and story are engaging. I am usually resistant when things happen too quickly at the beginning of a story to get the plot going, but I didn’t feel that resistance so much with this book. Perhaps because the premise is so different. I wanted to know more about Meridian’s associations with the dead, and I also cared that these associations brought her so much physical suffering.
Something I admire about this story is the handling of agency. Agency has been a major issue for me in my writing in the past couple of projects, so I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for how it is handled. The role of the Fenestra is fairly passive. I won’t spoil it with details, but they are not angels of death. Their mere presence is the key to helping the dying. And Kizer has managed to give Meridian enough need for struggle against certain happenings related to this role that keeps the Fenestra nature from falling into dangerous writing craft territory. There are external and internal and spiritual issues to be dealt with, which is a very good balance to have.
For how much I enjoyed this book, there are a couple of issues that struck me as well. The romance, though not heavy-handed (thank goodness), doesn’t really feel organic to the story. Meridian does not ruminate on specific physical characteristics to which she is attracted to, which is not bad in itself, but she doesn’t seem attracted to the guy’s personality either. It feels like the relationship blossoms out of the fact that the two are closer in age and together a lot and in danger (a lot). I think this is one level in which more agency might have been helpful.
Another issue is the ending. It feels a little too rushed. I suspected early on the nature of the threat, which may have been purposeful, but there is also little page space devoted to dramatic tension during the pivotal scenes. What happens, happens, and I’m glad it goes down that way, but I don’t really feel invested in those scenes. As a result I’m missing the emotional turns that are being presented to the reader.
Still, despite the issues, I’m leaning toward buying this one, and the sequel (which is due out in mid-July). I’m a huge fan of mythologies and the supernatural and the laws of thermodynamics (you’ll get it if you read the book), and Kizer has done a great job with building a mythology for my mind to play with.
This post comes from Steph, a volunteer at my library, who knows about my grad school woes and commandeered my laptop to impart some advice to me and whoever else might gaze upon it. I truly feel these are wise words. Thanks, Steph!
in my expierance as a student and as adult there r many pple out there tat will want u 2 write in their way or their style but u hav 2 kno ur style and the writer inside of u. ur artistic imagination has 2 b urs and not be lik somting ordered by someone. u hav 2 kno when 2 be logical & follow rules and when 2 let ur heart write the words.
As I sat down and actually thought about how I could go about writing about writing, I started to worry about how I could post content about a process that is different for everyone. I decided I could only write from what I know, and hope that others find it helpful to see one writer’s take on things. So this is based on my own experiences.
Today I’m going to talk about ideas.
Ideas an come from anywhere. Snatches of conversation I overhear, my own interests, things that happen to me or my loved ones, random thoughts inspired by anything I hear or see or know.
I’ve noticed over the years that most of my stories make themselves known in one of two ways. If I’m lucky, I get them both.
1) Things I know and have experienced come together in a new way. This includes books I’ve read, homilies I hear in when I’m in church, words I happen upon by simply browsing the library and the library catalog. Or questions I realize could be answered. For instance, earlier this year I bought a copy of Ella Enchanted from a book sale. Though I haven’t read it yet, it put in my mind the idea of the story about the girl who was maltreated but got her happy ending. The book sat in my “to read” pile, but not too long after I was browsing the library catalog (I can’t remember what for now) and happened upon a title that got me thinking a big “what if?” The word and the story and the question came together in my mind, and now I have plans for a different sort of fairy tale.
2) Random inspiration. I suppose this one sounds similar at first, but there is a difference. I don’t know if I’m just a weirdo, but sometimes I just hear a line in my head, as if a character is speaking, someone I’ve never heard before. If I’m not in a position to write the line down, I usually try to remember it as best I can. It’s often not a complicated line, and often these lines are the openings to my stories.
The important part about random inspiration is getting those words down, even if I don’t know what they mean. Because once I get those down, I write more. And the more I write, the more I learn about the story and its characters and the world they inhabit.
But ideas don’t stop there. From that first glimmer of what I want to think is brilliance, ideas have to evolve. Either because of the plot that emerges, or the direction the characters want to take, or most importantly because of what my audience is telling me.
This evolution is vital, and while I can of course shape ideas by talking them out or making outlines, the most important step is the actual prose. This may be because I have an odd writing process where I tend to discover the story as I write. But the benefit of writing and discovering is that it keeps me in a mode where I am thinking about story.
I once sat down to transcribe the words of a character. I came up with about a page before I had to stop and get back to life. When I came back to the story, and sat down to try to continue, I asked myself a series of questions to get my creative juices going. Then a question came up I didn’t expect, and the whole thing went in a completely different direction. Parts of the original page now is now of the beginning and ending of one of my favorite pieces.
But the evolution doesn’t stop once I complete a draft. I took workshops in fiction, screenwriting, and tv writing all through my first year of grad school. I had the good fortune to study fiction with Michelle Latiolais, Ron Carlson, and Marisa Matarazzo as an undergraduate. One valuable lesson I’ve learned through all of these classes is that the first draft is only the beginning. Sometimes I have to write twenty pages to get one good page. Sometimes it’ll come down to just one line that is the clue to the real story that’s waiting to be brought to light. Having to start with so much and end up with so little can be disheartening, but there is always that promise that nothing, and I mean nothing, I write will ever have been in vain. It’s not about whether a story draft is “good” or “bad,” it’s about what I can take away from it.
Once I was talking to Ron about my next submission for our workshop (coincidentally the story I mentioned earlier), and he laughed and suggested that I try to not write about death (again). This led me to ask the question I didn’t expect. While I won’t say one must comply with every suggestion one receives, I think it’s important to be open to exploring new directions. Not knowing what I’m getting into is half the fun of writing, after all.
So, ideas are awesome. I love them, any way they come to me. But sometimes I have to let go of aspects I’m attached to or crop them or push them into different shapes to access the stories that are meant to be told. I was taught once that a first idea is good, a second idea is better, but it’s the third or fourth that is the one on which you need to follow through. I know I shouldn’t ever be afraid of writing a first draft, and I also should expect to write a second or third or fourth one.
That’s my rumination for the day! Stay tuned for a brief, motivating guest blog from one of the volunteers at my library.
Well, I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a blog about being a graduate student for a couple of months. I know there are so many blogs out there that are pretty much writing about writing, but I’m hoping my academic experiences, library shenanigans, and book reviews will keep things interesting around here. I was also partially inspired by the Clarion Write-A-Thon to create a blog to track my my writing throughout the summer.
I started a new novel on Sunday (five days ago), and I intend to finish it in the coming months. I know I am capable of writing 50,000 words in three weeks if I am inspired, so here’s hoping that kind of inspiration magically appears again. At the very least, I’m aiming for an average of five pages a day. It’s doable. Rough, but doable.
There is another novel I started in December 2010. I’m a couple hundred pages into it, but stopped working on it when school got started again after the winter break. I’ve submitted excerpts to workshops and have gotten some very insightful comments, some of which I will use to inspire blog posts. This novel also needs to be completed before the summer ends. Mostly because I’m not sure which of the two is going to become my thesis. But more on my thesis woes in another post.
When I’m not going on about writing and graduate school experiences, I’m pretty sure my main source material will be my vow to read at least one book each week until school starts up again. I’m currently more than halfway through book the first, and I’m really enjoying it, so I’m excited to write my first review as soon as I finish it. I’ve never really written a full-fledged book review before, so I’m very eager to try on this new genre of writing.
One thing you have to know about me before we proceed: I may be in a MFA program, but I write fantasy stories. The level of fantasy varies. One of my screenplays is about stage magicians and the other was described by someone as “Inception meets The NeverEnding Story meets Tron.” Some stories of mine feature angels and ghosts, a couple of novels are epic fantasies. You can imagine what I like to read. A lot of it lately has been YA fantasy, because that’s what tickles my imagination. But, sure, I like adult stories, too. I love Neil Gaiman, Aimee Bender, and Tim Pratt. I also like Caleb Carr, Banana Yoshimoto, and James Baldwin. I’ve got great book recs from my professors, and I’m always open to more.
So don’t expect drivel from me, but don’t expect me to quote Kafka either.
Well, it’s quite late (or early) here, and I’ve got a graduation ceremony to attend tomorrow. I’ll end by posting an article on the contention over the privatization of libraries here in CA. It’s a very concerning issue, and may require a whole post in the future. We’ll see.
Thank you for reading. It’s a pleasure to meet you.