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?
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.