Hey everyone! It’s been a week since I’ve posted! I’ll remedy this in the near future, I promise. But I wanted to write about this milestone I just reached tonight. After writing 9 pages of my term project tonight, I reached page 15 and am officially done with all of the academic writing I have to do for my MFA!
From here on out, it’s just me and my thesis novel!
You have no idea how elated I am. It’s kind of strange though, because I ended up having too much to write about and had to force myself to stop. Also, I wrote 6 of today’s pages in just over an hour.
Um… that’s kind of monstrous. Even for me.
But wanna know my secret?
I took notes before I wrote. Nothing like an outline, more like jotting down ideas under different possible subject headings. I repeated myself here and there, put down thoughts in different places that I wanted to later connect in the paper. I did all this on Sunday night while I was waiting for my laundry. Took up less than 6 notebook pages’ worth of notes. Then I had thinky thoughts until yesterday, when I sat down to start the paper. Then 6 pages poured out of me. I slept, went to work, ran errands, then sat down to write a few more pages. Then I finished the whole thing way earlier than I thought I would.
My point being, don’t knock pre-writing. I know it sucks when they’re training you to do it in high school, but they’re only doing it to teach you a handy-dandy skill. I think pre-writing is awesome. It’s sort of like having a step outline for a screenplay or a teleplay. You have the ideas down, you just have to flesh everything out. Which, really, when you have the main points all in front of you, the rest is easy peasy. Just making the connections between one idea and another.
So, my tip for undergrad and grad students alike: pre-write. Take notes. Even if they don’t make sense. You never know how much easier it’ll make your life.
And CELEBRATE! Because I have extended my winter break by over a week, and I am ready to sleep in a lot and write my butt off!
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?
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.