It’s funny how in all of my writing classes to date, I’ve spoken about almost every other topic than how to literally sit down and write a story.
That’s probably an artifact of years of being told that we all do it differently and we all have to figure it out ourselves, but I’m starting to wonder if it would have done some good for me if someone had just said, “Look, this is how you do it,” instead of giving me all the pieces without instructions. Then I could have modified the basic process instead of flailing around for one.
So last night, I told my students my basic process for writing. It seems to have a lot in common with the other writers I know, too.
Here’s the process, in case you’re interested.
- You listen to some faint glimmering of interest or fascination: a person, a place, an image, a situation.
- The number one question that leads to stories for me is, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if ________?”
- The number two question that leads to better stories for me is, “For whom would this situation suck the most?”
- The number one problem I see in student stories, other than failing to evoke any kind of human feeling? Picking an idea too early. The good ones tend to collide in pairs.
- For me, this usually means writing by hand: it lets me focus on the one sentence or paragraph right in front of me instead of rushing ahead to all of the others.
- I do tend to write in public because there’s a weird kind of protection you get from strangers. When you write at home, people you care about can interrupt you. When you write at Panera, you can tell someone who interrupts you to fuck off.
- I think it’s important at this stage to just hang out on the page, noodle around, talk to yourself. Maybe you’re experimenting with a voice or a point of view. Often, I think of an awesome first line and follow that as far as it goes. But it should all be low-pressure work.
- Do I outline? I think I probably should so I can focus less on what I’m trying to write than on how to write it well, but I don’t start with one.
- The key is to make as little a deal about it as possible. The attitude you’re going for is, “Well, shit, why wouldn’t I write today?” instead of “IF I DON’T WRITE TODAY, I HAVE BETRAYED MY SELF-IMAGE.”
- What? It’s happened a few times for me.
- Not often.
- Which is perfectly okay. You’re supposed to get stuck.
- This is the point that I have to remind myself that I’m not the problem. The problem is the problem, and I need to work that problem. (Thanks, Steven Pressfield, for that gem of advice.) In other words, don’t assume you’re an idiot or a failure immediately.
- (It takes YEARS to discover you’re an idiot and a failure.)
- I usually talk to myself on paper, usually with a heading at the top like, “What the fuck is wrong with this thing?” The bad language helps make it less intimidating, less “literary.”
- On that page, I ask myself questions like, “What is this story about? What happens next? How are readers supposed to feel at the end of it? What’s missing?”
- Characters, places, and situations almost always seem flat at first. That’s just how they come. They get better when you throw weird details at them.
- The keys here? Getting detailed and getting personal. There really isn’t much substitute for that.
- I’ve discovered that my basic three-act structure is, “What the fuck? Holy shit! Oh…Wow.”
- This is what I call the “non-embarrassing draft,” a version of the story that I could show to other people without being utterly humiliated.
- Sometimes, if this draft is good or the writing was hard, I’ll think, “Hot damn! Close enough. Send this off!” and I have to fight that feeling.
- For me, that often means retyping it from handwritten pages.
- I’ve found that rewriting just by nudging words around on a computer screen is the LEAST effective way to rewrite unless I start a whole new document every so often and paste in just the parts that are working. The problem with word processors is that they encourage you to keep words you should probably throw away.
- Some people solicit input from others. If you do, that’s fine…but only follow the advice that excites you with a jolt of recognition. The rest isn’t for you, it’s for them.
- I’ve come to a point where frankly, if the venue can’t be found on awards ballots, newsstands, bookshelves, or in Best Of anthologies, it’s not worth sending to. Yeah, that makes me a snob, but nothing’s more heartbreaking than have a story disappear into the shouting din of obscurity.
- I send stories off less and less these days. I’m depressed and discouraged by the state of the short fiction markets even more so than I used to be — it seems that most magazines exist solely to publish writers instead of being read, and it seems like much of genre publishing is this weird terrarium where writers read other writers who are published by other writers currying favor and connections in an endless recycling. Maybe that’s the way it is in every art mixed with commerce, but I expect more from my fellow geeks.
So yeah. That’s the process in a nutshell. The shocking thing is how often I FORGET that’s my process and get all tangled up in what I’m supposed to be doing.