When I first returned to writing fiction after a several year long hiatus, it came easy. I sat down and wrote a 120,000 word drawer novel in 6 weeks. I would get an idea for a story and just sit down and write it without any real preparation, research, notes, or anything beyond enthusiasm and my laptop. As I kept writing and my sense of what constituted a good story grew, it became not easier to write, but much harder. I could see the discrepancy in what I was writing and what I wanted to be able to write. This was very frustrating and several times I came very close to giving up on writing entirely. But the only ways to get better at writing are to read, write, critique, think, and write some more. I am still working to improve my writing and probably will never feel that my writing is “good enough,” but the days of feeling totally blocked are hopefully behind me.
I think writing is more thinking than it is writing at this point. Currently, when I edit and critique novels or short stories often the really glaring errors are because the author has relied on cliches, genre tropes, over-used turns of phrase, not thought through their ideas, etc. Often where the stories fall down is that they are not fully thought out and considered in all aspects. This shows in the writing. There will be inconsistencies and logic issues and the writing might not flow or be succinct. When I read stories of this nature, it feels to me like the writer is still in the process of thinking through their story.
While often writing books are of limited value, I do think that creating a type of list of things to include in one’s fiction or a written out, and always in progress, definition of one’s poetics is a good idea. It can guide the writing. Examples of things that are in my list of “writing rules for short stories” for myself include the following:
1. if I am writing a short story, begin the action as close to the onset of the plot of the story as possible
2. introduce the main character, the conflict, and the setting in the first hundred words
3. a story has to have certain elements which are a beginning, a middle, an end, a conflict, at least one character, a setting, and a plot
4. pick one point of view for a short story and stick to it, make sure that the character whose point of view that the story is being told through is the most ideal character for that particular story and the theme I want to convey
5. if I am writing a story with a speculative element, the speculative element needs to be integral to the story and add extra meaning
6. make sure the opening paragraph intrigues
7. all plot points must follow logically from one another
8. all elements must be intentional and considered within the total setting of the story
9. no extra words– descriptions and details must convey extra meaning about the characters, add to the tone, and be well chosen
Further, following this list means that I have to prepare to write a story. I cannot just sit down and spit out a rough draft fully formed in one go. I have over the last couple of years developed my own process which has multiple steps. Often I am working on many stories, poems, and essays at one time. Currently, I also have a cookbook, two non-fiction books, and a novel in various stages that I am working on as well. Here are the steps that I use in my process to get writing done:
1. I collect ideas, information, interesting settings, possible plots or conflicts, and imaginings of characters.
I keep multiple files on my hard drive with each of these headings. If an idea or whatever occurs to me or I stumble across something interesting, I file it away.
2. I routinely review all the ideas and whatnot in the files on the hard drive.
Quite often when I have an interesting idea, it isn’t enough for a story. It might be the impetus for a story, but none of the elements of fiction that those hard drive files represent can alone be a short story. It takes an assemblage of ideas and elements to make a story come together. Also, sometimes a really good idea just needs to sit and stew in my subconscious for awhile. Lately, I have been working on a set of stories whose original ideas first came to me a couple years ago and I stashed the ideas away.
3. When working on ideas, I find others to help.
Sometimes I just get stuck and I can feel that all the elements for a story are close to being enough to make the story happen but not quite, at this point I ask for help. I have a group of people that I feel comfortable with and I put my ideas out to them so that I can get assistance with brainstorming.
4. Once I think I have a complete idea for a story, I write out a one sentence synopsis of the story and a theme phrase for the story.
This is actually quite important. If I cannot write out in one sentence what the story is about, I will flail around trying to figure that out in the rough draft and it will be a frustrating experience. Secondly, the theme phrase I use while writing the short story is kind of like a mantra in the back of my head so that I stay centered on what I want to say. Themes are tricky because if you write the theme out in the story with too heavy of a hand, it can become preachy and a real turn off. I also want to “show” my theme rather than preach. Keeping the central idea at the back of my head keeps things focused without becoming too much on a soapbox.
5. After writing the one sentence synopsis, I write out a point by point plot synopsis and feel out the possible plot for its logic.
All the turning points in a story must feel like they logically flow from one to another. Before I start writing I work this through to avoid plot bunnies.
6. Once I know what my plot is going to look like, I design my characters for the story.
I like to write out histories, research whatever is necessary about the characters’ backgrounds so I have it to supply details, etc. before I start writing my stories. For me, having this background information to hand is helpful because it can inform the story even if I don’t explicitly use all of it in my story.
7. I research anything that I don’t already know and whose details are necessary for the story.
I don’t prescribe to the notion that one must only write what one knows (at some point in the future I am going to write a blog post on this). I think all of us have experiences and emotions that we have felt that we can use to put ourselves in the shoes of our characters and make them seem authentic. Further, I think that writing is a grand opportunity to learn new things. Research can be talking to people who do know about what we need for our characters or it can be reading wiki articles. However, this research happens it needs to occur to make the story believable. If I am writing about sailboats or Shanghai and I know nothing of either of these, I need to learn so that my story works.
8. I write the first draft.
9. Let the first draft sit for 2 to 3 weeks if possible.
I do this while I am working on other projects. A little time helps me be more objective about the writing so that I can see where changes need to be made.
10. I rewrite the first draft.
11. I have other people critique the writing.
It is very important to have a group of folks that you can trust who will look at your writing and give an honest and constructive critique. The only way to get better at writing is to get good feedback. I don’t feel that anything that I write is good enough yet. I am still working on my writing. I will also say that my writing is my writing and I am the one who makes the choices about what to rewrite. If I offer a story for feedback, it is up to me to analyze whatever feedback I get and figure out what to do with my short story.
12. I send the story out for possible publication.
I will be honest. This is the hardest step for me. I am still struggling with this. But really how else to know if one’s writing has reached a professional level?
Almost every piece of fiction that I write goes through all of these steps. This is my process. I don’t know if it would work for anyone else. I would also add that I read all over the place and study many subjects so that I have a constant input of information to generate ideas. I also study great works by known authors. Lately, I am reading Bernard Cornwell, but I have been studying Hemingway’s works to understand more completely what he is doing and how he constructs his characters and his novels. Writing fiction is much more than declaring oneself a writer. At the end of the day writing does mean plunking one’s butt in a chair in front of a desk and hammering out words on the keyboard– and doing the necessary prep work to make that happen.
What do you do to make it so your writing can happen? What is your process?