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(Writing) The View From 10,000 Feet

Self Improvement 150There are a few things that are preventing me from finishing up stories on a consistent basis: a general lack of self-discipline, toxic perfectionism, time management skills, and an inability to stick through the end of a project. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about how my brain works, I’ve realized that developing a process for these things is probably the way to go. By breaking down each story into a series of actionable steps, the focus becomes about getting to the next part — not this free-floating, vague goal to eventually finish a short story some day.

Now that I’m nearly done with the editing pass for “Stable Love,” this monstrous commission that I had taken on years ago, I’m ready to move on to new stories — which is an excellent time to take a step back to develop some basic framework for how to move through writing them. This will be a work in progress, no doubt; I also realize that not every story is going to take to the same basic process, and some modifications will be needed from time to time. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let’s call this the beta version of my story-writing process, meant to take me from idea-generating to a story ready for submission or publication.

Since my big weakness is structure, I’ll need to take care that I pay attention to that in both the pre-writing and editing stages. With pre-writing, I’m hoping I can use character, setting and scene summaries to dive deep into the things that excite me most about the story, refining the core kernel so that it extends through pretty much everything else. What am I really doing with this story? What do I want to communicate to the reader? What do I want the audience to feel once they’ve finished? Answering those questions up front will give me something of a ‘north star’ to guide my decisions in writing and editing after that.

Pre-Writing. This is obviously the first step. I’m a bit of a pantser, mostly because attempts to plot my stories ahead of time don’t go so well. Main characters fight the plot, with some previously undiscovered trait or desire. I’ll think about a scene or direction for the story and decide that some other thing is way more exciting. Usually, the story is unrecognizable halfway through my planned outline because various changes add up.

So there has to be a better way to outline. In pre-writing, thinking about the kind of story I want to write, the effect I’d like it to have, and what the journey of the main character will be like is essential. Everything extends out from that, right? Especially in a short story, where there’s limited space to get the job done, you pretty much have to have that north star guiding every decision you make.

So: step one is figuring out the theme/purpose of the story — even if it’s just to titillate or have fun. After that, writing up the main character, the arc of their journey, and the conflict they need to deal with is the thing to do. From there, brainstorming other characters, situations and ideas to support that main theme should round things out from there.

When I’m done with pre-writing, I should have the main theme, the main character, the primary conflict and resolution, supporting characters, setting, and a rough skeleton of how things should go. For now, I’d like to stick to ‘tentpole’ plot points — the things that NEED to happen in order for the story to work — so I can forge a path towards them however the characters dictate.

First Draft. Now that I have a general direction for the story, the first draft is the pass with only one goal. FINISH. No editing, no doubling back, no overthinking. I’ve got the plan; stick to the plan. FINISH. There will be time for editing and revision later, but the most important thing is getting to write “THE END”. Once that’s done, chances are I’ll let the story marinate in its own juices for a few days to clear my head a bit and get the chance to look at it with fresh eyes.

Second Draft. After a few days’ rest for the story, I’d like to take it out of the drawer and read it over to see how much of it works. Here is where the bulk of the revisions will come. If there’s a better idea for getting the effect I want, or if the characters decide to take the story in a different direction, here is where that will happen. This draft, I think, will be the one where I look at all of the major stuff — theme, setting, character — to see if these aspects are consistent, interesting, and hold up well.

To be honest, I think this step will be the most difficult for me. It’s hard for me to read my own work, especially with a critical eye, and feel like I can actually work with it. I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but I really hate reading my own stories — things will come off lame, or repetitive, or just boring. It’s much easier to just write something and throw it out there, forgetting about it once it’s been thrown up.

But honestly, that’s a form of cowardice and certainly no way to get better. Being able to take a hard look at your own work with an eye towards making it better is essential if I’m going to expect to get better as a writer. It’s also a way to encourage self-awareness, which might be the reason I have such a hard time with it. Right now, writing is a sensitive area for me, and most of us don’t like working with the parts of ourselves that get hurt easily.

Beta Read. Once the second draft is done, I’d like to submit the story to a few folks for a beta read. Depending on the story, the beta readers could be anyone from my writing group, a few close friends, or the patrons who are encouraging me to write more and write better. The feedback that I get from this group will help me know how close I’ve hit the target and which scenes, characters, or themes I should work on moving forward. It’s important to know that the story isn’t complete here; that it’s still a work-in-progress, but at this point it’s a good idea to show it to others for additional perspective.

Third Draft. This is where the final version of the story takes shape, more or less. Armed with the feedback of my beta readers and a clearer sense of what the actual North Star for my story should be, I can take a hard look at the pieces of the story — scenes, characters, transitions — and figure out how to make them strong and lean. Things that I like but don’t quite serve the story are excised here, and the basic structure of the narrative is set. This is also where I can settle in and try a new thing or two, planting seeds in early scenes that will bear fruit later. Since I know where the story is going, I can look for opportunities to plant signposts with that knowledge.

Polishing Draft. After a few more days in a drawer, it’s time to take out the story and polish it up. The plan is for this to be the final draft; knowing that the bulk of the story is where I want it to be, I can spend some energy “punching up” scenes, descriptions and characters so that they pop in ways that make the story as enjoyable as possible while also emphasizing the things that I really want to lean into. Once the story goes through it’s polished fourth draft, it’s ready to be submitted to a website or publication with the hope that it’ll be selected for something neat.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to write a story under this process; if I outline a week for each draft, that would make it a month for each one. I’m sure that’ll get faster as I become more confident and capable as a writer, and I really don’t mind the long gestation for the story. A story that makes slow progress towards publication is better than what I have been doing.

I read a blog entry on another site — I forget which or else I would link to it — that likened editing/drafting passes as hitting one circle closer to the bull’s eye each time, and I like that. That first draft, unless it’s a total disaster, should hit the outer ring of the target. Each edit should feel like a better shot, until at last you hit exactly where you’re aiming. As a young writer, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to settle for a more generous definition of the bull’s eye, but that’s OK. Getting closer with each story will almost certainly happen, and there’s simply no such thing as a perfect story.

Hopefully thinking of my writing process this way will encourage me to push through the difficulty of finishing up the draft as well as the humbling experience of reading over it and picking it apart. I know it’s silly to not want to read my own work while simultaneously hoping other people will (and like it), so that’s definitely an impulse I’ll have to get over.

What do you think, dear readers? Is this a fairly decent plan, or have I missed something? What are YOUR writing processes like? I’m really curious!

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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Opening Up the Hidden Heart

Buddhism 150There are very few things as alienating as feeling like some deep part of yourself isn’t understood, or worse, hated. We each have core aspects of ourselves that we prefer to keep hidden — only showing them to a few people we trust. Sometimes we don’t get to trust anyone, and we move through life feeling as if no one knows us, as if we were aliens who just happen to be born here.

Sometimes the disconnection between our secret selves and the world around us is some deeply personal quirk of biology or personality; we can’t help the things we feel, even if society doesn’t understand it. Most of the time, even we barely understand it. Sometimes that disconnection comes because we find ourselves uprooted from a place and a people that gets us and transplanted somewhere different. Customs and ideas clash with everything we’ve come to know, and there’s no interest from the broader world in easing that tension. So we have to make do with whatever small and imperfect connections we can find. We spend so much time and energy finding ways to be a little less alone with each other.

This is an aspect of the human condition that fascinates me, so when I see stories featuring characters fearfully reaching out towards someone — anyone — with this precious, tiny, hidden part of themselves I’m all in. The first season of Bates Motel struck that chord with me, for example. Norma and Norman Bates are both legitimately insane, seriously damaged people, and as protagonists they’re very hard to like. But what kept drawing me back were the timid, small ways they tried to show the core of themselves to each other. That desperate need to be seen and acknowledged, even in the worst of people, is one of the things that will almost always make me empathetic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, about our need to transmit our experience and inner lives to other people and how astonishingly inefficient words can be for that. It’s a minor miracle that we can ever think we know each other at all; it’s hard enough to describe a concrete object so that everyone has a consistent image in their heads, but it’s next to impossible to discuss something as ephemeral and nebulous as emotion, or an idea that grabs us in just the right way. A few really talented people can find ways to use the right combinations of words to awaken the same kind of feeling in us, but most of us just flail at it.

And I think that’s why I feel such a connection to characters who try to express what’s going on inside their heads. It’s an act of bravery to talk about the things that lurk within our recesses, to pull them out and expose them to the light. There are so many things running against our chances of success — we’re not equipped to give words to these things, and almost nothing will pinpoint our emotions. Even if we find the words that make the most sense to us, there’s no guarantee that the person we’re speaking to will understand the intent behind those words. Maybe it’s the order, or the tone we use to say them, or the baggage they’re carrying with them — so many things could get in the way of true understanding, but we try anyway. It’s a fool’s errand, but it’s also one of the most hopeful and noble things we could do.

I love stories about the pain of realizing you’re different from everyone else around you, of trying to deal with that. I love stories about people who connect with other people — suddenly, as a surprise; or gradually over a shared experience. I love reading stories by people who are trying hard to transmit the particulars of their experience, broadcasting their most secret selves out into the world in the vain hopes that someone out there will feel the way they do if only they get the right words in the right order, and their audience reads it at the right time.

The most tragic stories, to me, are the ones where people attempt that connection and fail. The ones where they’re forced to be alone because of some impossible barrier. Requiem For A Dream makes me bawl every time I see it because the ending forcefully puts that final nail in the coffin. Each of the main characters are in a hell of their own making, but not because they’re evil people. They were simply broken, too broken to see that the ways they were trying to connect with each other weren’t working, that they had different perspectives, dreams, priorities.

I love these stories because I come away with them feeling a kinship with everyone around me. I have my secret heart, but so do you. And I know that we’re both looking for the people we can show it to, who will understand and accept us. There’s no feeling quite like showing someone else who you really are and being told “I see you, I know you, and I love you.”

On my best days, I want to give that feeling to everyone I come across. It requires a radical sort of acceptance, a lack of judgement that is very difficult to achieve and maintain. But the people who try? Those who understand that fundamental desire, who want to lead people to it? That’s my tribe. Those are my people.

This isn’t something that comes up consciously in my writing so far — at least, I don’t think so. But I think it might provide me with a direction with stories I have trouble finding a proper hook for. I just wanted to get these words down as a statement of intent; these are the things that interest me, these are things that I wish to do.

 

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