Reprinted from FFC archives June 1, 2009
My favorite part of Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. I feel validation for one of my long-held beliefs: writing--good writing--is all about the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair. Mrs. Hawkins, my creative writing teacher in high school, insisted this simple act was the golden ticket to quality. I believed her then; I believe her now. I just didn’t manage to do it for a long, long time.
Ron Carlson's book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, offers another piece of the puzzle: how process, the act of “ just doing,” eventually leads to product. Carlson shows us what he means by letting us sit on his shoulder as he puts together his story. He maintains that working through a story one sentence at a time, putting down what you know about the story rather than worrying about what you don’t, is a viable path.
When a friend shared with me that she's decided the best way for her to work is to sit down and "let it happen," it resonated. This is exactly what Carlson does. He says "process" is the key, finding your own way to get words on the page. Here's the way I do it.
Are characters clear, defined, and have their own problems and attitudes? Are they in opposition with each other? Do they fulfill a purpose in the story? What is each one's purpose?
Does the sequence of events set up an inevitable, yet unexpected ending? Are there set-ups and pay-offs throughout the story? Are the transitions from scene to scene clear? Does the plot support the emerging theme in the best way it can?
Is the setting defined or purposefully undefined? Can the reader SEE what's going on, like it's up on the big screen? How do time and place contribute to theme?
Does this story have the ability to resonate with the reader on both a personal and universal level? Is it compelling? Have all the other elements been put into service to enhance and clarify the theme?
Have all the clichés and borrowed images been purged to the best of my ability? Do the sentences act as real sentences? (Tell the reader something specific) Have I said things twice that don't need to be said? Have I pared away all useless language? Changed most of the general words like "it" to meaningful, concrete nouns that clarify and enhance?Whether I've become one of Malcolm's experts is highly debatable, but this I can say for sure: 20+ years of writing practice has enriched my life beyond measure. Striving to be good at something is its own reward.
I do whatever part of “getting it down” feels right as a first step, whether it's a full-to-the-end draft, notes, outline, or brainstorm. This varies with the trigger, the dawning of an concept in my brain, what it is: a title, a plot, a character, an incident, a theme.
2. Whatever I end up with, plot, free-writing, or notes, I work from there.
If it's mostly a plot, I make an informal outline, filling in the blanks, the who-what-when-where-how-why of each scene in the outline. I remind myself that scenes, scene-sequences, chapters, parts, the whole story, should have answers to first five questions somewhere in the text. I try to identify the possible theme, the “why,” but often I have no idea.If, instead of coming up with a loose sequence of events resembling an outline, I've sat down, told myself to “go,” and put together a draft based on what pops into my head, I search for what my subconscious is telling me, look for possible scenes-segments-acts, and ask myself what scenes have I missed, what might be the theme given what I have typed out in front of me, what the spine might be etc. I also consider the order I've placed these scenes in. Does it make sense?
If I've come up with notes and brainstorming, and this is my most common way of proceeding, I write a quick draft. Sometimes I do a little research about the "where" or the "what" before I write that first draft, but often I just go.
3. If the story's got something compelling about it, all the above converges, in the first, second, or third draft, I find myself with a decent working draft. Then it's time for me to do some kind of analysis. These are the things I look at:
Time and place
4. I rewrite.
At this point, I look for intelligent, kind, but honest readers to find flaws and re-enforce the story's strong qualities. I want them to tell me what works and what doesn’t work.
I let the comments of others guide me in decisions, but I've learned to trust the little voice in my head. My purpose often trumps someone else’s take on the story.
I read the story aloud, have a friend proof-read it, and proofread it myself.
7. I submit it to, hopefully, the right markets.
8. Then I start a new story.
As an experiment, I am currently writing a story online at my Words in Place Blog. I started last week, making myself get the seat of my sweatpants into the seat of my chair every day. Check out my progress beginning with May 27th "Dare Ya!"
Here's the line up from first draft from one of my writing prompts posted above on EDF's Flash Fiction blog under "Writing Prompt."
Dare Ya Two!
Second Day, Third Fly-Thru
Second Day, Fourth Look
Third Day, Is this ever going to turn into anything?
Third Day, Another run-What does the structure look like?
About the old guy coming through the door
So I today I've got to keep going... I'm working toward my 10,000 hours and don't have a minute to lose. Check over there later if you aren't bored to tears!