Reprinted from a Flash Fiction Chronicles article published November 29, 2010
Guess what? Writing fiction isn’t that easy. We become proficient enough in school to use written communication when needed. However, writing well, long or short, requires additional expertise. To write a short story, novel, play, or screenplay calls for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered endeavor on the part of the writer. This endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves found himself in. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost from its parts. Diving into the complex world of a story often leaves us confused and frustrated.
Writers know there are rules and guidelines, a craft that must be learned, but many don’t understand how all the different parts will eventually need to mesh together. I’m not referring to plot-points, sub-plots, or authenticity here, though they are, of course, parts of the whole. I’m more concerned with the basics of process, how to “see” a writing project and decipher its mysteries one step at a time.
Visualize a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, with a spine, the hard back and front covers, and paper, the whole thing about an inch or so thick. Now think of yourself opening that book to page one, laying it flat on a table in front of you. Stand up and look down at it.
|Begin on the blank page|
You see words lined up on a page. Sentences and paragraphs. You think the author spun out those words: subject+verb+prepositional phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated. It’s two-dimensional, but the creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional. In your mind, erase all the words from that first page of the book, erase all that follow. Where do YOU start?
|Content: What is the story about?|
With an idea: content. What the story is about: the who, what, where, why, when, and how. Now place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book. Breathing space. Can you see it? The clean white pages of the book through the clear glass sheet? Now imagine filling that glass with all the words you’d use to say what you want to say. It won’t all fit. Suspend your disbelief, and pretend. That’s layer one of the matrix.
Now put second sheet of glass down–some breathing space again–and notice you can still see the paper and all the content. The content goes all over the place. Who’d want to read this? So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane. Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second, which paragraph is irrelevant? What content will move your reader? What won’t? That’s layer two.
|Structure: How does the content unfold?|
You’re still standing over the book but what you see is a jumble of content on glass 1 and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass 2. An even bigger mess than before. You want to quit!
So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to one pane–1 and 2 have become one.
Place another glass down. You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas. These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing, and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass 3, what this story means.
|Meaning: What does the story say?|
These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass 1. You look for key words. If your content and structure is about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass 3: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane 3 fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.
Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.
A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.
Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.
|Elements: Everything comes together.|
After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.
If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be 20 or 30 layers in a novel, maybe only 4 or 5 in a flash.
Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again. It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.
When I taught Freshman Comp, many of the students were intimated because they thought of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three or hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers. They’d shake their heads and groan and mumble, “I don’t even know where to start” or “Nothing I ever write is like this in the book” leading to “I’m going to fail.”
They wanted to give up because they didn’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of what really goes into a piece of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure, the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading. Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.