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Monday, March 28, 2011

Author Alcove: The Writing Process



So now it's time for another segment I guess I'll be returning to regularly: Author Alcove (wheee alliteration).  This is when/where I'll BS about the nuts and bolts of writing as I see them.  I'll take this moment to say again that I am NOT a professional author or writer.  For now, it's a hobby for me.  And obsessive hobby that I do every day, but "Hobby" sounds a lot nicer than "unstoppable compulsion." 

Why am I telling you that?  Because I just want to be up front about my qualifications.  I've been writing for about 20 years.  about 15 years of that was total shit (but I was a kid, so I had an excuse).  3 years of that was  mostly shit with some good ideas, and the last 2 years have seen a significant decrease in the shit-to-good-ideas ratio.  I have a degree in this stuff, and it makes an excellent dinner tray when it's not gathering dust in the corner and being otherwise useless.  But I'm not a pro, and these are just my opinions, so use them as you will.

Okay, disclaimer over, let's get to work.

When I used to teach creative writing to my poor middle-school students, or when somebody actually gives enough of a damn to ask me about writing, one of the most asked questions is "Where/how do you start?"  A very good question, but one with a million and four answers.  Every writer has their own process from start to finish.  We all have our own rituals and idiosyncrasies because we're all basically crazy in one way or another.

If you're Jim Butcher (he of "The Dresden Files" and "Codex Alera" series), you sit down and ask yourself the "Plot Question" (which I'll explain in a bit), lay out the protagonist and antagonist, supporting characters, setting, and then make a plot arc, outlining the beginning, ending, and middle sections of the plot.  then you write rough outlines of a bunch of scenes, then finally sit down and write your story.

If you're Philip Pullman, you write a bunch of scenes and ideas on post-it notes, then stick them on a wall and rearrange them in various orders until you find a plot structure you like. 

If you're Stephen King, you come up with a situation (like, "Vampires in rural Maine") then some basic character ideas, and let the story play itself out and leave the plot to take care of itself.

Now, those are very simple overviews of how those writers do it.  Each of those writers is very successful, and is generally regarded as at least competent by critics and the general reading public.  However, none of them are right, and none of them are wrong.  The writing process is unique for each writer, and what works for them may be terrible for you.  The writing process I know best and am most qualified to talk about though is my own. 

Stories start with ideas, so I need one of those first. I get ideas from everywhere: music, clouds, other stories (movies, books, video games, TV shows, manga, anime, etc etc), and sometimes, and perhaps best of all, from out of the clear blue sky, like one of those anvils that hammer Daffy Duck into the ground. 

So once I have my idea, I make sure it makes sense, and what kind of story this is going to be.  Is it a short story?  A novel?  An epic?  Is it actually interesting or is this the mental equivalent of a fart; a noise but no substance?  If it actually seems like it will work, I hold onto it, and roll it around in my head for a week or two, taking down odd little notes on whatever paper is around.

I first write down the story idea.  I'll use my current work-in-progress for the purpose of this post.  Story idea: "A superhero in steampunk-type fantasy setting attempts to save the lower classes of his city from a crooked aristocrat." Okay, I can easily make that into a novel. 

After I have the basic story idea, I make the characters.  Now, some people have to plot the book first, and add characters later.  I can't do that.  Who the characters are and what they're like shape the story and change the plot.  If you have the story first, then characters, you're changing the characters to fit the story, which makes them inconsistent, flat, or lifeless, all of which are Very Bad.  So, characters.

I don't have reams of paper describing a character's motivation or personality.  I have a basic idea and a rough history, two-three sentences at most.  I give the characters a starting off point and they usually reveal themselves to me the more I write them.  I know that sounds strange, but when it happens, it's really cool.  They stop being just a character and they become a person, usually with faults and screw-ups and weird little tics, just like you or me.  I'd like to go more into character but this post is getting long in the tooth so we'll move on.

Story idea, check.  Characters, check.  Plot...aahhh.  Plot is the events within a story, while story is what the book/film/whatever is about.  Some authors think plot is something that comes naturally and should never be thought consciously about, while others feel you MUST focus all your energy on crafting the plot from thin air.  Like many things, my way is in the middle.

When outlining the plot, I make sure I have at least three things before I begin writing in earnest: the beginning, the middle (or inciting incident that sets the story rolling), and the end.  Now, I usually have more than that, like random scenes or lines of dialogue I'll want to use somewhere, but aside from those three major things, the rest of the story is a blank for me when I start. 

An author (I'm kicking myself because I forgot who, maybe Stephen King or Dean Koontz) said something like this (paraphrasing ahoy): "The writing process for me is like a road trip: I know where I'm starting from and where I want to end up, and maybe I know a few rest stops on the way, but most of it is just driving and finding out what's there as I go along, mile by mile."

That's how it is for me.  I've tried plot outlining every chapter and scene in the past and, inevitably, the actual story goes off those rails and into unknown (and often much better) territory.

So this has gone on for quite a bit.  That's my way of writing, and yours may be different.  If it is, awesome, so long as it works.  Don't listen to people or professors or even famous writers who tell you it must be done THIS WAY ONLY.  They're full of shit.  Do what you're comfortable with and whatever makes your story the best.   

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