The Writing Life
Once you start writing more professionally (and by that I mean more regularly, for money), I find it’s important to establish some kind of process to help write a story on demand. This is opposed to the generally perceived writing process, which I believe is a variation on ‘Well the sun has struck mine eye rather splendidly, and gently awoken my muse with its warm breath. Perchance today I may peck at my keyboard, spreading gentle wit and joy amongst my readers’.
Screw that. This isn’t your auntie’s warm summer’s day of writing on a whim; this is the brutal reality of prison concrete; it’s a swinging naked bulb in whose cold light we scribble ravings onto an endless sheet of paper extruded from a mute slot in the wall. This is Real Life, and sometimes we’re thrown a crumpled $10 note for our efforts. That’s professional writing, people.
Anyway, my point is that if you need to write a story on demand (be that on commission, or because you’ve seen a new anthology that sparks your interest and has a short deadline) you need be able to get creative quickly, sort out your story/concept/narrative (at least the guts of it), then flip into a ‘getting things done’ mentality and write the accursed thing.
John Cleese did an excellent half hour talk about the creative process versus the ‘getting-stuff-done’ process, noting that we need to be in a particular state of mind and environment to successfully be effective at these tasks. Of course, in the creative mindset we are hopeless at focusing on getting things done, and in the ‘getting-things-done’ mindset we are hopeless at thinking outside of the box. Watch it when you get some time, it’s both funny and insightful.
What the hell are you still doing here? Didn’t I suggest you go watch that video? Do you expect me to finish writing this post or something? Geez.
The good news is that getting into what I will refer to as the ‘free-association’ mode gets easier with practice. The bad news is that the heat-death of the universe lies implacably in our future and everything we do or create will eventually be naught but Hawking Radiation dispersed into the lonely void.
I tend to craft stories in this order: concept/scene/image, character(s), ending paragraph, plot. Obviously there are exceptions to this. Sometimes the characters come first; sometimes there is a flash of inspiration for a plot, into which I retrofit everything else. Generally though, I start with the theme or concept.
Concept, Scene or Image
I tend to be a concept guy. I like big ideas, strange worlds, weird twists on ‘stuff’. This can be inspired by an image I spot related to the project, or any number of random things. Often, it’s luck, or even some strikingly visual scene which hints at a large universe.
Characters are a great way to move the camera (ie. the reader) through the concept so I can show off my crazy ideas. Often the larger concept shapes the kind of characters that are acceptable or possible. They probably need to be interesting in some way or something, too.
You may think it odd that I focus on the ending over the plot, but I find that a lousy ending ruins almost any story. Having just a final paragraph mostly formed in my head is both a tremendous motivator (Yes, There Will Be An End) and a catalyst for devising a plot (How Will We Get To This End?).
In the past I’ve described writing as a two part process: ‘watching a tree’s branches grow organically outwards’ (the fun part) and ‘tying the branches back into a single point’ (the painful, boring, agonising and sometimes impossible part).
Is it any wonder writers often just slap an ending on a story and hope the reader won’t notice? (Yes, this happens; I’ve read enough submissions in my time, so don’t even bother arguing with me on this one point)
The plot is just the interesting things that happen in the Concept, to the Character(s), which gets them to the Ending, so we can just ignore this for now. *coughs*
This is roughly how I write a story on demand. These steps may not work for you at all. In fact, merely reading them might irreversibly damage your ability to spit stories onto paper or into screens. Perhaps you have a personal series of steps that work well for you to achieve the same goal? If so, I urge you to detail it in the comments and help your colleagues on this road of iniquity.
Step 1: Take one (at least one) imminent deadline. This may be self-imposed if you have more fortitude and self-discipline than the vast majority of writers, or you may be lucky enough to have been contracted to do some writing, in which case an angry editor or your agent will impose the deadline for you.
Step 2: Find seeds of inspiration. Creativity clusters around inspirational seeds like carbon dioxide bubbles cling to nucleation points in Champagne. Without a creative entry point I get nowhere fast. On a side note, this is something that frustrates me about writing competitions. ‘Oh, just write some prose up to 5,000 words to enter,’ we’re told.
Generally, one of these inspiration-seeds is the theme of the competition, magazine issue or anthology for which I’m writing the story. If I’m lucky, I might get a list of already accepted stories and articles, which allow me to narrow down that theme, or riff on it in an interesting way. Each of these little specks is an entry point into a creative universe, and I cram them all into my little brain in preparation for the next step.
Step 3: Stand in the shower for tens of minutes, or (more affordably) go for a walk with minimal distractions for at least 20 minutes. Either of these activities is like unplugging my brain from inputs, kind of like a cheap sensory-deprivation chamber. With no external stimuli, the brain-seeds from Step 2 start getting restless, bouncing off each other more vigorously until, with luck, it pops my brain into the coveted free association mode outlined in Step 1 (there will be an exam later, pay attention).
Step 4: There is no step 4. We’ve unbound our brain from the chrono-stream and are floating in a void populated only by ideation points popping into little universes like corn kernels in oil. They’ll bounce off each other, burn out, get greasy, cluster together. With luck (somehow it’s always about luck) some concept will appeal to the barely conscious Me, and I’ll zoom in on that, discarding entire alternate universes, only to zoom back out and throw it into the mix.
Step 5: At the end of our meditative period I usually have some concepts and images and even scenes. If I’m feeling confident I commit them to memory somehow. Interestingly, although I have a powerful computer in my pocket at all times, I don’t tend to write anything down at this point. I feel that my under-brain is going to sit on these concepts for a while, processing away in the background. When I turn the spotlight of my attention back on these new ideas, only the memorable ones will still be there.
Step 6: After a little bit of downtime, dependent entirely on the urgency of the deadline (and so anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hrs), I take the concept/scenes/images from Step 5, and plug them back into Step 3, 4 and 5 to generate characters.
Step 7: Repeat this for ending and finally plot. Plot is the hardest because by this stage in the process you don’t have universes of possibility anymore. With characters and concept in place, it’s time to kick the free-association mindset in the guts and activate the problem-solving mindset. It’s obviously still important to be creative, but now we have a much better idea of where we are and with whom. Given these starting parameters (and hopefully a target in the form of a satisfying Ending), the plot is more an exercise in problem solving than it is ideation. It may be necessary to take certain key seeds of the plot and inject it into Step 3 and 4 from time to time, but the creative process is much more structured by this point.
This is where research happens, too. Research fixes plot points, clarifies (and even enriches) concepts and characters, and provides new creative entry points with which to push the plot forward.
It may help to have a friend around to bounce your ideas off. Obviously they won’t understand or appreciate the amazing thing you’re creating, unless they are a fellow writer (and I don’t suggest talking to writers, they’re strange). Don’t be discouraged if your friend scowls at you or says stuff like, ‘Stop calling me, it’s been 6 months, it’s over.’
Step 8: Actually start writing. By now I’ll have a skeleton and lots of little points or even scenes trapped in my chest and rattling my ribs like prison bars. I likely won’t have written a single word at this point, but may have sketched down some opening lines or closing lines.
Important: Opening sentences and closing sentences are the most important sentences in all the world. Good opening sentences stop readers from walking away and doing something else. Good closing sentences stop readers from hating you for wasting their time. Chisel this into your head. This is important and applicable across all aspects of life, from relationships to job applications to parole hearings.
This step can take some time. If all the previous steps have come together well, I find this part easy, relaxing and exciting. There is still some exploration as the world and its characters react to the actions that form the plot, but I have a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of an entire paragraph that wraps the story up. It’s just matter of gently herding the accursed brain-babies you have spat into your world (aka characters) in a way that is consistent with the parameters of your world.
Step 9: Revise revise revise. If you have the luxury of an editor or proofreader, send them the earliest coherent revision so you can have some downtime and hope they fix the holes for you. If you don’t have an editor, revise until you think it’s great (sadly, the number of revisions it will take for you to think it’s great will trend from 1 to infinity as you become a more experienced writer).
Step 10: Submit. Pray to your gods. Forget. If you’re good enough, you will win one ticket to enter into the publication lottery, which is about the best it will get until your name itself is enough to accept submissions (by which time you will question whether anything you write is any good and it’s just your fame getting you published).
I hope this has helped or at least entertained you, and I wish you the best of luck on your writing journey.