Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Just Curious... What's Your Process?

I’m faced with the prospect of writing for an anthology on a very tight deadline and it’s forced me to consider how it is that go about constructing a story. Under ideal circumstances (which this is not), I’m very much a “well, just start the thing, and see where it goes,” kind of writer. This kind of composing, however, I’ve discovered, often leads to dead ends. I have a large number of story starts in my computer files at home. Stories that I will probably never finish because I didn’t know where they were going and I ran out of steam.

I’ve found that if I’m going to finish a story, I need to know the end. Which probably makes me one of those crazy people who loves outlines. Except, I’m so “organic” (to use a polite word, probably a more accurate one is “disorganized”) that what I do instead is have a kind of brainstorming session with my partner (or with myself in a notebook) where I throw around ideas until I find one I can follow through to a satisfying conclusion. Once I’ve “talked it through,” I can start… and usually, though not always, finish.

As you can tell, I’m not a heavy plotter. I am one of those annoying people who likes their “characters to surprise them.” I think this can be a good thing in fiction. If your sense of your characters is strong enough, this kind of writing can (sometimes) lead to surprises that feel real and fresh to a reader. That’s not to say that I don’t think you can achieve this on purpose with lots of plotting, but I do think that spontaneous/organic/Muse-driven writing can feel more magical both to the reader and the author.

So I’m not an outliner, but I like to know my ending. Joan Vinge described this process as going on a road trip with a bunch of friends where all you know about the trip is your destination – you might have a map, but that doesn’t preclude changes in plans, flat tires, and any number of other things that can happen along the way.

My question is... what’s your process? How would you get a 10,000 word story written in two weeks?


Sean M. Murphy said...

I think the first thing I would do, in addition to the brainstorming dialogues that you've already mentioned, is frame a couple of basic characters and then look away from them, to see what else is in their world. Is there a particular cafe/nightclub/strip joint/grocery store that plays into the story? What does the town/city/cave look like? I sometimes think of people as the pinballs and the world as the table off of which they careen, so it can be really helpful to know that Sheriff Guggenheim is having arguments at home and is taking out his frustration by sitting in his squad car in the shadows of an alley on Main Street every night, instead of going home, and that he's taking his frustration out on whoever he can catch there up to no good. I guess I tend to look at the deatils and then find out how they impact my main characters--and sometimes, I find out that they are my main characters, too.

Anyhow, that's how I'd get started.

Douglas Hulick said...

Well, given that I don't write short fiction all that much, I find it highly ironic (and a bit hypocritical) that I am responding at all. But I want to at least try to help, So, take this with many grains of salt.

For me, it usually starts with either a strong character or a strong opening image. If I have both, even better, but I need at least one to get things rolling.

After that, well, it varies. I see if I can come up with a strong foil or two for the main character, look at the world, and decide what the end goal of the story might be. Is the story mainly about accomplishing something, discovering something, character change, or what?

Of course, this all implies at least a loose plot of some sort in my head, which is what usually trips me up. I'm good with plotting longer pieces, but the short stuff tends to paralyze me. Just not enough elbow room, I guess. :) But I can't write and see where it goes - that guarantees an unfinished piece for me every time.

I think the most important underlying thing for me is a sense of excitement. I need a vision for the story, a panorama of emotions & images, even if I don't have a full plot right away. If I don't have that "This is so cool!" reaction in my gut, the story invariably peters out. Often, brainstorming with other people can really help fuel that feeling in me.

And deadlines always help. I'm a great procrastinator, so giving me a "be done or else" date is a big plus.

Mari Adkins said...

I’m faced with the prospect of writing for an anthology on a very tight deadline Ugh. I just went through the same thing. Sad thing is, I'd had since December of last year to write the thing and kept putting it off. I have it in my head that I don't write short stories, or at least not very well. I've written exactly two, the one for the anthology being the second.

While I was struggling with it, a friend told me that he writes shorts this way - figure out the plot; know what happened before, during, after; figure out the beginning and the ending; write the middle.

Made sense to me, so that's exactly what I did. I got the basic premise in my head and went from there for two weeks. I put down at least 500 words a day. Well of the Waters came out to 3036 words.

I have no delusions that my story is the best in the bunch (hahahaha), but I have no doubts that it's a good story - especially for someone who "thinks in novels".

Eleanor said...

The last time I had a chance at an anthology, I had a really distant deadline, which I did not make. As a result, the story is still making the rounds to editors. It's a good story, one of my favorites, and I could have finished it on time. Sloth is its own punishment.