Saturday, February 07, 2009

Getting Started

So, in the open thread Love Pickles asked: How would you advise an amateur writer who mainly writes poetry and journals, and while proud of it, it'd be nice to venture into new territory. I thoroughly love writing, but dialog and the process of character development is a little intimidating to me. I think it'd be a cool challenge to push myself further with writing, and am absolutely fine if it never goes anywhere.

Which is a fascinating question. I know how I started, which was pretty much, hey I have this shiny new computer, what can I do with it? I know, I'll write a book. Then I leapt. But that's not a terribly helpful prescription for anyone else. Sean had one good suggestion down at the end of that thread. After thinking about it in more depth I can think of a number of others. I'll put one out there now.

I tend to start with an idea for a place or piece of magic. If you're not writing f&sf, that latter's not as useful, but stick with me for a little bit. On that front, think of something you'd really like to know more about. It can be something you already enjoy, or something you've always wanted to do or see but never got around to. The key is that it's something you'd really like to spend some time with.

Go, take a look at your thing. Think about something that might happen there. It can be as simple as the meal you'd like to cook in the really great kitchen you don't own with the ingredients you can't afford. Build a scenario for whatever the idea is that runs from start to finish. If there's only one person, add another so the two can talk about what's happening. Spend some time building a little opening dialogue for the scene. Make sure to give yourself enough to really get a feel for the beginning of this cool thing that's happening. Write it all down.

Got it? Good. Now imagine something going wrong. If you want a small domestic kind of story it can be a minor problem. The pilot light in the kitchen scene won't start. If you're writing epic fantasy, maybe this is the time for you to discover that the real gas source for the stove is a not very happy baby dragon whose really unhappy mom is about to arrive to set things right. The exact problem doesn't matter. What matters is that it's a problem you can work with.

How does the problem change the scene? What do your characters do and say? Are they calm? Do they unravel under stress? Spend some time thinking about it. Go ahead and start writing, but don't finish it yet.

Why? Because they're going to fail in that first attempt and you need to figure out how, and how they're going to overcome the failure. Now, that may lead to another failure, or the solution of the overarching problem, or to something that solves a different problem entirely, perhaps one that's been exposed by the way they deal with failure. Again, the specifics don't matter. What matters is the way the characters are transformed or fail to be transformed by their interaction with the problem.

Figure that out, write it down, type "the end," and you've got a story. Or, if it doesn't end, if the problem builds into another and you want to keep following it, maybe you've got the opening chapter of a novel. Whatever you've got, hopefully you had fun getting there and will want to try another go.

Another approach for a poet might be to take something that you've already written that has a core story that interests you and expand it out into a short story.

You'll probably find that writing the story is less work than writing the poem was. For me a good poem takes a week's work and might run 200 words. A short story will probably take the same week and come in around 5,000 words. Or I can write 10,000-12,000 words on a novel in the same time.


Loves Pickles said...

Thank you, Kelly, for taking such time and care in your response!! It's great advice, and I like that you laid it out in an "outline-y" way. I sometimes get too caught up with "editing-as-I-go" which I think can (sometimes) be an idea killer. After reading Anne LaMott's "Bird by Bird", she said something about simply barfing the ideas out, and editing later. I'm not sure if I could *totally* stick to that, because in poetry, I'm so used to picking the proper word for the feeling of the moment, and in the next moment that word may change--if you take my meaning. Writing from the heart, if you don't capture that feeling in that particular moment, it's gone. Thus, the poem has now been lost, or turned into something completely different. So I'd like to apply that same principle to any short stories I write, since I'm only going to be doing it for myself, but I also appreciate the idea of not getting bogged down in the "it's not perfect yet" game of editing on the spot. In past short stories, I've found that process incredibly difficult, though, because not only is the next time I sit down going to carry with it a different flavor, but in some cases, the original idea just feels different, utterly foreign or even gone. And maybe that's not a bad thing, maybe I should just let the day take me...hmmm. Lots to ponder!!!

So, this brings up another couple of questions:

Do you ever write out of order or re-arrange chapters later?

What do you do to keep your head in the right space? Do you ever have to re-center yourself, or whatever, to get back into the world you're writing in?

Thanks again, it is mucho help to me :)

Kelly McCullough said...

You're welcome. It was a really interesting in getting into a writing headspace I haven't really visited.

On the questions:

I have written out of sequence, but I've never been happy with the results. For me at least, the effort involved in going back and joining up the pieces tends to be three times what it would have been to just go through in a linear way. I know other people who do it and have no problems but I'm an extremely linear sort of writer. Part of the reason for that is the answer to your next question.

I reground myself in the story and voice every time I write by doing an edit pass over the previous day's material or the previous 2000 words, whichever is the larger chunk. That way I more or less slide directly into the writing forward at the same point I left it. I used to do 1000 words, but my editing has gotten much faster over time and I can even hit 4 or 5k if I really need to get the sense of the flow over a bigger chunk.

That actually helps with the edit as I go issue as well, because I know that I'm going to come back and make those fixes on the very next day, so I have permission not to worry about them now.

Anonymous said...

Love Pickles, I almost always write completely out of order. I write whatever scene or thought I have in my head at a given time. Then, I have to go through and piece things together later, obviously. But it's never seemed to be all that difficult, at least not for me. I know other people have different observations.

Jon said...

I think picking the "right" word is undeniably important, but I think that kill's peoples ideas and worse yet, their momentum, more often than not.

Plow ahead, plow forward, come back later and fix your "mistakes" You may find that some of those mistakes, after they've had some time to take root, weren't actually mistakes to begin with.

I think the vomit-scene advice is good, but tack on to it... sometimes you have to let it fester.