This morning I read an article about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers and his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. It’s confirmation of what I’ve told myself. Writing–good writing–is all about the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair. Thank you Mrs. Hawkins. So time spent becoming an expert means time spent in the process of doing.
I’m rereading Ron Carlson’s book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, on process. I gave my original copy to Mr. Pierpont, a writer friend who lives in Seattle, and ordered a new one for myself. I love that book because Carlson lets me sit on his shoulder as he puts together his story.
When another friend shared with me this morning that she’s decided the best way for her to work is to begin by sitting down and letting it happen, it resonated. This is exactly what Carlson does. He says “process” is the key, finding your own, and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s mine.
1. I type or hand write everything I know about the idea in my head. I do what feels “right” as a first step, whether it’s a full-to-the-end draft, notes, outline, or brainstorm. This varies with the trigger, the dawning of an idea in my brain, what it is: a title, a plot, a character, an incident, a theme.
2. Whatever I end up with, I work from there.
If it’s mostly a plot, I make an informal outline, then I fill in the blanks, the who-what-where-why-how of each scene in the outline. I remind myself that scenes, scene-sequences, chapters, parts, the whole story, should have answers to all five questions somewhere in the text. I try to identify the possible theme here, but sometimes I have no idea.
If, instead of making an outline, I’ve written a draft to express what I know about my story, I search for the major scenes-segments-acts and ask myself what they mean thematically, what the spine might be etc. I also consider the order I’ve placed these scenes in. Does it make sense?
If I’ve come up with notes and brainstorming, and this is my most common way of proceeding, I write a quick draft. Sometimes I do a little research about the “where” or the “what” before I write that first draft, but often I just go.
3. If the story’s got something compelling, all the above converges and I have a working draft. Then it’s time for me to do some kind of analysis. These are the things I look at.
Are characters clear, defined, and have their own problems and attitudes? Do they fulfill a purpose in the story? What is each one’s purpose?
Does the sequence of events set up an inevitable, yet unexpected ending? Are there set-ups and pay-offs throughout the story? Are the transitions from scene to scene clear? Does the plot support the emerging theme in the best way it can?
Time and place
Is the setting defined or purposefully undefined? Can the reader SEE what’s going on, like it’s up on the big screen?
Does this story have the ability to resonate with the reader on both a personal and universal level? Is it compelling? Have all the other elements been put into service to enhance and clarify the theme?
Have all the cliches and stolen images been purged to the best of my ability? Do the sentences act as real sentences? (Tell the reader something specific) Have I said things twice that don’t need to be said or repeated enough things that bear repeating? Have I pared all useless language? Changed most of the general words like “it” to meaningful, concrete nouns that clarify and enhance?
4. At this point, I look for intelligent, kind, but honest readers to find flaws and reenforce the story’s strong qualities. I want them to tell me if it worked.
5. I rewrite. I let the comments of others guide me in decisions, but I’ve learned to trust the little voice in my head.
6. I read the story aloud, have a friend proof-read it, and proofread it myself.
7. Then I submit it to, hopefully, the right markets.
8. But most importantly of all, I start a new story.
The above process has evolved through well-over 20 years. Whether I’ve become one of Malcolm’s experts is highly debatable, but this I can say for sure: 20+ years of writing practice has enriched my life beyond measure. Striving to be good at something is its own reward.