Writing fiction isn’t easy. Short stories, novels, plays, or screenplays all call for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered effort on the part of the writer. The endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves stumbled through. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost in its parts. Therefore, diving into the complex world of a story often leaves writers confused and frustrated.
Understanding the elements of craft is only one part of navigating the terrain. Learning how to mesh the elements of craft together, the actual “process” of writing, is the larger challenge. My goal is to suggest a route through the writing matrix. To do this, we need to use visualization.
Begin with a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, its spine, its back and front covers, the thickness of its pages. Now think of yourself opening that book to chapter one, laying it flat on a table in front of you. Stand up and look down at it. You see words lined up on the right-hand page. Sentences and paragraphs, subject+verb+ prepositional phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated. In the physical world the page is a flat, two-dimensional object, but this impression is deceiving. The creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional. It is the process of “layering” tasks onto the same concept in order to shape it into one cohesive piece of work. Here’s a step-by-step look at process via our imaginary book.
1. Visualize that book again and erase the words from its pages. In your mind, place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book. Breathing space. Can you see the clean white pages through a clear sheet of glass.
2.Now imagine filling that pane of glass with your own words, an idea, a feeling, a character, a scene, a sequence of events, the who, what, where, why, when, and how of the story you want to tell. It won’t all fit, but suspend your disbelief, pretend. This is layer one of the matrix.
3. Add a second sheet of glass—some breathing space again—and notice you can still see the plain white paper and the glut of content you put one that first piece of glass. Your words don’t look anything like that published book we started with. Who’d want to read this? So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane. Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second? Which paragraph is irrelevant? What content will move your reader? What won’t? That’s layer two.
4. You’re still standing over the book, but what you see is a jumble of content on glass one and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass two. An even bigger mess than before. You want to quit!
5. So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to only one pane: panes one and two have fused into one.
6. Place another glass down. You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas. These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing, and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass three, what this story means.
7. These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass one. You look for key words. If your content and structure are about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass three: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane three fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.
8. Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.
9. A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.
10. Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.
11. After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.
12. If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be twenty or thirty layers in a novel, maybe only four or five in a flash.
13. Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again.
It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.
We often only think of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three pages or a hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers. We shake our heads and groan and mumble, “I don’t even know where to start” leading to “I’m going to fail.”
We want to give up because we don’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure, the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading. Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.