Monday, January 30, 2006

One Old Brown Shoe Falls In Slow Motion

Warning: long, rambling writer-porn ahead. Skip if that bores you.

Back in October I blogged some first lines; of the five works quoted there, one has sold, one I'm sending around, one needs some careful revising, one (the novel) is waiting for summer (at least), and one has been kicking my ass for the past two months.

This doesn't happen to me very often. Usually I know when a story is ready to be worked on and when it's not. But this one's been shifting under me since the beginning. Originally I thought I had it all clear in my head, and it would be a 2000-word piece that I could write in a couple of days. Right now it's at about 6000 words, and it's not quite finished. In the beginning I'd add a scene or a few lines in between doing homework or working on other, more pressing stories, not to mention the novel. And every time I came back to it I found it had elaborated upon itself, forged new connections that I hadn't expected, taken a new shape. It was exciting. But so, so frustrating. Trying to match the conception to the execution--sometimes the simple mechanics, the equivalent of getting a character across the room--has been making me crazy.

It's complicated still further by the way I write. I almost never start anything knowing how it's going to end. Sometimes I outline a bit as I go along, particularly with something long (like a novel--although with those, too, I started out not knowing how they would end). But if I start out with a specific idea of what's going to happen, all the urgency of telling myself the story evaporates, and writing becomes a chore. (I don't think I could ever sell a book based on a proposal.)

With this story, there are so many different threads moving through it (and I wish I could tell you more about it, I really do, because I'm excited about it; but I'm superstitious that way) that the struggle right now is finding a way to weave them back together in a way that satisfies. Not that there won't be loose (or frayed) ends, but that everything signifies in some way, right down to the kitchen sink. The things I don't want to lose have to justify their existence in the end, or they'll have to be cut in the revision.

So I took some advice and spent part of the weekend not writing. (I believe Meghan's exact words were: "I think you need a hobby besides writing.") Friday I messed with the guitar and watched a movie; Saturday I cleaned my room top to bottom. (It took all day. I have a lot of damn books.) Yesterday, I went to Letizia's, did my reading for class, and then did a diagram of the story. Nothing fancy, just a lot of names and arrows. I figured out which intersections were still needed for the story to pay off, and where they should happen. And now, I think I've got the damned thing figured out. I want to finish the draft tomorrow, and polish it on the weekend.

I suppose the only reason I post this is that it's amazing to me how this process changes, over time and from story to story. I wonder how many other folks have this experience. Sometimes I start from titles, sometimes from images, sometimes from first lines. Sometimes I write longhand, sometimes my drafts are completely typed, sometimes I do a bit of both. Sometimes a story takes two days to write, sometimes months. There's no consistency to it, and routines that work for one story do nothing for another. And yet as frustrating as this can be, there's nothing more satisfying that I've found. I know that some folks find books on writing useful; I never have. The best way to learn, for me, has been reading stories, and writing them.

I'll throw the question out there; do you have a set process? Do you know the ending before you start writing? Do you tell yourself the story before you write it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's nice, but where's the porn?

- H

(Now I'll go back and actually read the post.)

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, back now. I've actually said, though maybe not to you, that I think it's a dangerous thing for a writer to get tooooo attached to the idea of My Process. Not 'cause it's a bad thing to know thyself and all that jazz, but...not all stories are the same. Not all stories are going to be writable in the same ways. It's easy, I think, to get so wrapped up in This Is How I Write that you don't know that _this_ story can't be written in that way.

Of course, I'm kind of in between methods right now, which is maybe why I feel this way. I'm treading the very murky waters between how I thought I wrote and how I apparently actually do write, at least on these stories, at least at this point.

For a long time I would've said that I know the beginning and I know where it'll end and I don't know how it'll get there, that I just write what follows from what I've already written and bounce off the sides of the story when I go astray--what I mean when I talk about having a feel for the story's shape. These days...I'm not so sure.

- H

1:35 PM  
Blogger Michael Jasper said...

When I get stuck, it's usually because the real world starts to intrude, and I can't focus. Or I just lose interest in the story.

Regularity is my only real Process. Plugging away every day, at more or less the same time. Though I sometimes do some "binge writing" all day long.

Sticking with a story helps (I have a bad tendency to forget my own stories and even novel plotlines after a few weeks away from 'em).

But the best thing for me when I'm stuck on a story is to read a bunch of stories (reading the latest Polyphony helped me get going on my most recent story) or diving into a novel to get me fired up about my novel again.

Hope that helps!

I did writer-porn...

2:55 PM  
Blogger Michael Jasper said...

Um, make that "I DIG writer-porn." Sheesh!

2:55 PM  
Blogger Tim Akers said...

Kinda no. I have a general idea of what I'm doing with a story when I start the actual writing, but never the specifics. I usually longhand the first quarter of the story, type that out, print it. Then I'll read that, make corrections and additions in the white spaces, then continue longhand on the back of the printed pages. Type it, print it, repeat, until the story's done.

8:22 AM  
Blogger haddayr said...

I think I write like you do. Each story seems to need its own process. This is also complicated by my current compressed schedule. I don't write every day, although I generally write every week at some point. I steal moments to write: during office meetings, during the kids' nap, on family visits while everyone else is watching the news, at night after the kids are asleep. Right now, if a story presented as much of a challenge as yours does, I would set it aside and work on it in tiny bits and probably take two years to finish it. I'm excited to read the story!

10:15 AM  
Blogger haddayr said...

Although one thing that remains constant is I seem to need to write my column on a computer and my fiction by hand. Dunno why.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Trent said...

I almost always start a story with a beginning, middle, and end in mind. Some thought comes to me--a person, a scene, a situation--and within a matter of seconds I have a general plot in my head. I know a lot of people who say they don't know where their story ends when they start writing, but I almost always do. I usually have a harder time figuring out where it should begin.

My stories break down when the nifty sequence of events in my head turn out to be not so nifty on the page; the original idea isn't an interesting as I thought (a disproportionate number of my stories come to me in dreams so this isn't surprising) or events need to be contrived in order for it fit together.

Stories that scare me are the ones that naturally beget more stories and threaten to turn into novels, or at the very least a series of stories. Drawing the lines where one story "begins" and "ends" becomes more difficult when I know there are other interesting things happening just before and just after. This is the danger of creating characters that intrigue you and putting them in an idea-rich environment when you originally intended to write a single-serving story.

Occupational hazard, I guess.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

When I say "porn," Ms. B., I mean something gratuitous. (Shakes head with disapproval.)

Yep, yep, on not getting "tooooo attached to the idea of My Process." That's pretty much what I was saying, that I've never been able to get complacent about that, because it changes all the time.

Michael, interesting that you mention reading stories, since I've also noticed that when I'm not reading short stuff every day it becomes harder for me to write.

Tim, that's my "typical" process as well; scribble, type it up, print it, scribble on the printout, type it up, lather, rinse, repeat. Interesting that we both work that way.

Haddayr, with all that you've got going on the fact that you're producing anything at all is pretty heroic. I honestly can't imagine writing with kids. Which would be bad, because not writing = cranky cranky Dave.

Trent, I think the toughest thing I've had to learn is when I've actually got a good idea for a story, as opposed to an idea that is kind of interesting in a five-minute conversation but falls flat in a 5000-word story. I had a moment of doubt a week or so, working on this story. I had myself all but convinced that it was incredibly dull, which is probably my greatest fear. (I got over it.)

11:01 AM  

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