Recently I received an email in which a writer wrote (toward the end of some lengthy praise of my “process”) “I only wish I could write like you.”
During an exchange of emails, I eventually determined the writer was talking about my ability to turn out a lot of quality short stories and novels fairly quickly (though I’m pretty much a slug by old pulp standards). And what the writer really meant was that s/he wished s/he could write, period.
I explained that a short five years ago (2014) I too was wishing I could write like I do today. Albeit without the down times and delays that occasionally come along.
But that started me thinking about my process. Most of you who’ve been with me awhile have heard more about that than you probably want to know. Others, not so much. So I thought I’d try to put it all in one succinct topic.
This actually is a post I personally wish Lee Child and Jack Higgins and Sue Coletta and Ray Bradbury and any number of other writers would write. But they aren’t here, so I guess it’s up to me.
For my novels and most of my shorter works, I most often “receive” ideas. By that I mean they pop into my head. This sounds similar to inspiration, but it isn’t. It’s usually based on situations or characters I’ve written (or read or seen or heard).
And it isn’t a matter of looking-for or waiting-for those ideas. They simply hit, often when I’m in the middle of doing something else.
They usually come as a snippet of dialogue in a character’s voice. Less frequently I’ll “see” (or smell or taste) part of a scene that insterests me.
Sometimes, especially if I’m in the midst of a self-imposed challenge (for example, writing a short story every day or every week), I’ll come up with a character name, hand the character a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story) and drop him into a setting.
Then I write an opening and I’m off and running. Or not.
Once I have an idea, no matter its source, I write an opening. I do this for almost every idea that comes to me. (Hey, practice is practice.) The only time I don’t is if an idea occurs while I’m away from my computer, meaning in a car or in another town. If I’m in the vicinity of my writing computer when an idea strikes, I go write an opening.
My openings are usually around 400 to 600 words. (For me, that’s a third to a half of a scene.)
If the opening grabs me and takes off, I keep writing. I take a brief (10 minutes to a half-hour, depending) break at the end of each scene, which usually takes around an hour to write. When I come back, I put my fingers on the keyboard and read over what I wrote during the previous session. During that time I usually add things, usually to the setting (to more solidly ground the reader), but sometimes I allow the character to expand the dialogue too.
Note: During that part of the process, I read for pleasure, NOT critically. That’s the difference between doing this (cycling) and editing. I do NOT “look for” misspellings, wrong words, awkward sentences or anything else. And I don’t “fix” anything. I just read and let my fingers move if the characters move them.
When I get back to where I stopped writing in the previous session, I’m back into the flow of the story and I write the next scene. Then, as they say in the shampoo commercials, it’s lather, rinse, repeat.
If the opening DOESN’T take off, I pitch it and either go back to what I was doing before or, if I have another idea handy, I write another opening. Shrug.
In all of this, I avoid thinking about where the story’s going or what the next scene will be or what’s about to happen next or anything like that. I simply sit down at the computer, put my fingers on the keyboard, and write the next sentence that comes to me.
That’s through the whole story.
The only “secret” is that I trust my subconscious, and that took practice. Occasionally it still does. Sometimes I find myself worrying about what will happen next in the story or hoping the characters will do a certain thing or that a situation will take a particular turn.
When that happens, I most often take a break. When I come back, I either cycle back (as described above) or I just write the next sentence, then write the next sentence, then write the next sentence.
I’ve been asked whether I know going-in how long a story’s going to be. The short answer is, I don’t. Nor do I worry about it. I just write the opening and go where it takes me.
Several times I’ve expected to write a short story and ended up with a novel when the idea expanded (more on this below). A few times I’ve set out to write a novel and ended up with a short story.
Okay, but how do I know which ideas will work for a short story and which will work for a novel?
Almost any idea will work for at least a short story as long as the idea still interests you after you’ve written the opening. And by that point you can usually tell whether it’s “just” a short story or something larger.
If the story is centered around One major problem and will wrap up satisfactorily when that one problem has been resolved, it’s a short story. (That’s up to around 10,000 words. For my short “Fiction Lengths” paper, email me.)
If “the” problem or its resolution leads to other problems that also have to be resolved, you probably have a novelette (long short story, to about 15,000 words), novella or novel on your hands. Enjoy!
How to “Work Up” to Writing a Novel
If the thought of writing a novel is daunting or frightening to you, toss that thought aside. Seriously. After all, you aren’t writing a novel. You’re writing a sentence. You can do that, right? Especially when someone else (your character) is giving it to you? You’re taking dictation, really. Not difficult or daunting at all.
You don’t write a novel. You write a sentence.
You write a sentence, then the next, then the next. Soon (usually sooner than you expect) you’ve written the cliffhanger at the end of the scene. Then you take a break, then come back and write the opening for the next scene.
Note: Remember that readers have short memories. In every opening, write a few words or sentences to ground the reader. This will come naturally now that you know to do it. If the new scene takes place in the same setting, you can ground the reader with a few words. If it takes place in a new setting (even the next room), grounding the reader will take a little more.
So you write a sentence, then another, and soon you’ve written a scene.
You write a scene, then another, and before you know it you’ve reached the end of the story. Whereupon the characters dust off their little hands, look at you and say, “That’s it, pal. You’re done.”
And you look back to find you’ve written a novel.
If you wish you could write like I do, being “prolific” aside and with genre and story style aside, what you’re really saying is that you wish you could write, period. Really, there’s only one “rule,” and then I have only a few suggestions:
1. Follow Heinlein’s Rule 1: You must write. Remember that thinking about writing or talking about writing or even researching for your writing is not writing. Writing is putting new words on the page. So to write, you have to sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and write a sentence. Then write the next sentence, then the next. Keep going. There’s no substitute for this rule, and really, it’s the only one. What follows are suggestions:
2. Trust your subconscious. Or as Bradbury put it, “write whatever comes.” After all, it’s been telling stories since before you knew there was an alphabet, and you’ll improve with practice. But even if you’re an outliner or have some sort of hybrid process, Rule 1 still applies.
3. Trust your subconscious, Part 2. Remember that yes, it’s “your” story. Um, but not really. After all, the characters are living it, so who do you suppose knows it better? Again, sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and don’t worry about it. Just write whatever comes.
4. Keep coming back. If you have to leave the story for awhile, no problem. Do what you need to do. But literally The Next Time You Get A Chance (it takes effort to build a habit), sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and write the next sentence. Then the next.
5. If you want to “keep coming back,” only the little voice in your head says something that starts with “But,” shove aside the “but” and whatever comes after it and go write anyway, even if it’s for only fifteen minutes or a half-hour. (Usually that will turn into a much longer session, and you’ll thank me, unless you’re an ungrateful sot.)
Joking. I don’t need thanks. Considering what I do for a “job,” I’m pretty much the luckiest guy in the world. (grin)
That’s really pretty much it.
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