21 May 2016

The Mother of All Writing Processes, Part 2

Remember that Writing Process thing from last week

First you get an idea, then you write it. Simple, isn't it? 

If you're writing an essay for a class, just follow the basic pattern that was outlined in ancient days by one cool Greek dude named Aristotle. That's right: he was so cool he only needed one name. His brilliant idea was that every speech (writing wasn't too cool back then but everyone liked speeches) had three parts: Beginning, Middle, and End. It's hard to believe now that nobody had thought of that until Aristotle did. Today we call those three parts: Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Got it?

The reason there are three parts is because each part has a particular function. The Introduction introduces the subject of the essay or speech and sets up your audience to want to read (or listen, if it's a speech). The Body is where you present examples or other information that develops, explains, or illustrates the subject you are writing about (or speaking about). The Conclusion is the last part; it's where you summarize your idea, maybe ask people to do something, and wrap it up so your audience feels good.

The same is not true of fiction writing, however. The rules are made to be broken - which is the reason we teach the rules first (see above). Either way, the writing of the first ever text that comes out of your head is called the Draft. Sometimes people number them: first draft, second draft, and so on, just to make it seem as though they are working very hard!


Above, I briefly described the kind of writing process that I push on students. To some extent it holds true for any writing task. Even for fiction. However, fiction is more delicate, more fragile, and the idea of a story is subject to so many more mini-steps than an academic essay. I would need to address "my" personal writing process in light of each book I've written in order to cover all of the situations, but that would require about a year's worth of blogging. I've described the "getting ideas" step previously. The next step, drafting, usually requires me to craft scenes. Rather than think of the entire story, I focus on one section at a time. I began using this approach while writing A BEAUTIFUL CHILL and I have employed the strategy ever since.

The one great thing I learned in my MFA Creative Writing program came from the visiting writer-in-residence he had one semester. David Huddle, who I'd never heard of prior to his arrival, taught the formula which I've come to call the Aria - Recitativo structure. I forget what he called it, but we read many examples of this two-pronged attack strategy. Rather than get bogged down thinking of the whole story, which could be overwhelming, we just focus on one scene. Then the next scene.

A scene is a moment in time, written and read in real time, moment by moment. Action happens in about the same time it takes to read it. Characters act, speak, live - which moves the story along. Between the scenes is what is called exposition. It is a compression of time and events, because they are not so interesting in themselves and they are of little consequence. It's the information we need to get to the next scene. We tell something to bridge the gap. We could say that the scene is the "showing" while the exposition is the "telling" part of the story.

So we have two parts of a story: the scenes and the exposition. In operatic terms, these are the Aria and the Recitativo. The Aria is a set-piece where the actors/singers stop the story and sing a song about how they feel or what the problem is or anything else that reveals something of the central issues of the story - separate from the story line itself. Then we move into Recitativo ("recitation"), which is simply the information we need to move us on to the next Aria. People don't go to an opera for the recitativo, nor do readers buy a book for the exposition passages. But the exposition parts are necessary for tying aria to aria and scene to scene.

Granted, this is a simplification of both the structure of an opera and the structure of a novel, but if you examine contemporary novels, you are likely to see this structure. I've also heard it said that this writing style, this system in particular, has come about in parallel with the film industry. Younger writers write prose as though they are seeing the action in a movie, which tends to be composed in scenes or set-pieces, much like in an opera. By the same token, readers, experienced with the shorter, more succinct and set narrative patterns of television and film, seem to prefer this structure, as well.

So that is the basic process of drafting for me. I seldom create a full outline but, rather, rough it ahead a few chapters or scenes at a time. For example, I need a scene to show X happening or a scene where Protagonist realizes Y or decides Z. Often I begin in the middle of a scene (that's the cool term known as "medias res"). I fill in what-happened-before as I go on with the scene. I try to avoid starting a scene with a setting description, at least not a long one. Knowing I have a tendency to wax poetic with wonderfully adroit metaphors, I try to keep the writing as lean as I can. Once in a while, especially where a character's emotions are revealed, I allow myself a worthwhile indulgence of verbosity. Editors hate me for that, of course.

At each writing session (when I have no particular schedule that would limit my effort), I begin by reading what I previously wrote and editing as appropriate. (That is actually part of the next step: revision.) That reading/editing activity gets me up to speed in the story and when I have arrived at the point where I stopped previously, I am ready to charge ahead into new scenes. Occasionally, I may awaken with a new scene already in my head and I will write it out before determining where it should go in the story. Sometimes, I awake and write the scene that is in my head without editing the previous section first. Sometimes, I just stare at the computer screen waiting for the muse to whisper into my ear. While waiting, I drink a lot of coffee.

I also like to play music which helps to set the mood of the scene or for the story in general. For example, as I wrote my vampire book, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, I dared play music from the films of Twilight, although it did not cause me to borrow anything else. The music must be without English lyrics because the words in my ear distracts me from the words in my head. While I wrote Book III of THE DREAM LAND trilogy, I listened to a fine collection of "Epic" music, typical of video games and sci-fi films - selecting one or another which I believed fit the scene I was writing. (See a sample here.) 

For my latest book, A GIRL CALLED WOLF, which is set in the arctic, I searched for music which evoked the cold, windswept ice cap and rough mountain terrain. I found a selection on the album Miracles by popular music group Two Steps from Hell. This track ("Color the Sky") would open the movie of this story: soaring over the ice-filled sea, the bare crags of mountains, the thick ice cap, both beauty and starkness combined. Or, listen to this track  ("Northern Pastures") and imagine racing over through the snow on a dog sled, the green aurora waving over your head, icy wind blowing into your face, and you are a 12 year old orphan girl living alone, half fun and half fearful. A couple tracks actually changed the story a little because they conjured different scenes than what I originally had planned - just so I could play the song that went with the scene over and over. Not every track of the album fit the story, of course, but I drew from several sources to compile my own "soundtrack" playlist.

I tend to have two writing sessions: first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Mornings are good for editing or cobbling out a fresh scene straight from my dreams. It's also good for building on whatever I wrote previously. Night is best for fresh composition - providing I can get motivated. The irony is that I am usually exhausted physically and mentally before the words can come easily. Mornings, I tend to trudge zombie-like to the computer and start typing without too much "waking up" even as the coffee is being made. I'm really surprised how correct my typing is at that early hour; the more I awaken, the worse it gets. I think in both cases my filters are down and that allows unobstructed creation.  Darn Muses, always playing games with my head!

I write novels a lot more than anything else. I have written plenty of essays (or the upscale equivalent known as scholarly articles) and they tax my patience. The story, or the bundle of scenes in a novel, allow me much more free rein, which is what I enjoy. I pity my students writing essays about whatever interests them but the curriculum is set and I alone cannot change it much. If only they were writing stories of mystery and mayhem on misty moors....

NEXT WEEK: The Rules of Revision (or what to do after you are finished)

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

15 May 2016

The Mother of All Writing Processes

One thing I do most of the year is share my love of writing with young people who do not necessarily share my love of writing. If I can pull a few of them into the fold, however, all my efforts seem justified. As the many weeks of lessons have come to an end now, and the few I've managed to mentor into Write Club have celebrated their commencement into society-at-large, it seems a good time to summarize the 15 weeks of composition tug-o-war in a blog post or two.

It all begins with "The Writing Process"!

I've contemplated writing about my writing process for quite a while but such a blog post always faltered because my process varies from project to project and the seasons and the quality of coffee I consume and other factors. Hard to nail it down. Ironically, in my day job, I am tasked with teaching a rather "fixed" process to college students. It's like a song I play over and over every semester. And it goes a little bit like this:

1. You get an idea by reading, surfing the internet, talking with friends, brainstorming, drawing out a map/web/cluster to visualize ideas, thinking a lot, or just simply asking your teacher "What should I write about?"

2. Then you organize your idea, keeping in mind both the format of an essay (or what other genre you are writing) and attention to your audience, their expectations, and your purpose in writing about the subject of your choice. For an essay, we will need a beginning where you introduce your subject, a middle where to explain and give details and examples about your subject, and a conclusion that makes your readers feel all warm and fuzzy about your subject. For fiction, it's all screwed up so start anywhere, go anywhere, make it interesting.

3. Drafting comes next. That's where you hammer out your ideas, pulling them out of your head and plopping them down on some computer screen - or, more and more these days, on a phone screen. (I kid you not: I get papers sent to me from iPhones!) You don't have to start at the beginning and write through to the end. You don't need to thrash about in anguish if the words don't come out perfect or beautiful the first time. Just start. Open thy mind and summon thy muse!

4. When you have the draft finished, read through it and see if your ideas flow logically from one to the next one. Check the organization of your paragraphs. Look at the thesis statement (your whole essay stated in one or two sentences) and each of the topic sentences (what the paragraph is about). Make sure you have something which "hooks" your reader's attention at the beginning and something poignant or clever which closes your essay. Again, for fiction, it's all messed up. Even so, you still had something in mind while you were composing, so how close did you get?

5. Edit and proofread. Several times. Do not rely only on the spellchecker function of your word processor application. Read it at least once with your own eyes (fifteen times is better, twenty-two is getting closer to perfection, but even thirty wouldn't be too many, unless it's about fifty times). However, your eyes can be fooled. So try reading it aloud and you'll likely hear some of the problems your eyes did not catch. (If that seems boring, try reading in a vampire voice or with a British accent [American if you are a UK person].) Or have someone else read it to get another pair of eyes on the text. Look for problems with syntax (sentence errors like the dreaded comma-splice or the evil run-on), or fragments - which are not complete sentences. Note: fragments are common in fiction writing, but that's a whole 'nother ball game. (I have an exhaustive checklist of everything that can go wrong with an essay and I have a similar checklist for fiction and poetry.)

6. Finally, publish that thing. For school purposes, that means giving your paper to the instructor who will evaluate it and assign it a grade that will either ruin your life or send you off to Cloud 9. For the real world, that means sending it to someone somewhere in the hopes that your writing will be found so worthy they want to share it with the world - perhaps pay you for that privilege. Movie rights sold separately.

These are the steps in a quick-and-dirty synopsis. The reality is much more eclectic. More so if the writing is fiction rather than some kind of expository writing in an essay format.

Getting Ideas

For the academic essay, I like to stress that the student has something to say and needs to say it, and that is the reason for the essay. Got a Description essay of a person or place to write for class? My grandmother is the best grandmother anyone could ever have. That's a reason to write about it. Or, I remember how wonderful it was visiting grandma's house for Thanksgiving holiday. Another great reason to write. However, fiction is different, as everyone knows. People write fiction mostly to get lots of money from total strangers.

When I am writing a novel, the initial idea comes from any of a hundred possible sources. It comes as a bright splash of color erupting in my mind while reading, seeing a film, having a particular life experience, or couched in a dream. A moment caught in time. Yet before I can do anything more than have my next heartbeat, my mind runs off with the idea, unfolding an elaborate scenario right there in front of my mind's eye and creating a narrative several degrees beyond its spontaneous origin until I manage to pause, usually exhausted, and struggle to recall where I was and what I was doing when that emotive outburst stunned me. It's often a curse, often a blessing. (Caffeine helps.) Then, when I finally have the chance to write this new idea, I chisel out an interesting or significant scene: perhaps the one which started it all, something, anything, just to play with it, see where it goes, see if it has possibilities, see if it interests me enough to keep working on it. Then I build upon that start in successive waves of composition.

Idea method 1: Invent a situation based on some non-fiction studies.

For example, my romantic action-adventure novel AFTER ILIUM (2012) began in a Classical Rhetoric course where we read and discussed the Encomium of Helen. It was the Greek Sophist Gorgias's defense of Helen as the victim of an abduction and the cause of the Trojan War rather than willing accomplice of Paris (the result was that they welcomed her back to Greek society without harm to her reputation). Immediately, I contemplated a modern scenario which would parallel the ancient story. So here is this Alex Parris guy (get it?), fresh out of college, meeting a seductive older woman, Elena (Greek for 'Helen'), on an Aegean cruise and their subsequent visit to the ruins of Ilium/Troy. So I ran with it. 

Idea method 2: Tell someone else's story.

My latest example, A GIRL CALLED WOLF (December 2015), began online. A reader commented about my vampire novel, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, and we became social media friends. Over the next year I got to know her and the amazing story of her life growing up in Greenland and moving to Canada. I told her she should write it and she tried to do so for the National Novel Writing Month event but didn't get very far. So I took over and interviewed her, wrote and shared drafts with her, and so on. Only the ending is fictional; the rest is based on the true events of her life. (I've blogged about this process.) 

Idea method 3: Fictionalize your own life.

And speaking of my vampire novel, A DRY PATCH OF SKIN was written almost exclusively to counter my teenage daughter's obsession with the Twilight series, books and movies. I kept telling her the way vampires were depicted in that series was nothing like the "real disease". So I set about conducting my own medical research, as well as research into the legends that originated the phenomena - records of strange events well before Bram Stoker was even a gleam in his father's eye. Then I set the story in the city where I lived and in the year I was writing it. I lived it week by week as I wrote it - but I lied about everything because, alas, I am not, nor have I ever become, a real vampire. 

As for THE DREAM LAND trilogy (Book I 2012; Book II and Book III 2013), I've written of its origins previously on this blog. To summarize: my childhood [i.e., pre-internet, pre-computer] fantasy games with imaginary playmates evolved into a compilation of quasi-militaristic scenarios on an alien world. I dabbled at a Young Adult version of the story. Then, years later, I had a dream one night which so provoked me that I had to start the novel. That dream became the opening scene of the novel but through many revisions it was pushed back to a later chapter. At the time, I thought it would be a single, stand-alone novel, but, thankfully, more ideas remained - questions remained that needed to be answered. In fact, I was deep in the middle of writing Book II when this new blogging thing took over my life. So I began blogging about Book II as I was finishing it. Indeed, the name of this blog comes from the setting of this novel: the empire of Sekuate. I had intended to use this blog to further explain things and provide extra materials to go with the trilogy. But I digressed.... Then Book III exploded through my psyche during the next year and voila! a Trilogy was born! 

For me, getting an idea is usually easy. I read a lot of science-fiction when I was young and the stories always put the what-if germ into my head. Even in standard "literary" or romance writing, the what-if basis works well. Therefore, I've always tried to write stories which intrigue me. If this happens, then what? Given two people like these two, say, a well-intended English professor and a Wiccan art student, what would happen? What would get them together and what would keep them together? Or what would inevitable keep them from staying together? That's the premise of my anti-romance A BEAUTIFUL CHILL. It's a kind of curiosity. What would it really be like if, say, two teenagers found, say, an invisible doorway to another world, and suppose they got stuck there and couldn't return home? Seriously, what would they do? Freak out? Learn to function? Try to find a way back? Those were THE DREAM LAND what-if questions, of course. I tried to depict how two such people would realistically react to that situation. 

In short, I write the kind of books I want to read. I hope other readers also want to read something a little off center, a bit to the edge of the genre or cross-genre, something not quite the usual or what fits cleanly inside a formula. I like twists and turns, and threads which do not always tie neatly by the final page. 

It's like being on a quest to kill dragons - you know, in order to, say, make the world a safer place...? That is the premise for my current Work-In-Progress, EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS. (You can read how I got suckered into this project here. You can read the start of it here.) I don't know where it will go, but I know I will get there - with my protagonist kicking and screaming at me.

NEXT WEEK: Let the Drafting Begin

--------------------------------------------------------------------- (C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.