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

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  1. Intriguing...and with diagrams...I like it. I can foresee a guest post in your future....