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.


  1. Great piece. It's very timely for me because I've been struggling with the show vs. tell issue. I'm going to adopt a new mantra for myself. Show what I can, tell what I must.

    1. Good for you! Just don't be too musty!

  2. Actually, it fits nicely with Elmore Leonard's admonition to not write the parts readers skip over. That would be the exposition stuff. Necessary, sure, but let's not have too much of it.