Monday, March 5, 2012

The Way We Write

I had an interesting conversation with a very talented writer friend named Martin Reaves who told me about his latest WIP. The idea came to him on a long drive, and by the time he was pulling into his driveway, he'd visualized fully fleshed out characters and scenes and had a good sense of the direction the story was headed. That was over a week ago. He continues to work on the story in his head, but hesitates to write it down. Once it's on paper, he feels he will be committed, that to take control prematurely before the story has completed its gestation will somehow interfere with its development. He prefers to fly by the seat of his pants for the first draft. Eventually, he will get around to writing it down.

My hat is off to Martin. The problem for me is that I could never entrust a project this large to memory. I don't start writing until I know the characters somewhat and 'hear' their voices, but I begin making copious notes from the time the idea first takes root. Names, faces clipped from magazines, makeshift timelines, snippets of dialogue all go into a journal, otherwise, it's gone. As for the ideas that come to me in the shower, I chant them like a mantra until I can get out and locate a scrap of paper to write on. Patti told me of finding shower crayons which she uses for that purpose, and I may have to seriously consider that option.

I feel the same way about opening lines. Much thought goes into that most valuable opportunity to snag a reader, and once it's on paper, I don't often change it. That doesn't mean I've never reworded one, but the only times I've changed it altogether were when I decided to begin at a different place in the story. Setting the opening line, to me, is when the story takes breath and I don't mess with it.

I've also learned not to 'talk out' my story ideas, but to play my cards close to the vest while getting down my rough draft. To do otherwise is to invite failure. Once a story idea is exposed to the air, it will whither like a vampire at sun up. In a weird way, the story is already 'told' and the urgency and gratification of writing it down is gone.

Sometimes I find 'hotspots' of creativity. Just like cellphone coverage, they cut in and out. A coffee shop on a busy morning can be a great conductor of fresh ideas IF I have earphones and classical music to cancel out the noise but can still absorb the energy produced by the activity around me. I'm not sure why this works, but it often does.

Something that has never changed is that the exhilaration of beginning the next story always gives way to the hard, hard work of finishing it. Even with notes, timelines, summaries and character charts, holding the complicated threads of plot for a 100k book takes deftness and concentration so the cats cradle doesn't snag into a huge knot.

There are as many ways to write as there writers, and everyone has their tricks. What are yours? We'd love to hear!


Latayne C Scott said...

Debbie, this is an image-rich post, a pleasure to read and helpful. You are a terrific post writer!

I love the analogies of a vampire, a cat's cradle, cell phone coverage. And I would be terrified to try to consign a plot -- or even a scene -- to memory. Like you, I have to write everything down.

BK said...

I've often wished I was one of thoe folks who could plot out stories in their heads.

I can only think on paper/computer. Seriously. I have a writer friend who conjures up stories or scenes while driving, or while in the hot tub. I have others who work stories out while walking.

Me? Nearly the entire process occurs in print. I get my novel ideas from research, news, or other things I read. I've gone through I don't know how many notebooks, thinking out loud to myself on paper (or alternately in my journal pages on the computer).

Even after I've written a ton of notes, I still cannot go for a walk and process it.

Perhaps I should donate my brain to science so they can figure out the problem. 8-)

But I guess I have an advantage over the writer you mention--I'm not concerned that committing it to paper/computer will set the story in stone. I already know from those heaps of notes that it is a living, growing thing, subject to change on its route to completion.

Cherry Odeberg said...

I identify with your comment, "As for the ideas that come to me in the shower, I chant them like a mantra until I can get out and locate a scrap of paper to write on."
Why, just yesterday, I was almost late for last church service because I couldn't quit writing to get in the shower. The shower was wonderfully inspiring. I jumped out. Still half wet, I ran to the laptop and typed a couple of succinct sentences. Satisfied, I closed the cover, threw on my make-up and raced to worship. Six hours later, in my haste to get to the internet, I clicked, "do not save"...

Niki Turner said...

Hmm. Never thought of looking for shower crayons! That's an excellent idea, since I get some exceptional snippets of dialogue in the shower and always forget them by the time I'm dressed again!
Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Cherry, I feel your pain. There's nothing quite like that split second when you realize what you've done.

Debbie, as always this was an inspiring post. I'm getting ready to launch a novel, and have the openings of three different stories I'm trying to decide between for my next novel. I'm definitely leaning in one direction, and the excitement is building. Like you, I write down every idea, scrap of dialogue, etc. the moment it comes to me -- which is often in the middle of the night. The excitement of beginning a new work is thrilling, but indeed it is followed by months of hard labor. Still, I love the initial thrill.

S. F. Foxfire said...

I find that sometimes my best ideas come to me when I either (1) talk to certain people with an imagination that knows no bounds or (2) lay in bed at night, half-asleep.

Sometimes a particularly vivid description of a job or task will give me a flash of images and faces, and I'll have to follow it into the mists to discover who and what I was seeing.

As far as writing down notes . . . I've just hit my third note book. (A notebook for notes. ha ha) If I can't fiddle with possibilities and make things flexible, I go crazy. Then, when I DO get rigid I'm impossible (something God is working, thank Him). Walks help, music is a creative calming agent, and OCD helps me stay organized! ha ha

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I so know what you are referring to with those "hotspots" of creativity. I usually get those around 3am! Yeeha!

And I love the idea of shower crayons.

There is nothing like starting a new novel. I'm freaked out about the next one I'm to begin within the month (only 10K left on my WIP). I know how crucial it's going to be to nail that first much about that chapter will influence the direction of the book.
~ Wendy

Megan Sayer said...

SO interesting, and great to read about how other people are working too.
Wendy I'm with you - not too far away from finishing my WIP and trying to find a way into a next story. It's freaky!
This post has actually helped heaps in that process though. I remembered how I wrote a completely different book in my head in the two years between the births of babies 2 and 3 while lying semi-awake in bed. I never wrote it down, but I'm so familiar with the characters and the scenes that I could without problem if I ever wanted to.
That's what I need to do with my next story: before I ever start putting notes on paper I need to "watch" it in my head until I fall in love with these people and this place and understand them as well as I understand my best friends.
Hmmm. Considering I'm not planning any more babies I might need to invest in a bigger hot water cylinder : )

Nikole Hahn said...

I think about my characters everywhere I go, and write down the plots as they come, or the snippets of important character information. I also like to talk them out to my husband as if they are real people. I start with a general idea, build on it, then plot it in outline form. Who knows if I will follow that outline But it's a start.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I love all your observations and insights about writing! Also, I understand that shower crayons are available at Walmart in the kid's bubble bath section or Target in the baby section (and the Sesame Street ones supposedly don't disintegrate as quickly as Crayolas). Someone please try them out and give us your recommendation.

Kathleen Popa said...

A lot of my best ideas come when I'm in the car. There's something about watching the landscape go by that calms my mind like nothing else. Of course, if I'm not driving, I'm apt to fall asleep in that state, but then again, I believe that writing is very close to dreaming.

susan gregory said...

Debbie, loved your analogies.

Mr. Reaves is an incredibly multi-talented individual whom I predict will become a prolific and well-known author. Since I can barely hold my 2 children's birthdates in memory land, any illusive writing ideas would evaporate instantaneously. He is a brave soul.

I wish someone would invent a device that connects from the brain to the computer. Then, as I think it, it would show up in print!!

Martin Reaves said...

“There are as many ways to write as there are writers…”

The above—I think—is the telling statement in this fine post. Not only are we all unique in our approach to Story, but every individual story demands its own line of attack, though it be attacked by the same writer. We don’t know how we do what we do, or why—a given story simply feels right done a certain way.

Fear has driven me more than once to vomit copious notes onto a napkin or Post-It or the back of my hand. But that’s fear—fear of losing the thread, the character, the voice, and so on. And fear is what drives most of us, although fear is only one in my arsenal of emotions. Passion is there, to be sure, along with anger, outrage, wonder and pure delight. Delight is my favorite, because—in the strange unreal estate of the writer’s mind—it can encompass all those emotions and more. Delight when the character speaks of its own accord; delight when you sit bolt upright at two o’clock in the morning with a clear understanding of how the events on page 301 suddenly make perfect sense in light of what you suggested on page 5. And the pure delight in that delirious moment when you realize you have your story by the tail instead of the other way around.


Why am I compelled to let this current WIP brew without notes? I don’t know. The musician in me wants to say: “I’m improvising, man. This is jazz—if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.” But, of course, I don’t understand it, either. Is it improvisation? Sure, it’s that. But it’s also something more…or perhaps less. It is the story—only this particular story, mind you—whispering, “Not yet.” As writers we know we don’t know whence come our ideas—we don’t ask each other and we dare not ask ourselves.

But in this case…well, even now I feel I am attempting too blunt a dissection. The idea was not an idea—it was a street name. No attachment, no significance, no meaning whatsoever. Except that my subconscious (or the universe, or God, or some hybrid of all these things and others too deeply embedded in race memory for me to name) made a connection, or connections, Rubik’s Cube patterns that I could only keep twisting and wonder how it would all come out. Whatever had/has grabbed me by the tail (make no mistake, I am not remotely within reach of this thing’s tale yet) it is bigger than me, grander, more far-reaching. Does that mean it’s any good? Does it matter that I am alternately chilled and moved to tears as various scenes unfold behind my eyes? I honestly have no idea. I’m not even sure I can do it justice. But I know that I can’t commit yet…because I truly don’t know what it is, or what it wants of me—and, in the end, it may be only for me. But I don’t think so. I am being told this story and the story will tell me when it’s time to write it down. And that time may be now. Right now.

I cannot tell you what the story is about, because I don’t know and wouldn’t tell you if I did. But I can tell you this: Her name is Kimberlina. And she has me deeply in her thrall.