The Writing Process

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 13th, 2017

I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize my writing process. This is based on the two most recent stories but the process has been similar for many years.

  • Envision a setting, situation, or character.
  • Write a sentence.
  • Write a second sentence
  • Read what I’ve written
  • Change a phrase
  • Write a third sentence, extending the flow and increasing the breadth.
  • Read.
  • Correct a typo. Fix a shift in tense.
  • Get up and walk away, do something like get a drink while thinking about what I’ve written. Or if I’m in a formal writing prompt situation, stare at the wall for a minute.
  • Come back and start the second paragraph with a new sentence that I’ve thought of while away.
  • Read.
  • Remove an unnecessary comma. Realize I’ve used a word such as “clear” or “recent” twice, think about alternatives, go to an online thesaurus. Decide none are perfect but select one anyway just so I have an alternative. Change one usage.
  • Read to see how it fits and flows now.
  • Add a fifth sentence.
  • Read.
  • Consider whether I’ve covered the opening material sufficiently and if it is time to start expanding the range by widening the vision or adding an action or another character. Ponder character goals and motivation, the back story of the situation, possible threats. Is there a theme emerging? Cut the second half of the second sentence and paste into the first sentence. Delete the second half of the first sentence.
  • Get up and fill the pets water bowl. Put some papers into my bag so I’ll remember to take them to work tomorrow. Take some dry pans from the dish rack and put them away, and other things.
  • Read.
  • Notice an awkward phrase and rewrite it. Add a missing article. Change the character’s name. Spit the fifth sentence into two and extend the second one. Delete the second and third sentence and reorganise and rewrite into one new sentence.
  • Read to feel the new flow.
  • Write another sentence.
  • Read. Wonder if I’m writing too many long sentences or too many short sentences. Read the long ones for missing breaks, read the short ones for unintended emphasis. Look for overused words or descriptions but also to see if they hint at a theme.
  • Change a word that is too intellectual for the scene. Consider whether the voice I’m using is consistent, and if it is appropriate. Make additional revisions to hype the voice or make the style more consistent.

At this point I have 150 to 300 words.

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If you’re wondering why I keep stopping, why I keep reading and correcting it’s because I rarely plot any more. I only plot when I’ve already got a story going and then I might sit and write 200 or 500 words in one go but before I do that I have to know what and who I’m writing about. Even in time pressured situations like NaNoWriMo or the 3DayNovel competition I go through this same process. I have to correct and edit when I see the little errors and weaknesses because they snag my attention. They must be polished away so I’m not distracted.

And to write I need to experience the flow, as focussed and uninterrupted as possible. Much like when I compose, where I listen in my head to the music and then try to hear what might come next, the flow must tell me what the logical next sentence is. I need to hear what the story is telling me.

Since I’ve fallen into using this process my prose has improved. Or perhaps the reverse; because my prose and editing has improved I’ve developed this procedure which requires more editing and results in better prose.

But these pieces often fail to gain traction and to get to completion. I don’t think it’s because of the editing or stopping and starting, I think it’s because my standards have increased and I drop more ideas than I used to because they don’t seem to be leading somewhere interesting or to be worth my time.

I also get stuck, unable to find a satisfactory understanding of the story that will allow me to continue. In more than one case this block has come right at the end where I know what the essence of the story is but I can’t find an acceptable solution for presenting it. Other times the block comes near the beginning because I don’t know where the story is going. And even when I write to the end usually the story feels imperfect because I didn’t understand all levels of the story well enough to give it its full value.

Reading Across Genres

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 20th, 2017

I like to read across genres.

Some years back I discovered Google’s list of best books of 2012 and I read them without paying attention to what the title might hint, reserving judgement as long as I could. The 2013 list wasn’t as good and that was the last I saw. Since then I haven’t found a reliable way of finding material across genres worth looking at.

Recently I realized that, just as I’ve used Pulitzer, Giller, and Booker prize long lists to give me literary novels to read (often by authors I’m unfamiliar with, which is the other bonus) I can use awards from other genres to help me find titles.

So I started with the Edgar nominees for mystery, then the Hugo awards, the Rita, and now the Thriller awards.

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) was better written and was more entertaining than I expected. At the start I was hesitant because I’ve read enough Nazi Germany fiction for my needs but this Marlow-like detective just happens to live during that period. The Goblin Emperor was also well written but I lost interest in the detailed description of ceremonies and procedures. When I read unfamiliar authors I usually research afterwards and one reviewer pointed to the focus on court intrigue rather than on events; that’s where I lost interest too. I stopped reading about a third of the way through.

I tried two Rita nominees, but the first was written at a 12 year old reading level and the other at a 15 year old level. The characters were real enough, but boring because the internal narrative focused exclusively on how hot their intended looked. Not exactly Jane Austen. I won’t mention the titles because they’re not well written and I’d rather forget about them, and hope others do the same.

There were also two YA novels that I read and I’ve forgotten where I found their titles, perhaps in the library suggestions themselves. The first was Uninvited,which fell miles short of Divergent or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and I didn’t finish it, and the other was Revolution, which was an interesting creation of parallel life stories in modern times and during the French revolution. Because of the history lesson included within I can see why school libraries like it but I felt shorted in the modern character’s resolution and evolution.

Now I’m into Fever: A Novel which is pretty well written though heavy on interjected backstory snippets and it constantly jumps POV from the girl to her father to her brother. I’m to the point where the fever is just making its presence felt but it’s not been a smooth read to this point. The POV jumps and backstory interjections make me fell as if I’m winding up a string of Christmas lights when I’m used to rolling up a plain electrical cord or a garden hose. Snaggly. Hoping it will smooth out as we get further into the story.

So I haven’t found a good award to suggest romance or YA titles yet. I think there probably are some, as well as ones for other genres I haven’t tried yet (Western; meh, Memoir? Humour? Woman’s Lit? Horror?).  There are sub-genres too but I’m hoping the larger ones will include those, like the Hugo included “The Goblin Emperor” which is more fantasy than science fiction.

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I realize that if I’m abandoning so many novels unfinished, one might ask why I bother looking for award lists for recommendations?

It’s because in order to find something to read I need the title to be presented to me. It used to be that I’d find a book that I liked and then I’d read everything that author had written (like all 51 Hardy boy novels when I was in the sixth grade; it wasn’t until recently I learned that they were written by different people) but these days I want to go across genres and read different things all the time. I want some authority to give me the ‘best’ available to increase my chances of discovering something I like and I’m not interested in what the readers like or I’d try Goodreads or Amazon. I want some evaluation of the quality of the writing. Then, asked Phaedrus (or was it Lila?), what is quality? Apparently that’s up to me, the reader, with a little qualification from the internet.

Talking Heads

by Intermittent Rain ~ September 4th, 2016

hanging heads

I just critiqued a short piece where some friends are driving home from a party, gossiping about others they just left. There is some description of the drive, but the piece was almost entirely talking heads. Worse than that, since we get no description of the speakers, they’re disembodied talking heads, without the fake smile and coifs of a newscaster to look at.

Granted, the dialogue is what this story is about; showing how these friends cut others down. The problem for the reader is that we’re not there (or even watching the scene on television) and if the writer doesn’t give descriptions of setting, expressions, and vocal inflections, we have no means of getting there.

Talking heads are great for an intense discussion in a novel. The reader’s focus is driven exclusively toward the words exchanged, heightening their importance, but that’s in the context of a longer story where the personalities, relationships, physical descriptions and objectives are already set. Even then any emotions arising from the words exchanged should be supported with actions, expressions, and vocal inflections.

“Give the character’s some business” is one oft repeated piece of advice, and in the story I just read that’s what the writer’s interjections of traffic does. But traffic is what the characters might notice, not what the unfamiliar reader needs to see.

“Put yourself in the character’s situation and describe what you see” is another aphorism that might have been applied, but what the character sees and what the reader needs (wants) to see are different things here. The reader is there in the car, but is not familiar with the characters the way the characters are with each other. What would a new kid in town notice or an invisible passenger wonder, or what is a movie camera going to capture?

More importantly, if we were directing this scene, what have we told the cameraman to focus on? What expressions, what camera angles, what shots of passing scenery or around the inside of the car are important to getting this scene across? We (the writer/director) already know what’s going on and we need to select visuals (and for the writer, other senses as well) to communicate the point of the scene.

Again, traffic might be what you, travelling with old friends through familiar territory, are most aware of, but there are backstories and unspoken agreements and known shared and conflicting perspectives and familiar tones of voice and expressions that an outsider isn’t privy to, that reassure and explain more fully the meaning of the words. Giving the reader only dialogue and traffic descriptions limits the reader to poor vision, as if we are very nearsighted and can only make out shapes and gross movements. It also keeps us far in the distance and makes it difficult to believe or to connect to the characters and the story.

If you give the characters some business, don’t just stop at relevant. Don’t pass up on the opportunity to chose business that helps to define the personalities or the characters’ relationship to each other or to the friend left behind, or to provide a metaphor for the point of the scene or of the story overall.

Don’t throw in the first thing that comes to mind just because it fits .