Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How do you write?

This came as a response to a friend's question about my writing method. I went way above and beyond the call in my answer, but that was because he touched off a nerve that got me thinking. I liked the guts of my response enough to want to share them.
The basic question was "How do you write?" and this was what I said in reply.

"I hardly ever write stream of consciousness stuff intentionally these days. But that question is the one that has stumped writers and hopefuls for a very long time. Stephen King goes into almost an entire chapter talking about fan reaction to him with that question getting the majority of the attention.

As far as how I go about writing, that depends on the subject matter. On something like a short story, I generally start with a simple idea. I will often sit down and do something other than write for hours or days without putting anything more than a single sentence down. "He kept the body in a cooler in the garage, wrapped in a rusty chain." When I hear the story begin to talk to me, I grab a pen and more or less dictate what I hear. Often times you know how the story will play out, you know what the other characters will say instinctively. It's almost like watching a movie or peeking in on someone else's conversation. You have a very palpable feel for the direction it will take, but you don’t write that down just yet.

When I get a feel for the story, at this point, I feel more like a reporter. Sure I craft the conversations, but I hear them first in my head. Often if I try to plot these out, it kills whatever spark they have so I let them come naturally. I’m not really worried if they sound silly or have bad grammar. I’ll edit the second draft. When I try to make them fit a set pattern, a lot of times, something will come completely out of the blue and change the direction completely. This often comes as a surprise to me more than anyone. I’m the guy that is putting the words into someone else’s mouth, for crying out loud, and even I don’t know what they’re going to say next.

The set pieces (Ex: The Portland Express) all begin this way. I sat down with a single sentence and just added a piece here and a piece there. It’s like building a wall out of bricks. Every character, setting, motivation, building and conflict is another brick in that wall.

With comics, you have to come at it with a set goal. Conflict has to be introduced and resolved within the confines of whatever time limit (page count) you have pre-set. That puts a lot of limits on what you can do (especially if you pick a 4-page chapter as your medium) You have to get to the point fast and then get to the resolution fast. You really don’t have the time to develop. It does get you into a pattern though and soon you find the stories writing themselves. The trick at THAT point is to develop the BIG picture. This guy will eventually do this, that guy will eventually do that . You keep the rope loose on it though because here, just like in one of those conversations, something will happen on page 3 of chapter 25 that completely sets in motion a different chain of events.

You really have to be fluid in your thinking. From that point of view, outlines really hinder you.

It’s the one shot stories I do that allow me the largest amount of writing latitude. The story where the reader doesn’t know the character and is willing to give you the benefit of the doubt is probably the autobahn of writing. No limits, anything goes. These stories have no plot. You just know how it begins and allow the characters to tell their own story.

This is why I am surprised more people don’t write. With as much television as we watch, with as many conversations as we have in our lifetimes, you would assume that people would be able to craft a conversation out of nothing and have it sound natural. That more people can’t do this amazes me. It has to do with what you are willing to put into it. This is perhaps the most self-exposing thing I can think to do. I’m essentially taking my private thoughts and committing them to paper as part of the Public Record. Most people would absolutely refuse to do something like this for fear of sounding like a fool. Personally, I think that as long as they put in the time to learn the rules (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc) they have nothing to fear.

It’s the ones with a lot to say that don’t say it that make me shake my head. Just write it down.

Eventually all that crap you learned in school will make sense out of it."


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Congealing The Concepts

Going against my established grain here, I’m going to describe a process that has helped me make some sense out of the jumble that is my ever-increasing volume of notebooks filled with ideas.

I periodically write out a list of every one of my story ideas and comics on a page, but have lately noticed that this page has grown to 2 and then to 3 pages long. This has had a dampening effect on my energy when I am faced with the prospect of diminishing time and increasing workload. I find I simply do not have enough time (or energy) to handle the work.

This has had a sobering effect on me.

Then I began to notice little things. Some of these stories were stand-alone ideas, or One-Shots, but others were threads in a bigger idea. As soon as I noticed this patterns began to take shape. The Bigger picture emerged. This one particular story might appear to be a Stand Alone, but I used a character and a setting that appeared in another, and this ties it in. Soon, I had winnowed an enormous 67-story backlog into 4 easily workable piles.

This is the Congealing The Concepts part. I know a lot of writers fall into this trap. They turn the idea spigot on and record the flow. Soon, they become inundated with concepts and ideas and eventually they drown in them. The trick here is to look for the patterns. As soon as you spot them, merge them. This does not mean alter them, Lord no. It means that 16 page short is no longer it’s own entity, rather it has become Chapter 12 in your larger narrative.

When you see this patternization emerge, it actually refocuses your writing energy where it is needed. On the story itself. You may notice a slight alteration of the initial story, but this is an editing process rather than a surrender.

The point is this. Overwhelming yourself with ideas is a bad thing. But only as long as you allow it to remain chaotic. You are writing what you know, be it Steampunk, Romance or Super Heroes. That is what you know best, and as a result, you will find yourself walking down similar paths with your story telling. This repetition is what binds your stories together. This is the written reflection of you. You must be aware of it, or at the very least open to its existence enough to recognize it. When you do see this pattern emerge, then you can begin the real task of taking jumbled pieces of work into the Great Narrative that you and I know you have in you.