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."


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