[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]
So…A couple of posts ago, I talked about rejection. This time, let’s talk emotion. Let’s talk where I’m at in my writing right now. No retrospectives, no looks at other writers or other writers’ work. I just want to answer: Where am I at? And where’s my writing at?
I think I’ve made progress in one small area: story selection. I’ve written about this before too. You know, the difficulty of discerning which story to work on next. It’s not easy. Here are just some of the considerations:
- Is the underlying idea any good?
- Do the characters seem like living, flawed people, not…(ahem)…characters?
- Is the story idea mature? That is, is it fleshed out enough to carry the whole story?
- Are you fired up to write it?
Let’s take these one by one. I think I’ve developed some ideas about how to test whether a story is ripe.
Is the underlying idea any good?
If you’re not sure if a story idea is any good., there are a couple of ways to find out. First, put away your prewrite or notes on the story. Let it sit. For a week, two weeks, a month. Don’t open or revisit the notes at all. That part is key. Then, take a good long look at them. Read them from start to finish. Does the idea still strike you? Be honest with yourself.
Half the time I’ve done this, I’ve thought. “Oh man, this sucks. This idea is no good.” I have to admit to myself that the enthusiasm that accompanied the first capture of this idea was misplaced. But I archive the idea, in case it pops up in the subconscious later.
The other half of the time I look at the notes again and think “This is good…Yeah…Yeah…Solid…This works.” And usually, at that point, I find myself adding to the notes and fleshing out the plot as I go. That’s a winner. Time to dress it up and write the first draft.
Do the characters seem like living, flawed people?
My best characters haunt me. I try to put them down, forget about them until I’m ready to write a piece, but they’re always there, popping up, nagging me. I might be at a noisy bar or at the grocery store or in a long, boring work meeting. My mind drifts. I’m brought into their world, the world of their story. And suddenly, they’re there acting out a favorite scene or, perhaps, a new one. They say the most interesting things. All the other characters in the scene turn to them, enthralled. And I feel that I’m simply another minor character in that piece, watching them emote. The scene continues for a moment and then. Poof! They’re all gone. And I’m back at the bar, the store, the office. But the scene lingers in my memory. I’ll often write down what they said on my phone or the shopping list or my notepad. It’s sad to seem them go, but I know they’ll be back. They’ll come around again. They always do.
It’s only the flawed characters that do this. The ones who are basically good, but are messed up or arrogant or conflicted in some way. People, like characters, are only interesting when they have scars. Those who have things too easy, often have little to offer. Only under pressure and with tough choices to make, is one’s true character revealed. They may triumph or fail under this pressure, but the interesting thing comes in seeing them try. So, take that perfect character, give them a back story, give them scars. And then give them a struggle, force them to make tough choices. Perhaps even a situation with no right choices. And, suddenly, you’ll have a story on your hands.
(The funny thing I’ve noticed: The characters do go away once you write their piece. Somehow, they seem to drift away once they’ve been en-souled in a story. Like a ghost, they’re vindicated, they fulfilled their destiny and can drift off.)
Is the story idea mature?
This is a tough one. Haven’t figured it out yet. A story’s not ready, I think, if it’s just a few lines and a character or two. You have to flesh it out a bit more. Maybe write down some major plots points, but you also don’t want to overdo it. If you outline the whole thing, you may not want to write it by the time you’re done. It may seem too predictable or rote to write out. In fact, this recently happened to me. I wrote out a detailed outline of a story, so when it came time to write it just seemed stale and obvious to me. Dead, in a way.
Somehow, you have to sense when the time is right to put down the pen on pre-writing and just launch yourself into the story. It’s never too easy to tell when precisely you should start that page 1, but you have to put away the notes at some point and begin.
Are you fired up to write it?
This should really be first in this list. I wouldn’t have said that even a year ago. But I’m starting to realize that in writing, the heart comes first, not last. You have to lead with your emotion, led it lead you, but guide and temper it with reason.
The stuff that I’ve written recently that I think is best, came from an emotional need to get the piece out, to get it down on paper. It’s that whole “Write What You Love” thing. The best stories are those that are “burning in your belly,” not the one you think will win an award or get accepted by a magazine or that your friends will like. Here’s something from Mike Long, a speechwriter and playwright.
If you write what you think will sell instead of what you’re passionate about, it’ll come through in the form of lesser quality. Why? Because you write better when you care.
I don’t know why that is, but I can verify it’s true. I write better when I’m passionate about something. If you feel strongly about a piece, and all the other things above check out, it’s probably time to sit down and start banging out the first draft.
Those are just random thoughts on writing fiction. And I’ve only found they work for me at this point in my career. They may not work for you. But they might. The only way to find out is to give them a shot.
If you feel you are ready, I wish you the best of luck. The world could use some great writing right about now.