Monday, November 01, 2004


[Expanded from the comments field of the last post about writing, with additional questions posed by Evil Monkey...]

Question from Ben in the Gong
I tend to jot down lots of short, random ideas that come to me. Stuff like sentence fragments, names of people, bits of dreams. Do you let stuff like this creep into your work, or do you file it away for use another day?

Thanks for the question. It depends. When I'm writing a short story, there are quite specific things I need to pull out of the real world, so in those cases whatever I jot down--dreams, little stray thoughts--may or may not make it into whatever story I'm working on at the time. However, when I'm working on a novel, it's totally different. A novel is generous enough and all-encompassing enough that every little scrap that comes to me, for the most part, goes into the novel. Now, it could just be that as I get deeper and deeper into a novel, over months and months, that I tend to become receptive to the things I need and block out or ignore those things I don't need. But to me, it feels as if I'm magnetic and everything inspirational in the world is also magnetic and is sticking to me.

Question from Erasmus
When you have all of these ideas bubbling in your noggin and you decide to use one of them for your story, what steps to you take to get your thoughts onto paper? Do you start with a few phrases representing the story and then branch off into an outline? Do you do brief character sketches to bring your characters into focus? Or do you perhaps just take the story idea that you have and start writing and then revise revise revise and revise the hell out of it?

Answer [revised from comments field version]
I generally do not start to write a story until after much thought and until I have a clear vision of the ending. I have to work out who the character is in my head, too, before I set pen to paper. During this process, I do write down little fragments in a notebook as they come to me. But the fragments might not all relate to the same story, once I sit down and look at them, so I'll need to separate them out at some point. If the gestation period has gone on for a long time, I'll have literally hundreds of little notes--descriptions, plot points, character revelations. So, in those cases, when I'm about to sit down to write the story, I will first put each separate fragment on a different notecard. Then I will order the notecards as those fragments would fall in the story. Depending on the story, I will then sit down to write the story with the notecards in hand, inserting each fragment as I go. Or, if I am worried about losing the spontaneity of the rough draft, I will briefly review the notecards ahead of time, then set them aside and just write the rough draft without them. After I've written the rough draft, then I'll go over it with notecards in hand and if I left anything out, I'll insert it. Sometimes I'll find something I thought was relevant from the notecards actually isn't, and it gets cut. In that case, I put the fragment in my notecard filing system for later use. Everything eventually gets used in something.

Question from Evil Monkey
What's the most important advice you could give a beginning or intermediate writer?

Pay attention to specific detail--and by specific detail, I mean using all five senses. The building blocks of all good fiction start with use of specific detail, which tends to annihilate cliche. This doesn't mean that I think all stories should overwhelmingly consist of descriptions. It means that specific detail should be deployed as appropriate. Sometimes that means a few paragraphs at a time, sometimes that means a single sentence or phrase that perfectly conveys a character trait, a setting, etc. The amount of description and how it is deployed depends entirely on what kind of writer you are. But the biggest defect I see in beginner fiction is the inability to accurately describe the world and distill that description effectively in fiction. Every single person, thing, and place in this world is unique. Even one Burger King is not exactly the same kind of place as another Burger King. Every mall is different. Every table in a restaurant is different in some minute but discernable way. When we find the way to render the perfect detail for the situation or character, we get very close to understanding our world on the micro level. Whether it is a mannerism observed in a crowded mall and airlifted in to the exact point in the story where it can be used, or a description of setting taken from real life and then distilled through the imagination into something that still relates something essential about the psychological truth of the original real-world place, you are interacting with our world and the people in it. This is a life-long attempt to reject cliche and replace it with a truth about the world. We don't always succeed, but we should always try. Because, at base, everything we write is still about our world, whether transformed or mutated into something that seems unfamiliar.

When teaching new writers, I always recommend they do word sketches to improve their ability to render specific detail. Go out to a public park and sit there with a notepad and try to capture the essence of the place in your word sketch. Try to get to the core of what makes what you're looking at unique. Do the same with people walking by. Get to the core of them through observation, discarding anything that doesn't seem true or relevant.


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