Greetings and Salutations;
I was perusing my FB entries a bit ago, and, I came across a plea for help from a novice writer. They were experiencing challenges in getting stories finished up and ready to go, and, wanted helpful suggestions on how to make the process less painful. I got to thinking about this, and, while I do not think there is ANY painless way to go about it (after all, I believe it was Mark Twain that said “Writing is easy…just put a sheet of blank paper in the typewriter and stare at it until you sweat blood”), I think there are some steps that can ease the process…so here we go:
Writing is, perhaps, one of the hardest habits to deal with. To be driven to write, yet, to have to deal with those distractions makes it very difficult to get a good story out and onto paper (or in the computer).
While there are a number of things that can make it a problem, I thought I would touch on a few of the main ones that I have run into over the years of trying to get something worthwhile on paper. When one is attacked by several problems at once, the best actions is “Divide and conquer”….
0) Dealing with getting off track!
Decide the destination for your story. Keeping focused on, and, progressing on a story is easier if it has a target to shoot for. As a part of that, it can help to rough out an outline for the general path of the story. If you do not have a concrete goal to focus on, it is entirely too easy for one to wander aimlessly around the land. A perfect example of this is Frodo’s quest in LOTR. The Cracks Of Doom in Mordor were his goal. He focused all his energies on achieving it, and, so, while there were diversions, mostly due to the actions of others, he successfully reached that goal and fulfilled the quest. That having been said, I also realize that sometimes when one gets into a story, it becomes clear that the original goal was the wrong one. Either it does not fit the protagonist’s character, or, it is too confining. Sometimes a change of destination can allow the author to create a much better story. However, if this happens more than once or twice, then, it is the wrong story, and, needs to be scrapped and restarted from scratch.
1) Sometimes, when we get off track, it is because we are distracted by an interesting plot twist, or a character who shows some unexpected facets of their personality. These are useful, as they can be seeds for a whole, new story. so, open a “slush fund” file, and, write down some notes about that distraction. Do not spend too much time on it, but, put down a few high points, so, later on you can revisit the situation and use those notes to flesh out that new story. I find plot twists are easier to do this with, as they translate to other stories without too much difficulty. Personality quirks of characters require a little more work, though, as, part of writing a good story is creating a 3d character who people can relate to, and, will care about. Every personality trait we put on a character changes the way they will react to events in the story, so, making too many changes can lead to problems…which leads us to point 2….
2) Try and start out with as fully formed characters as is possible. When I was running my AD&D campaign, I would spend hours thinking about the major non-player characters that inhabited the world. I created a reasonably lengthy back story for each of them, so when the players would intereact with them in the game, I would know what the NPC liked and disliked, who their allies, friends and enemies were, and how they would react to dealing with them. I did not, of course, create a fully formed being there, simply because there were not enough hours in the day. However, if I had a couple of dozen facts about each NPC, that was usually enough to get a realistic reaction when they reacted to the players. That having been said, I also realize that, as one writes, the characters change. We get to know them better, and, as creators, certain things start feeling “right” or “wrong” as a part of the character’s personality. For example, in my campaign, There was an innkeeper who really hated Elvish sorts, and especially Elvish Mages. He would be coldly courteous to them, but, if he had a chance, he would find a way to injure them. As it turned out, his story was that he had a strong strain of Elvish blood in him, and, his grandparents, who had been pure Elvish, had been destroyed by an experiment gone wrong. They had gotten involved in the Dark Magics, and, had been incautious. Well, he had lost them very early in life, but, had a very close relationship to them, so their apparent deaths had hit him hard. The family – both Elvish and human, had buried the truth of their death and had maintained that they had been killed by another Elvish Magic User after a disagreement got out of hand. The Innkeeper had kept a grudge against all Elvish sorts ever since, and, had a certain amount of self-loathing for himself because of his heritage. Since the adventuring party included a couple of Elvish types, this had the opportunity for some serious repercussions…. In any case, this short example shows how it is a good idea to flesh out the characters first. They may change during the telling of the tale. That is not a problem, as changing is one thing that makes it easier for the reader to relate to them. However, having a solid base to start from always makes for a better, easier story to write.
3) Make it a point to write the story you have laid out, then stop. Do not try to edit on the fly. Do not worry about whether or not it is great prose or crap. Some years ago, a wild child of Science Fiction, Harlan Ellison, said I don’t know if what I write these days is great or crap. I put it out there and people read it. He has been writing since the 1950s, and has amazing amounts of experience and knowledge. He is also not afraid to push the envelope. I have read most of his works, and while some of them ARE crap…even the worst have some very interesting moments in them, and the best of them are gems of insightful writing.
Once you have put the last word of the story in place, put it aside for a bit. Let it mellow. Then, and only then, go back and read it with fresh eyes, to see if there are some awkward places that could be polished up. There will be, trust me! I have joked over the years that the best authors are not writers, rather they are Re-Writers! This is also a place that having a good editor can be a God-send. A different set of eyes to read the story, and mark it up for awkward writing, or spelling/grammatical issues is a wonderful thing to have. It can be painful for one’s ego, but, the result will be a much better story. By the by…my definition of a “good editor” is pretty much covered by the proceeding sentences. It is, alas, not a person that is just as creative, who will start re-writing the story the way THEY would have written it. Even if they are your best friend, that is not good editing.
4) One of the other issues brought up in the original post was, basically, “is the idea good enough” or “is my writing good enough”. Put that concern out of your mind. That is nothing more than the demons of Failure and Dispair whispering in your ear. I would go so far as to say that ANY idea can create a great story, even one as mundane as “do you hang the toilet paper roll with the end to the wall, or out into the room”. As for the question of “is your writing good enough”…I say a qualified yes to that. It is fairly unlikely that your first story is going to take its place with LOTR (as an example). However, if the writing is clear, and you can find an interesting point of view…then, yes, it is great. It will get better, as you write more (that is the nature of the beast), but, it is likely good enough now that if you publish it, you will find a fair number of people who will read it, and enjoy it…and THAT is one of the goals of writing.
One of the things that just grates my last nerve are those authors who go back and destroy old notes, or partial stories, because they cannot see the value in them. For that matter, I know of at least one amateur writer who keeps threatening to take the story she has spent hundreds of hours on, and, delete it, without backup, because she is unhappy with it. The fact is that this is a terrible waste, and is admitting that the demons are right. The only way to succeed is to push those demons back, and keep moving on towards the goal. perhaps the most important lesson learned in my multiple creative careers (woodworker, programmer, and Dungeon Master) is that the end product is NEVER going to be as good as we want it to be. We, the creators, will always see the flaws. We forget that those flaws are like Sun-spots. They are tiny defects in a huge ball of light, and, the rest of the world is only going to see the amazing ball of light.
5) Keep the momentum going. if getting a story finished is a problem, then, do not put it in the drawer and ignore it for weeks. In a perfect world, we would have time and flexibility to be able to set aside a chunk of time every day to work on the writing. I have a good friend who is quite an accomplished author of Fantasy/SF tales, who makes it a point to pull out her writing during her lunch hour and work on it a bit. Some days, she gets a couple of thousand words typed in. Some days, she stares at the screen for the entire time. But, the momentum is there. In a bowling analogy…when I was learning to bowl, my instructor’s favorite line was “Pick up the spares; the strikes will come”. That one day when the words flow out of one’s fingers like sparkling waterfalls makes all those other days of just a couple of edits more than worth it. That having been said, I have to say that I do not perform well under pressure. If I have a short deadline, it is always harder for me to get the words out. My mind works more in a fashion of slowly building a model of reality, then, when it is working properly, all I have to do is look at it with my mind’s eye, and, note down what I see. However, building that model can take time!
In closing…take heart. sit down in front of the typewriter/computer with a blank page in front of you. Type something… Then, type something more. When you reach the end – STOP. You will produce and interesting tale that is worth reading.
bee man dave