|Wat Phu, Champasak, Laos, November 2004|
The world tells us many stories, and the more capable we are of listening to these stories, the easier it becomes to tell our own. In my own writing process, a story more often than not creates itself. My role is to facilitate its creation, rather than to control it. I begin with an idea, and the details are provided by the world around me. A story for me is the fusion of inner imagination with the awareness of the incredible richness of our everyday world.
The points that follow are primarily suggestions. I recognize that every writer is different, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Nonetheless, over the years of my own writing experience I have encountered several tools that seem to help, and by sharing them, I hope that they may be of use to you.
Start with a Focal Point
One of the most important factors in writing a good story is having a focal point, something into which you can channel your writing. Without this, writing will tend to jump around and feel directionless, and it will be difficult to sustain the attention of the reader. Therefore it is important to choose a problem or a conflict around which your story will be based. Conflict is what drives a story, and without it, the reader will most likely lose the motivation to continue reading. Try to present the conflict as early as possible in your story. A good exercise to do is the try to sum up the conflict or problem of your story in one line. You do not necessarily need to know how the conflict will resolve when you decide on it, and in fact, in my own writing it is very rare that I know how a story will end when I begin it.
To illustrate my own process: A story I wrote several months ago began with an idea that came to me in a conversation during a rideshare. The man sitting beside me talked about how bee populations all over the world are declining, and how detrimental this is considering that bees pollinate the trees that provide us with so many of our fruits. So I thought, what if I write a story about a bunch of bees that disappear? This was the starting idea. At this point I had no idea what to do with it, but left it sitting in my mind for a few days, until something emerged. I managed to sum up the core of the story in the following manner: A man is asked by a woman he loves to find 60,000 bees that have disappeared from her father’s hive. This was the core of my story, and it carried me through until the end. A good core problem will bring up all sorts of leads to follow, even if you do not know where they are headed. In this case, how is my character supposed to find bees that have disappeared? Where did the bees go? And what is his motivation to carry through with such a ridiculous notion? Does he love this woman so much that he’d go looking about for a bunch of insects, with no clue how to track them? And so on... One sentence that presents the core problem or conflict of the story will give you a focus, a place to go back to if you are getting lost. It will help your story grow, and all you need to do is follow it where it takes you.
Visualization & Recall Writing
When you have come up with your idea (and either before or after you have written your one sentence), let the idea incubate in your mind. Don’t begin writing right away. Mull the idea over on occasion, but don’t obsess over it. Think about it a little, then let it go. Go on with your day-to-day life. At times, begin to visualize what might happen in your story. Who are the characters? What do they look like? Where is this taking place? What are a few lines of dialogue that might be spoken? What’s an event that happens somewhere along the way? Don’t necessarily answer these questions rationally, but simply daydream. Remain receptive to the ideas that your mind will begin to offer you and continue to visualize. In my experience, when I am able to visualize a story, it becomes far, far easier to write than if I only think about it. The visuals are transformed into words almost of their own accord, and hopefully the words become visuals again when a reader is engaged with the storyline.
If you have trouble visualizing (or even if you don’t), try to do the following: Take twenty to thirty minutes in your day, and begin to recall something that happened within the last twenty-four hours. Write this down, without any regard to spelling or grammar. Just write. Recall as much detail as you possibly can. Who was involved? What were they wearing? What was their face expression or body language? What sort of personality quirks do they have? How is their reaction to a situation different and unique from your own? What was said? Where were you? What were the colours of the walls around you? Was there artwork? What was the temperature? Where you comfortable? What did you feel? Remark absolutely anything and everything that you can recall from any recent memory. When you do this, you will notice two things. First, not only will you notice what enters your awareness in any given situation, but you will also become more aware of what you don’t notice, where the gaps in your awareness are (what was the other person wearing? What were their facial expressions?). Noticing this will help you fill these gaps; it will help you remain more present in future interactions. Second, most certainly you will be visualizing when you do this, and you will notice how easily you can translate that visualization into words. With memories this is easy, and it helps us practice the skill we need to write stories. If we can then begin to see our stories, then our readers will also be able to see them. Our words will become dancing visuals alive in the reader’s mind.
Recall writing also has another benefit for me: it has me recognize the amazing richness of everyday life. There are so many small details in every moment that it is absolutely impossible to capture them all in writing, even if I tried. What’s more, it helps me see each person’s personality and viewpoint with a kind of wonder. It makes me understand that life provides far more interesting characters than my imagination does. I am beginning to recognize how powerfully creative life is, and that it is something I can never hope to match. But by watching, by being aware, and by remembering and appreciating, we can learn a little of that ability to make details interesting and to create imaginative characters that are unique in their own ways.
Last but not least, recall writing helps me fill in the details to my stories. Often I come up with a story idea, and it is life that fills in the rest. I provide the intention, and the details are worked out by the world, and all I have to do is pay attention. For example, when I last visited my mother she commented on a burning candle, saying “If I burn the house down accidentally, now that would be something!” which morphed into a character who burnt down his own house in order to get some attention from his neglectful children. For a late-night run by a park, I received the setting for a story. Listening to a song, I was inspired to express my narrator’s longing for the woman he loved as, “I thought of all the places of her face that I’d never kissed.” The details are there, if we are willing to pick them up!
While the world provides a good chunk of what will enter our stories, there is also a component that comes from our own imagination, and in my experience this is best accessed by the same kind of stream-of-consciousness writing that happens in the “morning pages.” If you have been practicing the daily morning-writing, this should come very easily. After allowing your ideas to incubate for a time, and after having spent some time visualizing various components of your story, it is now time to write them down. When you sit down to write, don’t worry how it comes out; just write absolutely everything that comes to mind, in whatever order. You do not need to begin at the beginning and write through to the end. Oftentimes when I do this, I get disjointed scenes, a conversation here, and image there. I just sit, and I write all of these things down. They do not need to be judged or analyzed at this point, that comes later.
In doing this I have often experienced resistance about halfway through my writing session. I know there is more in me to write, but despite this, I want to stop and do just about anything else. If you can, do not give into this if you experience this resistance. While I can’t be sure, my feeling is that this is my ego rearing its head, trying to get me to procrastinate because it is highly insecure and afraid of failure. But in this kind of writing, there is no failure, you simply put on the page all you have in you.
You do not necessarily need to complete this in one sitting, but make sure you get out everything you have, even if it takes several sessions.
The final stage is of course tying together the disjointed bits with some sort of structure. The story needs a beginning where the reader is introduced to the conflict that will carry the story through to its end. In this stage you can critically assess your previous writing and figure out what works and what doesn’t, where there are gaps and how to fill them. If there are large gaps, they can be filled by doing more free-writing.
I have no idea if this process will work for you as it does for me. And the truth is, it doesn’t always work for me. Nonetheless these are useful tools to use in creating a draft, and I encourage you to try them to see what they might provide you with. Since I am absolutely fascinated by the creative process, I am also open to hearing how you go about writing, and what little tricks work for you. Please feel free to share at absolutely any time!
Best of luck, and enjoy the process!