Tag Archives: writing process

Revision Work, or, Now the Fun Begins!

Two weekends ago, I finished the first draft of the Aanora novella. I printed it out, tucked it into the working file, and there it has remained and will remain for at least another 2 weeks. Last weekend, I worked on my short story “Light the Way,” tweaking certain parts and checking on the use of language in it. I think this story is about ready for submission, and my next task for it is to develop a list of publications for it. This weekend, my plan is to tackle another short story that needs far more work. It has been drifting through several rewrites because I can’t seem to settle on what the main character is truly about. This morning, while getting dressed, I was thinking that maybe I needed to give her more vulnerability than I have in previous drafts.

Revision work. Probably the real work of creative writing.

A recent article in The Writer about something unrelated to revision sparked some ideas for me for this problem story. I realized that I needed to get to know the main character better. She has been a cypher to me really, and I think that’s been a huge problem. Next, I realized yet again that withholding information creates suspense or tension. There’s an element in this story that I think I introduce far to early. One of my early drafts kept this element hidden, with only hints and glimpses through most of the story. I’m thinking that my original impulse regarding that element was probably correct. And third, I’ve always known that the main character was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but I’d been waffling, I think, on whether or not she’d accepted that fact of her life and if she had, what was she doing to heal? I’m fascinated by the psychological and behavioral results of untreated PTSD which is often a result of early childhood psychological and physical trauma. So does this character accept American society’s reluctance to face the ugly fact that PTSD is not only something combat veterans and disaster survivors experience, or does she push against that reluctance?

These are good questions. When approaching revision work, questions are a writer’s friends. Questions generate thought and ideas. Questions could have answers or just more questions. The process of working through questions can untangle the worst of a messy draft. The important thing is to open to those questions, let them percolate in the mind (and the imagination), and to be patient. I have a post-it note above my desk that reads: Trust in the process.

The following 4 questions are also on a post-it above my desk and are essential for narrative structure as well as character development:

  • What does the character want in terms of this story?
  • What is the character willing to do to get it?
  • What is the character’s primary emotional vulnerability?
  • What is the character’s biggest fear?

These questions address the main character, but they can also be asked of all the rest of the characters, especially those that are potential or actual obstacles to the main character.

Every writer has his or her own way of approaching the revision process. In my experience, there is no right or wrong way, only the best way for each writer. I need a lot of thinking time, as well as time to noodle around with the questions that I have, time to play with possibilities without feeling I must commit to any one direction. I’ve only just begun thinking about this particular short story this weekend. It will probably take many more weekends before I’m satisfied with the answers that my imagination provides for me.

Evan Quinn has been nagging at me as well. Last weekend I was writing notes for Perceval’s Shadow and thinking about my approach to its revision process. But Evan knows he needs to be patient and let me get this short story revision done first. (With a fulltime job now, it’s impossible for me to be working on more than one writing project at a time.)



How to Know When It’s Really the End

For the last few months, I’ve known most of the story and plot of my Aanora story, except for the climax and how my characters would resolve it. Sometimes it’s better not to know everything before writing in order to be open to the characters and their motivations, behavior, thoughts, and emotions. When I began this story, I knew very little. As I wrote, I began to see possibilities, and part of my writing process on this story has been to explore those possibilities. I knew from the beginning the very last scene, however. My challenge, I knew also, was to get there.

While some writers outline a story in detail, I tend to do rough and tumble outlines, i.e. throwing ideas down on paper for the different sections of the story. Sketch out scenes to test their place — do they work in the context of this particular story? Ask myself a lot of questions about each of the primary characters — what do they want? What will they do to get it? What is their primary fear? What is their primary emotional vulnerability? Each character is a potential conflict or obstacle for the protagonist. Who is the villain? I couldn’t answer this question for a long time. I thought it was this one character who kept popping into my mind, but then I suddenly realized that character was not at all what he seemed. When I dug deeper, I discovered a layer of the story that gave me the path to the climax although I didn’t know it at the time.

I did a rough sketch of the climax and realized that I’d created an impossible situation for my characters. A no-win situation. What I didn’t realize, of course, was that the villain provided the way to resolve it. Instead, I decided to just write my way to the climax and hope that by the time I got there, I’d have the answer to how to resolve it. “Trust in the process” the note says over my desk, and I decided I’d do just that.

Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

Last Saturday, as I was writing closer and closer to the climax, I realized, no, it wasn’t closer and closer — I was there. Indeed, there my characters were, facing down the villain, surrounded, alone, with apparently no way out. I wrote right up to the moment the villain demands their surrender and I stopped. I couldn’t write any farther because I really didn’t know what would happen next. What did my characters want? What were they thinking? Feeling? Did they have the intelligence and imagination to figure out how to get out of this alive?

The real questions were: What was I thinking? What did I want? Did I have the intelligence and imagination to figure out how to get them out of the situation alive?

When I put away my writing last Saturday, I was in despair. I knew I was close to finishing the story. I wanted to finish it. The doubts poured into my mind. I decided to focus on other things like chores, British mysteries on PBS, and getting a lot of sleep. The next morning, however, I still didn’t know what to do. I read the Sunday newspaper over breakfast, then got in the shower. What a magic place a shower can be! With the water beating down on my head, the sweet scents of the soap and shampoo, feeling clean and relaxed and warm, my mind swimming around with my imagination. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about Aanora. The idea just emerged, like a diver rising up through the depths of a lake to break the water’s glittering surface in the sunshine. There it was. The answer.

The right answer. How did I know? I felt it in my bones, a tingling through my muscles and skin, a mental settling down into the deep, comfortable chair of that ending. The action could not be any other way for this story and its characters. They need to work together, but at the same time, Aanora needs to step up and do her part. She was, after all, the reason they were in this pickle. Total excitement! The ideas started to flow fast and furious — ideas for other parts of the story in order to set the stage properly for the climax’s resolution.  But last Sunday, I had the time only to write notes so I wouldn’t forget. Today, after living with the ideas for five days, I get to finally step inside the story again and write the climax and resolution. I’m so excited.

Trust in the process.


Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You

The writing process.  Those three words mean different things to different writers.  And yet, it’s the one thing non-writers and writers alike want to know about, i.e. what is it?  How does it happen?  Is there a standard way to do it?  How do I get ideas?  How do I lure inspiration into my life?  Am I doing it right?

First of all, the writing process is exactly that: the process of writing something, be it fiction, non-fiction, poetry, a play or screenplay, a speech, etc.  There’s nothing mysterious about it.  The process involves desire and openness to begin: the desire to write and an openness to the world and people.  Curiosity about everything also helps, because inspiration waits for no one.  Live life to the fullest, read widely, travel, follow interests, meet people, listen to dreams.  Be curious and interested with everything outside the self. 

The writing process happens when an individual decides to write something.  There is no standard way to proceed and complete the process which is as individual as each person doing it.  Ideas are everywhere.  Curiosity about the world and people is essential.  Having written that, I realize that ideas also tend to find the person they are most suitable for, like a cat finds the person most allergic to her.  Not that any writer could develop an allergy to ideas….  Inspiration waits for no one, so it’s important to be open to it.  Inspiration is really just an idea finding the right person and making her sneeze.  There is no right way to do it, either.  But like narrative structure, there’s a beginning, middle and end.

In the beginning of the short story I’m currently working on, I had an experience that involved a disease and a treatment for that disease, specifically an ultraviolet light chamber.  This experience reminded me of the line “Beam me up, Scotty!” in the original Star Trek series.  That thought made me smile and hung around for weeks in my mind, just sitting there, swinging its feet, waiting.  That is, waiting for an idea.  I have no clue how my imagination takes in experiences on all levels and then slips out the thing that nags at my mind, in this case, it was the idea of fish scales.  Then one day, I saw in my mind a sentient being that resembled more a Komodo dragon than a human and I…sneezed.  Inspiration had caressed my nose.  That Komodo sentient being was a character with low self-esteem and it had a story.

From there, Komodo has been slowly opening up and sharing its story with me.  I ask what gender it is, and receive no answer, so I’m beginning to think its sexuality either is extremely different from human understanding or isn’t important in the story.  Ditto with a name.  But I know what Komodo wants, what some of the obstacles are to getting it, and….  I don’t know anymore.  At this point, I haven’t begun writing down the story.  First, what I generally do is write notes which develop into a sketch of an outline, usually 3 sentences to 3 paragraphs: Komodo wants such and such; a list of obstacles and conflicts; then a possible ending.  At this point in the process, nothing is written in stone for me.  I want to be completely open to the story evolving organically according to the needs and actions of Komodo.

After time has passed — days, weeks, or months — I begin to feel really restless, on edge, and full, like maybe I shouldn’t have had that second helping at dinner.  I also feel that I really want to write down Komodo’s story and see what happens with it.  As I write, whether longhand or on the computer, seeing the words flow triggers more words, more ideas.  Sometimes, a story comes out all at once — quite a fortunate experience!  Most of the times, it comes out in spurts, with a lot of thinking going on between them.  Once I have a first draft down on paper, I will put the story away for a minimum of a week to ferment.  When I return to it, I revise to tighten it, sharpen the language and images, check for narrative holes, make sure Komodo changed over the course of the story.  Revising is finding the right word, the right image or detail, being specific in language.  One revision is never enough.  And Inspiration continues to flow into the story with each revision. 

Finally, the end.  The story is done.  I will put it away again for a minimum of one week.  Then I might ask people I trust to give me constructive feedback after reading the story…or not, depending on what I think the story needs.  I might put it away for months and work on something else.  Or I might research markets, i.e. magazines or literary journals, in order to submit it.  Sometimes more revisions happen after several rejections.  Sometimes an editor loves the story and wants to publish it. 

And that’s a sketchy outline of the writing process….no standard, right or easy way about it.