Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Writer's Indecision

Recently, I struggled with a piece that was meant to be a short story. My normal practice is to journal ideas before I write a new story. This time I dived in with an ending and no other plan in mind. About 3,000 words in I realized the story had to do something different, cut out most of what I'd written, started again. 2,500 words later, I still couldn't get my characters to the end within a reasonable short-story-sized story. I fretted, picked at the ms, then escaped into the last disc of Mad Men season 2 to get away from the battle.

Better planning would have told me this wasn't a short story, it was the opening of a novel. It had too much back story; too many plots wanted telling; too many characters inserted themselves in the first 3,000 words . Dealing with this issue reminded me of a problem I have on and off with my writing.

For a long time I'd wanted to write the kind of stories I enjoyed reading. It got to the point I wanted to publish those stories so others could read them, too. In order to learn how to do that I read a lot of books on writing, as you do. Add to that my tendency to be a literal student when I undertake something new or deal with something I don't do often. I blame being Virgo for this fault. That's less embarrassing than saying I'm naive.

Writers spoke of their characters talking to them. They described stories taking wild detours from carefully prepared outlines. I thought I had to wait for my characters to speak to me, for the story to tell me what it wanted to do. After a childhood and young adulthood of prolific writing I spent fruitless hours staring at a blank page, waiting like a needy girl who hopes that ringing phone means a Friday night date. I'd half-heartedly journal about my writer's block and lack of creativity. I did a lot of whining. It wasn't attractive.

I wasn't suffering from writer's block. I was suffering from writer's indecision.

I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring. I started journaling story ideas in earnest. That's when I got it. I had to ask 'what happens next' then explore the possibilities. I had to poke at characters to see how they reacted. I had to look at what I'd written then extrapolate the logical sequence of events. I could decide what kind of obstacles to toss in a character's way. With the piece mentioned above, I failed to plan then fell into the bad old habit of waiting for the work to speak rather than telling the work what to do.

When I first figured out my issues with writer's indecision I felt at once foolish and liberated. Writing became a pleasure rather than a chore. I could sit down every day at the keyboard and know I had stories to tell rather than waiting for the stories to talk to me. The stories I did tell got easier to write. Not better, necessarily, but easier. The better will come with the practice of daily writing.

For myself I don't believe in writer's block, anymore. I know, worst comes to worst, I can drop a ninja in the room and see what happens. I may have to delete a bunch of stuff but it will spark ideas I can explore. That's a more satisfying than staring at a computer screen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

When Do Writers Get Their Ideas

There are myriad blog posts about where writers get their ideas. For me, I think it's equally important to understand when the ideas happen.

When I first started writing I’d get an idea or I’d see a scene in my head, or hear a character, or a think of a turn of phrase that interested me. I’d put each one in a separate computer file, hording these bits and pieces like a kid with a memento box.

The more time I spent not writing and wishing I was, I discovered something. Ideas for stories were slow to come. Interesting characters didn’t pop up and speak to me. I could see fascinating things and my mind wouldn’t ask the questions ‘what comes next?’ or ‘what if that was turned this way?’

I feared my ability to come up with ideas for stories had deserted me. That I would be stuck with dozens of files of bits and pieces I couldn’t fashion into stories because I had no idea (pardon the pun) how to put them together.

This lead to writing paralysis, as ugly self-talk does. Why write if I couldn’t think of anything interesting or unique to write? I would slog through a few paragraphs of a potential story and come to a shuddering halt, staring at the page and hating every word on it.

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo with an interest in crossing the 50k ‘finish line’ by the end of the month you know that there’s little time for hand-wringing over a lack of ideas. You get desperate to fill in word count, whether or not you intend on using the NaNovel for a serious bid to get published later. Any crazy-ass half-baked idea is suddenly fodder for the NaNovel. When all else fails ninjas crash through the door and attack everyone. That’s sure to shake up a story and get the creative juices flowing.

NaNo helped break through that initial paralysis. But it was a few years later that I decided to get serious again about a writing career. You can’t have a career if you don’t write. You can’t write if you don’t have something to write about. So the memento box was opened and I started picking through the bits and pieces, trying to forge stories out of them.

I discovered something else once I started writing regularly. Ideas came from everywhere. I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk without seeing or thinking something that might have potential to power a story at some point.

That’s when I figured out something else.

I have to be writing to have the ideas. I have to get into the nitty gritty of fashioning ideas into a story before new possibilities occur to me. It’s hard to keep working on one story when ideas for three or four others whisper seductively to me. I’m focused on writing short stories, right now, practicing and honing my craft. Even so, there are ideas for four different novels that are begging to be written, I'm excited by the ideas, interested in writing them. The nice thing is they’ll always be there, saved in the memento box of my thumb drive, ready to be written when the time comes.

I also learned that a story isn’t just one idea, but an amalgam of many ideas. My current work in progress combines a love of history, the story of a beautiful old mansion about to be demolished, and the heartbreaking picture of the head and torso of an angel abandoned in a field in New Jersey, taken from the old Pennsylvania Station.

My relief is huge. As long as I keep writing I will always have ideas I can write about.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Critique - It's Not All About You

A good friend recently critiqued a short story I'd given her. The short story is about a young lady who has been raised by a family of criminals and is now on her own, making her way in the world the only way she knows how, by committing crimes.

My friend is honest and she can say the hard things that others will hesitate to say. She's also good at spotting the weaknesses of a story. I value that about her. It's sometimes hard to hear your baby isn't properly dressed to meet the world. Better to hear it needs a coat and shoes than to send it out partly dressed.

I spent the day of the critique mentally girding my lions, ready to hear that the story was crap and I should hang up my fountain pen. I was surprised to hear that the story had some good bones. And then she pointed out the weak points. Some of them were things I'd feared myself. It was good to hear my estimation of the short comings confirmed.

Then she said something that surprised me at the time but, in retrospect, is both hilarious and true.

"I can tell you're not a criminal."

My friend is correct. What I know about committing crime comes from TV and reading, hardly the training ground for learning second story work or how to pull off a con. For a moment, though, I bristled mentally. It took an effort not to react to the statement. I had to make a concious effort to admit the truth. I was not a career criminal and I had not been Criminal McSlick in writing about the crime in the story.

Once I came down off the mental ledge, I could hear the rest of the critique in the spirit it was meant; making the story better. The story needs some work. I need to do some reasearch to make the character's behavior believable. The critique was invaluable and I am grateful to my friend for her effort. I think I can write a better story as a result.

It also taught me an important lesson about critiques. Critiques are meant to make the story better. It isn't a personal attack on my character or my intelligence. There's no hidden message that the inadequacies of the story translate to personal inadequacies. It's a relief to understand that. It'll make the critique of my next story easier to hear. It'll make the critiques that come from strangers easier to read.

There's a post at Warriorwrter's Blog that speaks to critiquing and the fear surrounding it. It's an invaluable post for aspiring writers.