Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Writing Process: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Word (Part 3)

How to Begin Writing

Sometimes when I sit down to write, it is because I already have a snippet or a phrase floating around in my head. It is usually either inspired by a real or misheard song lyric, or it pops up, fully formed, from some random part of my brain as I brush my teeth or put away laundry. I rush to finish the task at hand as quickly as possible, repeating the phrase over and over in my head, so I don't lose it. Then I rush to the computer or a scrap of paper, and jot it down. Sometimes this leads to a writing session; sometimes I decide to come back to it later.

But when I start out writing with a blank screen or piece of paper, without any preconceived notion of what to write (which is the majority of the time for me), than I set my eyes on the keyboard and run my fingertips over the keys, ever-so-lightly. I am searching for

the perfect letter,

to begin the perfect word,

to begin the perfect phrase

and then sentence,

that will become my beginning.

My eyes will scan the various letters, and certain words pop up in my head—Random, Wily, Opening, Forgotten—and I search around for one that sticks out—shining—offering up worlds of possibilities. And I pick that one. Naturally, the perfect first word has at least a phrase, if not the rest of the sentence, that automatically follows on the page.

Then, once the writing has begun, I stop and look at the sentence—or, if it really has been a perfect sentence, then another sentence flows out to follow it, and so on, until it stops. Whenever that is, I go back, and re-read what I've written. Given that I usually have very little (conscious) say in the whole matter, I have to spend a minute or two trying to determine what it could mean.

“Underneath the diamond bridge...”

What in the world does that mean? Is it literal? Is it a fantasy story? Or is it metaphorical, or a dream, or someone's imagining? What could be sitting under that diamond bridge? And so on.

But this is where it gets tricky. If I think about and analyze it too much, then the story dies, right then and there. I'm already sick of the first sentence, and if that's all there is, there is nothing to come and redeem it. On the other hand, if I go over it too lightly or not at all, and just continue finding beautiful letters with beautiful sentences to follow, then I am in serious danger of making absolutely no sense whatsoever. That 'diamond bridge' thing? That's what happened to that writing—it became one big, confused, tangled mess, couldn't find its way toward making sense, gave a big sigh—and died. It still haunts my hard drive, as all my writing does. I go and pay my respects from time-to-time...but it's a depressing place to go.

I build my scenes of my stories, and poems for that matter, block by block. Once some of the blocks are in place, I begin to see a shape that sets the scene. The rest of the scene appears clearly in my head, and there's a sigh of relief. Certain word choices lead me to make certain conclusions that I either feel I need to follow through with, or defy. Whether I want to defy what I think readers' expectations will be (which I know I give too much credit), or conventional narrative choices, I do tend to lean toward the method of defiance, unless the character(s) really want to go there, or the image of the scene in my head assures me that, no, this man really is only in his 30's, no older.

A lot of my writing happens because I “feel it out” as I go. I get images in my head of what I want to describe, or people's expressions, and I begin to enact it: either with my hands, my facial expressions, or the physical feeling the character may be experiencing. Often, I try to pretty much shape the perfect words out of thin air with my hands. It helps, too. It allows me, sometimes, to see in front of me what it is I want to describe.

When I'm looking for a word—say I see the face of a character, getting so surprised and offended that he can barely spit out any words. He can feel the anger building up in his chest, and his words start sticking there, but he has to say something to the other character, has to force it past his throat. (Even as I am trying to describe this to you, my hands come out in gestures, and I put myself in the place of the character—where is the anger building, where do I feel it? And I feel the tightness in my chest, so that is where it is for him.) And there is a word for what he is doing, as the words force themselves through his throat and his cheeks puff, his mouth opening and closing like a fish with air bubbles: he is...blustering, I find. Not only does the meaning of the word fit, but also the shape and feel of it. Blustering reminds me of blowing bubbles, of helplessly trying something, of puffy cheeks. Go ahead, say it out loud and see how it feels in your mouth.

But my writing tends to be on the side of the subtle (far too much, I am told sometimes), and I don't think the reader needs to know all that, because if I describe everything that is happening to the character, that makes the situation a bigger deal than it really is for him. It is not a tragic and life-threatening insult that he suffers, after all. Though he may be feeling everything I described, the reader will take it much too much to heart if I write it all down. Besides, this is a comedy. So what does it become?

“You fool,” he spluttered, and I drew back, offended.

“I AM the Pope!” he blustered.

So what happens next? Is always the question. Largely, it comes from—and here's that word again—Inspiration: unquantifiable, untraceable, and rarely understood. Scenes form in my mind, and I follow them where they go. They have a somewhat natural flow that they follow, and even if I'm struggling with figuring out what will happen next, the scene seems to have a place where it feels—with a sigh of relief—like a temporary ending. This part is over, but the story is not. When it isn't coming naturally, What Happens Next has to do, for once, with a very logical process: What makes sense? What should she do about that? How would this character react in this situation? If there are easy answers for these, then wonderful. If not, I probably need to know more about my character or the situation. Unfortunately, I often learn about my characters through the story as I write, the decisions they make, the reactions they have. So, it becomes a bit of a cycle. I'm still working on that one, though sometimes filling out character sheets helps me determine their motivation and background, which allows me to go back to the story and figure out what should happen next. I'm just learning how to do this. I still have a long way to go.

You may have noticed a lot of 'sometimes' and 'maybe' and 'usually' in here. I'm still learning how this all (me, writing, and the relationship between the two of us) works best. So these are just ruminations on how different times have worked best for me...well, how it has worked, when it has worked, really.

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