Out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to understand my writing process, particularly for the short story. I seem to do one of two things. Either I jot down a brief outline or list and start writing or I just start writing. Often inspiration comes from a photograph, a painting, a magazine image, an object, or an experience. These motivators tap into a feeling or an emotion or they spark an idea or character.
Other times an idea comes from nowhere. It may evolve slowly or it may hit with a jolt. I’ll jot down notes while sitting with a piece of pizza or waiting for a friend for coffee. How very unscientific this writing, inspiration, creativity thing turns out to be. I’ve learned to keep myself open to all the potential constantly on my radar.
This pre-writing tip from author Joe Bunting is useful no matter your style and helps keep a focus: Before beginning to write, try a screenwriting trick known as a logline. A logline is a one-sentence summary of your short story, its core, its essence. For example, here’s a logline for “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner: A lonely, Southern woman is found dead and decaying in her home after being abandoned by her lover. The formula is your character + a descriptor (e.g., lonely, Southern woman) followed by an event (e.g., found dead) and followed by a conflict (abandoned by her lover).
The idea and the story begin to flow, meeting rapids and dams and whirlpools and quicksand in the thought river, but I keep going, allowing for change and discovery. Writing craft kicks in while putting the words onto the page and keeping “in flow.” If I can, I’ll write through to the story’s end. The result is the epitome of a rough, rough draft.
The rough draft is a skeleton on which to hang muscles that you sculpt, shape, stretch, and massage. The real fun begins. I start checking for and adding more muscle. The use of the senses. The weaving of description, setting, flashbacks (if any), and character description within the story flow rather than dropping these ingredients in as chunks here and there. I rearrange sentences and paragraphs. I look at the realness of the dialogue, the pace of the rising action, the varying of sentence length and rhythm, and word choice. I try to stay close to my main character and be in the character’s head. I look at what the character wants, the obstacles in the way, the tension, the conflict.
As I’m writing, I’ll do nuts and bolts research when necessary, keeping the Google page open next to the developing manuscript, as well as a dictionary/thesaurus open in the lower right hand corner of the screen.
I’ll experiment, writing a few sentences in present tense or past, using first person POV or third, trying sentences on to see how they feel and assess how I can best tell the story. All the while I’m keeping the reader in mind. Will the reader care about the character, will the reader empathize? I’ve discovered the character also has to touch me.
At some point I step away. For me, a story needs time to percolate so I understand it more.
When the story feels good, I’ll bring out the magnifying glass, looking at individual parts and sentences. Have I strung a bunch of prepositional phrases together? Have I switched tense? Have I written sentences with economy and truth. For example, I had this sentence in a recent story: Henry shifted his gaze to me. Say what? Shifted his gaze? I changed it to read: Henry turned to me. I make sure each sentence reveals character or pushes the story forward.
Finally, there’s all that stuff about punctuation and spelling and final proof reading. A recent teacher of mine, Maggie Downs (UC Riverside Palm Desert), suggested putting the manuscript into a different font. Suddenly, a story you’ve been reading and rereading and can sing in three languages looks different and something you’ve missed will stand out. From a period to a nuance. For example, I had this sentence and didn’t see the error and spell check couldn’t make the distinction: He messaged her hand. Whoops. It should read: He massaged her hand. The font change helped me see the word. Lastly, I check for word repetition. On my Mac, under View, I click Sidebar and then Search Pane. I might do a search for the word as and watch the word pop up highlighted in yellow. Or I’ll type in “ly” to search for adverbs.
At some point, when I feel a cohesiveness, although I know I could keep diddling with the story forever, I call said story d-o-n-e. F-i-n-i-s-h-e-d. Whew!
Then I submit it, and wait – for “Declined” or “Accepted,” always hoping to see this on a submission control panel:
Feel like sharing any tips about your writing process? Love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.
P.S. I like a short story by Thomas E. Kennedy called “The Author of Things” found in his collection Getting Lucky. In the story we enter the head of fictional author Tom Dunne, who then proceeds to take us on his story writing journey. Writers, I think you will relate.