Just finished Keith Richards’s bio about his life in the Rolling Stones. The way he writes songs is remarkable. He gets together with one or more musicians, and they play some riffs and improvise, and Richards throws out a line here and there. Some of the lines are nonsense, but some of them stick and become lyrics. At other times, he would write a few lines and hand it over to Mick Jagger, who would build on those lines.
I do hear of writers who need to outline, who need to know where the story is headed. If you’re one of those writers, you probably don’t need writing tips. If you’re like the rest of us, who view this process as more of an open-ended concern, then this idea of becoming immersed in the moment and writing and writing without censor seems like it can be quite valuable.
Reminds me of Ray Bradbury (July 2011 entry) and Kent Haruf, who described his process in an interview: he puts a ski hat over his head and over his eyes and types blindly. I don’t think I can do this, but I know the feeling, and I can probably think of some version that works for me. Maybe blur my eyes? I know I’ve done this, gotten lost in the writing, but it’s usually a result of sitting at a desk and thinking about the story for a couple of hours, getting lost. In other words, we need to become lost, or feel comfortable being lost, before we can find some direction.
I mentioned in my blog that I’m reading old Ray Bradbury stories. In his introduction he shares this advice: “Jump off the cliff and build your own wings on the way down.” This is perfect. In other words, you don’t need to know where your story or novel is heading. Jot down a few sentences, and in the process, the path ahead will become clear. I’ve been a firm believer in this strategy (it’s also a way to live) for a long time, but I felt the truth this past week. I’m about two thirds through a novel and wasn’t sure what should come next but suddenly discovered where I wanted to touch down after only a few sentences. Thanks, Ray, for the reminder.
Get in the habit of writing things down as you read, noting words you like, transcribing passages that move you. This will slow your reading, of course, but the process will make every book you read a kind of instruction booklet. If taking notes detracts from the joy of reading for you, then ignore this tip. But for me, these pauses only increase my awe and appreciation of the work. I don’t do this for every book, sometimes I need a break, but I’ve accumulated many notes over the years. I can’t get myself to write in the book, but I use big, sturdy note cards that get marked up front and back.
Ask yourself questions as you read. How does the writer get from point A to B? How is dialogue inserted? How does the writer balance long and short sentences? Your own questions will arise naturally as you read. It’s probably best not to be overly conscious about what you’re looking for. To increase your attention a notch or two is sufficient.
Kurt Vonnegut used to say that nearly everything he wrote, he wrote with his sister in mind, even after she’d passed. Unlike Vonnegut, I don’t have a single person whose reactions I anticipate. And these “reader friends” have grown over the years, just as with any relationship in which trust unfolds in degrees. Pay attention to those people in your life who are kind, who laugh at your jokes, and who are careful readers. These readers don’t have to be skilled in editing, though that can be helpful. It’s enough if they can tell you what’s working, what they like.
Go out and buy David Michael Kaplan’s excellent book, Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction. (Doesn’t that sound quaint: “Go out...” I’m saddened that this is no longer our primary mode of buying books. As long as people keep reading, I won’t complain too much.) His advice throughout is practical, wise, and clear. In the chapter, Cutting What’s Not Essential, he discusses how writers should not get too attached to anything: a particular detail, a character, an entire scene. This always sounds a bit ruthless to me because I become attached to everything. But I know he’s right. The end result, the story, is more important than any individual piece that doesn’t help to move the story along.
If you get stuck, write at the top, “What am I trying to say?” I don’t know if you need to answer this with words on a page, but the question itself should stare back at you in actual letters—or pictures. In other words, you don’t ever have to articulate the answer, not quite, and I always enjoy the elusiveness of this creative aspect of writing, but the question should be clear and ever present.
Habits are important to a writer. Habits help the writer avoid time-sucking distractions: “Let’s see, shall I write with a pen today, or shall I compose directly at the computer? Shall I squirrel myself away in the basement furnace room or find a shady spot outside?” On the other hand, a brief break from such useful habits might be welcome and productive at times. If you’re writing from the point of view of a child, perhaps sharpen a thick pencil and listen to the lead happily scratching the paper. Or if you’re trying to adopt the persona of an accountant, find a pad of graph paper on the shelf in your workroom (c’mon, everyone has graph paper collecting dust, right?), and scribble a few sentences across those blue-lined boxes. For some reason, that’s what many Italians used when I last visited over twenty years ago. I’d forgotten until this very moment. The next scene I write set in Italy, which I love to imagine, will make use of graphing paper, I just decided.
If you write with a computer, you sometimes need a place to store the fleeting thoughts that occur to you while writing. But you don’t want to interrupt the flow of writing. Press Return a few times, quickly write down your thoughts, then scroll up and continue where you left off. You’ll be surprised at how many of these notes find their way into your stories. Or let’s say you’re trying to decide which word to include (or use? employ? keep?). Don’t omit any choices, at least not yet. Place parentheses around the extra choices. Decide later.
Columbia College in Chicago asks writers to notice where the light is coming from in a scene, which strikes me as most useful. You don’t have to include this in every scene, of course, but this small detail helps to anchor me.
Also, smell is a primitive sense that often gets overlooked. For example, when we dream, we rarely remember smells. It’s not surprising that when we write fiction, which is nothing more than waking dreams, that we forget to include smells, despite their power.
On a piece of paper on the desk where I write, I keep a reminder to myself. There are only two words on this paper, both written in bold marker: LIGHT / SMELL. The tip: keep your own simple reminder posted near the place where you write. What are some words that will help you?
At readings and book clubs, people often ask, “Where do you get your inspiration, your ideas?” It’s an important question, and my response is always inadequate because the answer is so personal. Not personal in the sense that I’m unwilling to share my deep, private world. But personal in that the answer is unique to me, to each writer, and nearly impossible to articulate.
For example, if I were to ask you to describe a dream you had last night, this would be a fairly simple task, provided you remembered the dream. But what if I followed with this: Why did you have the dream? What inspired it? Writing fiction is often nothing more than taking note of daytime dreams, the source of which remains mysterious and elusive and should remain that way. Which is why it’s important to sit at your desk for a long spell, allowing your mind to reach this rich state of abandon, dreaming while you’re awake, in essence.
How can all this ever lead to any sort of practical tip? Ah, you underestimate me, grasshopper. Here’s what you do. On days when there’s no pressure to awaken at a particular time, on weekends, let’s say, rise from your bed early and lie down on a couch. Don’t shake off your drowsiness. Have a pad of paper and pen ready and think/dream about what you’d like to write today. By the way, REM sleep stages increase in length as sleep progresses, so in the morning, you’ve probably just emerged from a REM period, a time rich with imaginative dreamscapes. As you lie on the couch, you’re not in REM, but your mind is still in an imaginative mode, and ideas tend to gush. With pen in hand, don’t analyze. Just try to keep up. Close your eyes but stay awake. Then wait. When you feel like writing something down, do it, and if you can keep your eyes half shut or closed while doing so, that’s even better.
This little trick is especially effective when you’re in the middle of a story or novel and wondering what comes next. In other words, while lying there, concentrate not on the electric bill you need to get in the mail or the lawn you need to weed, but on the dream you want to create. You’re in control, though it won’t always seem so during these lovely little twilight periods on the couch.
I love when I reach a scene that calls for dialogue, but for me, in my mind, dialogue moves faster than the accompanying exposition, and I fear sometimes that I’ll lose the rhythm of the way people speak to each other if I get bogged down in the details of the scene. A simple solution. Forget about exposition entirely and become more screenwriter or playwright for a few minutes, then fill in the exposition later. This will force you to write faster than you probably usually do, which is okay, maybe even welcome. At least it is for me. Edit later.
Another note on dialogue. Raymond Carver used to say that people often speak in non sequiturs, meaning “it does not follow.” In other words, person A speaks; person B responds with something wholly unrelated. You can create some humorous exchanges with this in mind, of course. But the use of non sequiturs in dramatic passages can be just as effective. What two characters are not saying to each other is telling.
I think most writers identify with a certain genre. Or they can at least exclude certain ones that don’t describe them. “No, I don’t write young adult books.” But try this. Take a genre you’re not as familiar with, one you wouldn’t ordinarily be drawn to, and see if you can write a few pages with this new persona. Write a ghost story. Write with a young audience in mind. Write a, well, why not, write a romance. Just a few pages. The writing may turn out to be a spoof, but that might be valuable too.
Make a list of five physical “flaws”: a severe limp, jug ears, unruly hair, clown feet. Make a list of three mental “flaws”: the need to always be right (which describes about all of us), the inability to discern emotions in others, voice modulation disorder (watch Seinfeld). Then write a story in which the characters are governed by one or more of these flaws. Though the flaws can be exaggerated, the characters don’t necessarily need to be aware they have them.
Write about a neighbor, past or present. Pick someone you barely know: the man who takes out his trash at odd hours; the woman who peeks out from her blinds; the boy who never smiles or waves; the girl who marches by like clockwork clutching her schoolbooks. All you know about them are the few meager observations you’ve made over the past months or years. Then write a story about what goes on in their lives behind closed doors or away from the neighborhood. Change their names of course, alter their descriptions a bit, but keep some central part of them the same. Consider writing the story from the neighbor’s point of view.
I used this four-part exercise at a workshop at Highland Park HS, so it lends itself best to a classroom setting, but I think anyone can follow the prompts on his or her own.
1. When you were a child, what adult scared or fascinated you?
a) What did the person wear?
b) What did the person’s voice sound like?
c) What scared or fascinated you about this person?
d) Did you ever tell anyone how you felt about this person? If not, who would you have liked to tell?
2. Describe your mother or father or caretaker?
a) What’s one thing you wished you’d have told this person?
b) What kinds of things made you angry about this person?
c) What kinds of things did this person do to make you laugh?
d) What did this person understand about you better than anyone else?
e) What’s one thing this person never understood about you?
3. Describe a place from your childhood that remains fond or daunting to you.
a) What did the place smell like?
b) If this is an interior place, what was on the walls? If outside, what could you see from this place?
c) In what ways did the place change over the years?
d) If you could go back to this place to take a picture, how would you frame the picture. What would be the focal point?
4. Describe one of your biggest regrets.
a) Weird question: what would you say the regret smelled like?
b) Go back to that time of the regret. What kind of day was it? If you don’t remember, pretend. Cloudy? Rushed? Peaceful?
c) If you decided to write a letter regarding your regret, to whom would you write the letter? What would you say?
1. Which one person from above notes most intrigues you?
2. Give that person a name. A new name. Could be just a first name. Could be just a last. Could be both. Could be a Mister, a Mrs.
3. What kinds of clothes is the character (not a person anymore) wearing right now? (The real person can inform your imagination here, but veer away a little too. Create something new. For example, if the person you have in mind is your mother, think of her in clothes she doesn’t ordinarily wear, which can be comic, yes?)
4. Is the character’s voice fast-paced, slow?
5. Does the character make eye contact while talking. What does that feel like to others? If the person doesn’t make eye contact, what’s the impression that leaves on others?
6. What does this character cherish most? Why?
7. What does this character loathe?
8. What kinds of shoes does this character like to wear?
9. Describe this character’s gait.
PLACE / PLOT
1. Imagine this character in the place you described. Describe the way this character moves around the place. What does the character touch or avoid?
2. There’s something in this place that upsets the character. What is it? Is it something the character has seen? Or remembered?
3. This character sees someone approaching. Does the character welcome this other person? Or does the character become unsettled?
4. What does the character say to this other person?
5. What does the other person say back?
Time to start a story.
WHAT IF? WHAT IF?
Try to write two paragraphs—or about a page—that highlights some of the things you’ve written. Don’t feel confined by what you’ve written. Simply allow that material to urge you on.
But begin somewhere in the middle. Something should be happening in the very first sentence.
“His hand trembled more than it should have.”
“Ralph Bellagio didn’t have time to flinch from the fist aimed at his right cheek.”
“Pretending to check her tomato plants, Mrs. Werlitzhowser peeked through her neighbor’s screen door.”
Let all this sit for a day or two if necessary, then finish the story.
Make a wish list. Big wishes. Flying cars that run on water. No more cancer. Days without night. Suffering cured by storytelling. Criminal punishments doled out by good-hearted children. Year-long spring. Elimination of holidays. Write a story in which a character thinks about one of these wishes in the opening paragraph. How does the character’s wishful thinking influence what he or she will encounter in the second paragraph? And yes, the character should encounter something that soon.
Find a newspaper and write down any two headlines. Don’t spend any longer than seven minutes on this task. Write a story that combines the two headlines.
In a recent blog, I mentioned the story of photographer Vivian Maier. If you want about a year’s worth of writing prompts, go to her site, created by the archivist of her work, and use one of the photos as a starting-off point for a story. Or study two photos and combine them in some critical way. Make one photo interdependent on the other. One photo can answer questions that the other poses. The site: vivianmaier.com.
Write the longest sentence you can. Once you begin, try not to pause. This plodding ahead with the pen or the keyboard will help reflect the breathlessness such a lengthy sentence can achieve. And no, semicolons are not allowed. While this exercise may seem artificial, the long sentence does come in handy often in fiction (to signify lost hope maybe, to mirror one’s thoughts perhaps, to convey desperation or confusion, and many other purposes), and the result, in this case, may lead to another sentence, albeit briefer, and perhaps a story—because the long sentence soon becomes infused with rich subtext that demands attention.
Answer one or more of these questions with a story.
1. Why did Alex, who is always prompt, show up for work two hours late?
2. Why wouldn’t Julia look her mother in the eye?
3. Why did Marcus become perturbed when he glanced at his backyard?
4. Why couldn’t Anna recall the name of her best friend?
5. What did Frank throw at the television one afternoon?
6. Why was Eunhye waiting for the mail?
To get you ready for Halloween, write a ghost story. Doesn’t have to be chilling, though that’s certainly welcome. See my October 16th blog entry for my response.
Describe the refrigerator of a man who lives alone. Don’t ever mention that he lives alone. Allow the details to tell the story. Write for ten minutes. This is one of my favorite prompts, the one I begin all my creative writing courses, in honor of teacher Tom Bracken, who provided the encouragement I needed many years ago during those harried days of graduate school.
Great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once said that all the material one needs to write comes from one’s childhood. I’m paraphrasing from memory, so I hope I haven’t mangled her words too much. With this in mind, I sometimes borrow a simple exercise from my good friend and co-author, Gary Anderson. At the top of a sheet of paper, write down, “I remember...” Give yourself about ten minutes to respond—write fast—and I guarantee you’ll derive at least a few useful nuggets from the exercise.
List 5-10 people from your distant or recent past that you regard as fascinating or memorable.
2. Pick any two of these people, but pick two who don't know each other.
3. Write a dialogue between these two people, making sure to include a conflict early.
St. Columbkille Church