In reference to my title, when writing fiction, I’ve learned the hard way that I need both methods.
I used to “write before I thought” exclusively. This approach is similar to how I cook. I never have the ingredients prepared in little bowls ahead of time. I’m reading the recipe while crazily chopping and grabbing ingredients. I get the meal done, but if I’d slow down and take some time beforehand, the process would run more smoothly.
The same goes for my writing. Instead of throwing words on the page, a bit of mental preparation and forethought is key.
My next project is a short story involving Flannery O’Connor’s mother Regina. I’m not sure where I’m going with it yet. But I do want to use both approaches.
Short stories are more contained than a novel. It doesn’t take as long to write one, but in some ways, it’s more difficult to do well. The boundaries of the form ramp up the process. The conflict happens faster, the rising arc and denouement arrive sooner, and throughout, every sentence has to be exact.
First—think before I write, and for a short story, this part doesn’t have to be overdone.
Some simple questions could be:
What do Regina and Flannery both want or need?
What’s the location? That one’s easy. Their farm Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia.
What happens in the story?
Is there a theme?
What might be the climax, the breaking point, or in other words, the point of no return?
Will the ending be open and amorphous? All tied up?
What would be a good logline? A neat screenwriting technique in order to create a one sentence summary. For instance, Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” might be A lonely, Southern woman is found dead and decaying in her home after being abandoned by her lover.
The above thought-out structure provides a container for creative freedom. Now I’m ready to “write before I think.” I can be free flowing with my thoughts. I can ease into not knowing and letting the subconscious come to the forefront. I can write what I want. It doesn’t matter. No reason to judge it.
The conscious mind can rein it in later when I reshape and mold the messy and chaotic parts of the story. And I might create a few jewels worth keeping.
One fun tool is “what if?” What if Flannery woke up one day and she could run? What if Regina fell in love with a New York intellectual? What if someone snuck on to the farm and stole the peacocks?
I better get thinking then writing, and for some inspiration, I’m going to pull out Chekhov, the master of short stories.