Think Before You Write. Or. Write Before You Think?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dialogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a few days, I eavesdropped on and typed up these conversations at a local coffee shop, and honestly, they were better than anything I could think up.

“We have our farmhouse in Ohio. Was built in 1898. They’ll hear their name called. Slamming doors. Up the stairs. But very much alive. I can psych myself out.”

“The sun broke through. Hit the back of my neck. A big old ray. She died like ten years ago. I knew it was her. By the time I got over the bridge. Blue skies.”

I mean. You can’t beat that for some good dialogue!

This next conversation had a bit of enlivening disagreement between these two young men. A good thing in dialogue.

“Eating with my parents. I don’t want to. Nobody else does this. People are going to be watching the game.”

“Are your parents into the game?”

“They might be but I don’t want to watch with my parents.”

“Kind of cool to have dinner with them.”

“Don’t point out the positives.”

Elmore Leonard is the master of using dialogue to move a story forward or into a sudden pitch toward confrontation such as the following in Be Cool.

“You wear your shades at night,” Chili said, “so I’ll think you’re cool, but I can’t tell if you’re looking at me.”

Raji put his glasses down on his nose, down and up. “See? I’m looking the fuck right at you, man. You have something to say to me fuckin say it so we be done here.”

A few more things to think about with dialogue.

Set up two characters with conflicting goals. Such as one wants Waffle House. The other a Vegan restaurant. Then have them talk about it.

Keep dialogue tags unobtrusive. Just stick with “he said” and “she said.” It makes it easier for the reader.

Read all your dialogue aloud, with a friend if possible. It will quickly become evident which lines don’t ring true.

Make sure characters are really talking to each other and not just saying something for the reader’s benefit or that you’re not forcing them to reveal a bit of plot through dialogue.

Use silence as well as speech to convey meaning.

Or if you want to break all these rules, you can do your own thing like Cormac McCarthy and use no speech marks or apostrophes.

Here’s some dialogue from No Country For Old Men.

Could have been checkin the quality. Getting ready to trade.
They didnt trade. They shot each other.
Bell nodded.
There might not of even been no money.
That’s possible.
But you dont believe it.
Bell thought about it. No, he said. Probably I dont.

Lastly, lots of good advice on dialogue in 9 Rules for Writing Dialogue

 

 

 

Thoughts on Creative Writing

I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing.

Here’s what I plan to say.

At my first ever writing retreat in Ashland, Virginia, two voices shot out of my head and I could barely keep up with the back and forth dialogue they were having.

The two people were a mentally slow young woman and her domineering Southern mother. The young woman had taken a baby girl from someone and brought the child home on a local bus. Horrified, the mother was yelling at her to take the baby back to the parents.

I had no idea where these two people had come from. Much less the weird premise. But as they snapped at each other, I realized I had a knack for dialogue.

However, once I got home from the retreat, I soon found out, that’s all I had. I knew nothing about the craft of writing fiction.

Over the past years, I’ve become a better writer, and after several tries at short stories and another novel, I’ve almost finished a young adult novel. I also want to add that at a certain point, I kept running off into tangents and not sticking to a storyline so I hired an editor to help me with this current novel.  After working with him, I now understand how to structure a novel, and I think next time around, I’ll be able to do it myself.

Here are some tidbits that have helped me along the way.

Writing is hard for everyone. Except maybe Joyce Carol Oates.

Main characters are everything. Think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter or Jane Eyre or Jo March in Little Women. A reader wants to feel something about the characters. We root for certain characters. We despise a character. We fall in love with a character.

But creating that memorable character takes lots of trial and error.

I often struggle with my characters starting off as caricatures. I tend to exaggerate their quirks and mannerisms. In order to get to know my characters better, I write a backstory about them. Even if I don’t use most of it, I’ll feel more confident about what they say and do.

Here are just a few of many ideas for character development. What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?

What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

Setting is important. It helps the reader feel grounded in the story.  It can also establish the atmosphere or mood of the novel or story.

An example of setting. “A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud.” From Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Vivid imagery brings a story to life.  Here’s a great example. “Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.”  From The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

I once interviewed Michael Curtis the fiction editor of The Atlantic magazine, and I remember he said he liked stories with forward motion. That he liked things to happen. And I agree with that.

I try to keep sentences varied. Short. Long. Medium. Short. It helps with the reading flow.

And the same goes for dialogue, description and action. Write a bit of one, then a bit of the other.

I try not to use adverbs. They weaken rather than strengthen one’s writing.

A lot of writing boils down to making decisions. Do I put this sentence here or there?

With dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. You’ll be able to tell if it rings true or not. Also, sit in a coffee shop and listen to people talking. It’s usually not a straightforward conversation. People don’t always mean what they say. And even sneak a peek at their body language for some additional information.

It’s super intimidating to think the whole world is going to read what you write. So scale it down. I like to pretend I’m telling my story to a good friend.

Cover up the computer screen. That way you can’t self-edit as you go along, and it will help with the self-critic we all have inside of us.

I’m not good about this one. But it’s important to put your work away. Then come back to it a few days or a week later and observe it after some time apart from it.

I’ll close with the words of Eudora Welty. “A writer needs to sit down and write. Then inspiration will follow. No art ever came out of not risking your neck. And risk — experiment — is a considerable part of the joy of doing, which is the lone, simple reason all [writers] are willing to work as hard as they do.

The open mind and the receptive heart — which are at last and with fortune’s smile the informed mind and the experienced heart — are to be gained anywhere, any time, without necessarily moving an inch from any present address.”

A few great resources for fiction writers:

War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On Writing by Stephen King

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner

www.JaneFriedman.com