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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Draft Freedom

img_2323Whoop! My first draft is almost done. It’s messy, choppy, filled with dialogue and sparse on description, but that’s ok, because I’ve made it all the way through.

The plot is in place, and my characters are coming to life, and I know what happens from the beginning to the end.

For me, the hardest part is over.

No more struggling to answer, “What happens next?” “Would Teddy say this?” “Would Helen do that?” I don’t have to pace around closing my eyes trying to visualize scene after scene. They are all there on the pages.

I’m now actually excited to go back to the beginning.

But before I head into the revision, I first need to back away from the novel. I need to take a week or so off to gain some distance from what I wrote in order to later see it with fresh eyes.

Once I feel ready, I’ll print out a fresh copy. I’ll do a read-through in several sittings. I won’t stop to make changes. I’ll just pretend to be reading it for the first time.

I could then do all this but I might be too exhausted by the end!

So instead, I’ll next go through and analyze the manuscript. This time making marks, jotting down ideas, thoughts…I’ll ponder…

Does my story make sense?

Is the plot compelling? Any plot holes?

Does the story flow?

Do my lead characters come to life?

Are the stakes high enough?

Are there any unbelievable leaps of logic?

Is the pacing. Too fast? Too slow?

Then I’ll start making the actual editing changes. And once to the end (maybe two months from now) time for the next revision! I’ll have to do another post about that one when the time comes.

 

Distractions

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I told Jenny I needed help focusing.

She sagely suggested I write a blog post about it since other people probably struggle with focusing too.

“You can’t start concentrating until you’ve stopped being distracted.”  From a quote I found on the internet, but I was too distracted to write down the author’s name for attribution!

When I try to focus on writing my novel, my main distractions tend to be:

  • Getting up and doing something else, like searching for food. Hence, the carbs photo.
  • Scrolling through Instagram.
  • Hitting Google Chrome. I start highbrow and eventually go lowbrow. The New York Times leads to the New York Post, and before I know it, thirty minutes are gone.

I needed some helpful ideas. The following are a few I might try.

Turn off my phone. Not just vibrate. Or lower the volume. Turn it completely off. Move it far away from me.

Turn off the internet on my computer. Or even certain websites. This one for Mac users looks like a good one.

Use a typewriter instead of the computer. No internet distractions on that old school device.

This blog post got my attention. The idea that we are addicted to wasting time.  I think there’s some truth to it.

I could try Write or Die.  That program would for sure scare me into focusing.

Or maybe RescueTime.  An app that breaks down how I spend my time online. That would probably be a reality jolt.

Set a timer for 10 minutes. This one I’ve tried, and it works. I tell myself, ok Caroline, for ten minutes, you can focus. Once ten minutes are up, I’m usually into the writing, and I set the timer for another ten minutes and so on.

Pump myself up with some self-talk.  Act like my muse works for me, and not the other way around. Think of my muse as a defiant employee and give it deadlines. Even tell the muse to show up at a fixed time every day and make that sucker get to work and into the flow.

Speaking of flow. That’s what we’re all after. To enter another world and lose track of time so that we can then create for the reader what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction “a vivid and continuous dream.”

Why the mind struggles with sitting down and doing the work, I wish I knew! That might call for another post titled “Resistance.” This is a great book about that.