A couple days ago I wrote about authors who claim to write stories in order (Put one scene after another…), with some commentary on the accuracy of those claims. And while I talked about how I did things myself back in my typewriter-only days, I didn’t talk about my current process.
I don’t have one single approach. Each story is a bit different. In the typewriter days I tended to scribble thoughts and fragments in notebooks that I carried around with me until I reached a point I was ready to start. Sometimes I still write notes by hand, but more often they get typed into my phone. I have an app called WriteRoom which connects with my dropbox, so anything I type in the phone is available as a text file to access from my iPad, my laptop, or my desktop. The same company has a product called PlainText that works on the iPad and Mac. What I like about PlainText is that it has a good integration with Scrivener, which is my main writing tool.
If I’m at the point where I think the notes and ideas are turning into a story, I’ll set up a story file. Depending on how long I think the story will be, I may start a simple file and just start writing. If I know It’s going to be a longer piece, I’ll set up a Scrivener novel file, and copy all of the notes I’ve assembled elsewhere into the Research section of the Scrivener file before I start writing.
Often those notes I’ve scribbled or typed down include conversations between characters in the story. Sometimes they are complete scenes. I don’t always know where the scene falls in the story when it first comes to me. Sometimes, by the time I’ve finished the story, those scenes aren’t part of it. Even though I had to write them down in order to figure out the story, they don’t belong in it. They may be things that happen in between scenes that are merely alluded to. Sometimes they’re things that never “happened” in the fictional world at all.
For instance, one time I had a scene pop into my head, one of those Write me down! Write me down now or I’ll go away! scenes. Two characters were debating/arguing about the moral and practical consequences of a series of events they had been involved in. I eventually figured out the story and wrote it. It the middle of the story, during one of the events the characters had argued about in that scene, one of the characters is killed. And then some of the events the two characters had been debating happened after that character was dead. This particular story wasn’t set in a fantasy world where people might have conversations after death, so that scene couldn’t happen.
Most of the time, with short stories, once I start, I write most of it in order. I’ll write a scene, and that dictates what happens next and how the characters will act. I may end up going back to insert an extra scene. Or a scene may pop into my head that I know is close to the end, and I’ll write it to get the information down, then go back to where I left off and figure out how to get to the end.
Sometimes, I realize that I started the story in the wrong place. I had this one short story I had been working on for years. It just didn’t quite work. I would read a version at my writers’ group, and even before anyone said anything, I knew it still wasn’t working. Reading a story outloud, and feeling the non-verbal ways people are reacting to it sometimes is all the critique you need. When I finally realized that I’d begun it wrong, I fought for while. I loved that opening. I had read the opening, without the rest of the story, at several readings at conventions, and the audience had loved it.
But it was the wrong start. It happened at the wrong point in the emotional arc of the tale. It only worked from the point of view of the minor character who never appeared again in the story. It was a great opening—but it was an opening for a story starring that character. I had to look at which character it was that underwent the most change, or had the revelatory moment when the conflict resolved. She needed to be the protagonist, and then it was obvious where the story began: the moment she confronted the puzzle which her revelation would be about. Which was a very different opening. The events of that opening I had clung to for so long still happen in the story, they just happened in the middle, and from a different point of view. The scene is still a good scene, but the emotion and rhythm is very different.
Novels are a lot more complicated. For one thing, to sustain a novel length story you need subplots, in addition to the main story. Those subplots need to have some relationship to the main story line, some of them even feed into it. They get resolved at different times. And making all of that work requires me, at least, to go back and add new scenes, or move scenes (or parts of a scene) to a new location in the narrative.
In a novel-length story, there is often a point where I have to jump way ahead and write part of the ending. It’s usually a point where enough of the subplots have got going that I make some intuitive leaps about how some of them tie together. I write the scene, knowing full well that by the time I get to it I’m probably going to have to rewrite it a bit. But having it there it acts like a target, giving me something to aim at as I try to move all the characters and subplots across the finish line.
Calling it a finish line is misleading, of course. Because once I’ve finally gotten them all there, then I have to go back and fix things. But that’s a topic for another day.