Essays > Published on October 28th, 2011

Going the Distance

Photo by Craig Clevenger

Introduction: From Concrete to Quicksand

“Can creative writing be taught?” I’ve heard that question more times than I can count, and I doubt you’ve seen it for the last time, either. My personal opinion is yes. Sort of. Writing is partly craftsmanship, the pursuit of mastering those machinations of grammar, sentence structure, plot mechanics, story arc and character development, all of which I believe can be taught. It’s also part alchemy, learning how to combine those aforementioned nuts and bolts, when to use certain techniques and when not to, when to use a sentence fragment or a run-on, or when to break a rule or make an exception to one. There’s no clear-cut road map for this, but there are plenty of examples to learn from right on our own bookshelves (it’s probably those standout examples that brought many of us to sit down at the typewriter in the first place). Lastly, there’s the doing, the act of putting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, as I once heard it. With this last part, the writer is largely on his or her own.

A large part of writing is preparing to write and, just like putting words on paper, every writer’s method is going to be a different product of years of trial and error. The reason I’m partial to writing about syntax and grammar is that they’re quantifiable bits of craft that, when combined, somehow make art as a result. The what of writing is easy to teach; the how is not.

How do I organize my ideas?

How do I outline?

How much should I outline?

How much should I plan ahead at all?

How do I keep my ideas organized as the story progresses or changes?

These are very different questions than What is a dangling modifier? There is no universal answer for questions of how, there is only trial and error and, as I said, some working examples to learn from. In an effort to at least partially address this question, I’ll share some of my own methods, a few of which have changed or been abandoned over the years, none of which I stay married to and none of which I expect will serve as a universal answer to any of the how questions. So, while this series is positioned as “concrete, practical methods for improving your writing,” this will be slightly less concrete and less immediately practical. Nonetheless, I hope I can address some of the questions raised in the “What are you looking to learn?” thread.

“Preparation, preparation, preparation” - Don Logan, ‘Sexy Beast

Before I sit down to write, what happens during that “before”? There are a gajillion answers, as the before is all at once protracted and instantaneous, capricious and sedentary. But I’ll begin with the assumption that I have a story in mind. By story, I mean I have my premise, whatever brainchild came from my brainstorm; the basic “what if” has developed into a simple story statement, i.e., It’s about a [blank] who needs to/finds out/etc. [blank]:

Chicken Wire” is about a washed-up musician living in the middle of nowhere who’s trying to reconcile with himself for his past failures.

Vapor Trail” is about an old hermit coming to grips with a profound loss from fifty years ago.

End Call” is about a blackmailer harassing a telephone solicitor from an unscrupulous ministry.

Obsolescence” is about a divorced father trying to bond with his estranged son.

While the above three are from current work of my own, I don’t always write out such statements literally. Nonetheless, such statements are possible only when your premise (“What if...?”) has grown into a story.

Nothing would make me happier than to sit down with my story idea, sketch an outline and start writing or, better still, start writing with the idea in my head and hammer out a first draft. It never works like that. But I do start writing with nothing other than that idea in mind, with no outline or map in place. The leap from x premise to a full-bore story idea is large; the leap from a story idea to a story, with the main character, character arc, story arc and all the load-bearing plot points in place, is larger still. For me, coming up with those individual plot points—those events that are the result of character actions or turns of fortune—isn’t something I can do out of the gate in advance of actual writing. I have to write to discover them, which means I have to commit to a lot of false starts, blind alleys and dead ends before the details of the story crystallize. Yes, a lot of what I write at this point ends up in the shredder. But this is also where the next wave of brainstorms happens, when I discover the specifics of my story and how to get my character from Point A to Point Z.

Note: I do most of this work longhand. The reasons are many, varied, and personal. Firing up my laptop is an event in itself, whereas flipping open a notebook is not. My laptop offers too many distractions, beginning with email and all things interweb. Even offline, I’m too much of a technogeek to ignore the workings of my machine, and am never at a loss when it comes to upgrading, tweaking and fine-tuning. In all, my laptop is a tool for a host of things unrelated to writing, and all of those things are not-so-quietly waiting in the wings when I’m trying to write. But most importantly, working longhand forces my brain to slow down and get lost in the task at hand. Writing fiction does not lend itself to immediate gratification, and the instantaneous feedback I get from writing on a word processor—to say nothing of every other blinkie-flashie widget humming in the background on my machine—runs counter to the long-term payoff of painstakingly crafting a story over weeks, months or years.

My laptop is a tool for a host of things unrelated to writing...

At some point the cranial fireworks go off, and my premise which became a story idea has finally become a story. I know what the story is about; I know who my main character is and what he or she wants; I have—as I phrased above—the load-bearing plot points in place, and I know how it’s all going to end. In the case of a short story, I might need nothing more than to make a few quick notes, a bullet-point list of major turns and then decide how much of the existing shotgun copy I’ve hammered out is still useful. With a novel, it’s a little more complex. I’ve yet to use the same outline method twice, but I’ve always gone to great lengths to create as much of a road map as I can before I proceed. I’ve used standard outlines with Roman numeral headers and such in the past; I’ve since taken to using index cards with a one-line header describing a particular event, and any other salient info (setting, which characters are involved, etc.). I like working with index cards because I can move them around, literally shuffle the deck, and experiment with different structures for the same story.

The floundering about during the brainstorm phase, where I’m just hammering out prose in anticipation of the flies sparking, can be discouraging. Sometimes it feels like nothing’s clicking, and yet the idea will not leave me alone. Here are two approaches that work for me; the first one is personal and might or might not work for you; the second is one I wholly encourage you to keep holstered for those days when you’re blocked.

  1. With five, ten or twenty (or more) pages of narrative that isn’t going anywhere, I’ll read through all of it and make a one or two word note in the margin about the subject of each paragraph: Resentment w/father; driving; nightmare #2; calls wife; hospital; talks to boss; etc. Articles, conjunctions and the odd preposition not withstanding, I never want to exceed two words; if I need more, I’ve got too much going on in that paragraph. Next, I’ll tally up how many paragraphs I’ve devoted to which subjects, and I’ll tell you what... I’ve been surprised every time. Without exception, what I thought I was writing about was, in fact, not entering into the story at all; instead, I’ll discover I’ve devoted far more words than I realized to a subject I hadn’t even set out to write about (The Contortionist’s Handbook was born this way; most every short I’ve written in the last year came about likewise). Right about then is when the lightning strikes.
     
  2. The second method is a simple head-check with the basics. If I’ve been knocking out raw copy for a while and I don’t see any lightning on the horizon, I’ll stop and ask myself, “What does this person want?” They have to want something, otherwise I’ve got no story. Most often, I’ll brainstorm this on paper, writing the question across the top and then making a list of prospective desires. And much like the process above, I’m always surprised; what I thought my character wanted is usually just a small part of a larger, more significant desire. He wants to spend his vacation with his son turns out to be He wants to keep from losing the closeness he had with his family. As with any brainstorming, false alarms are part of the process.

    After finding out what my character wants, I repeat the process with the question, “What’s stopping this person from getting what he or she wants?” Everything above applies here, likewise. I’m sure there are some writers who answer these questions before they do anything else; I’ve found that the answers to those questions are born in the x-pages of raw copy that I put down before I consciously know what shape the story will take. Once more, every writer’s method is unique, and finding your own will take time.

Swatting at the Time Flies

All of my novels take place over several years; my first two had only a day or two of present narrative, but years or a lifetime of backstory. My third is told in a more linear fashion, but it as well takes place over several years. To keep things in order I’ll print out several years of blank calendars from the calendar program on my machine and map out my story within them. I’ll squeeze as many as four months to a single page for those years where only one or two significant events occur; but for the core narrative (in the case of my third, it’s eighteen months) I print out one month per page and mark down significant story events, and as well as anything not germane to the actual plot but significant to a character’s backstory. This helps me keep from screwing up references to a character’s high school graduation, job history, etc., or in the case of my work-in-progress, the main character’s wife is pregnant, and it’s critical that I get the timeline accurate for the pregnancy, birth, and infancy amidst everything going on in the narrative itself.

Cut the Rope and Jump

After I have an outline, index cards, a calendar, etc., etc., I start writing. Some of you will write with more preparation, some of you with less or none at all. Again, every writer’s method is different. But at some point, you gotta make a story. So you start writing, and then...

Ideas for other stories start coming; ideas for the story you’re working on come along, too, messing with the course you’ve set; little voices in your head tell you that what you’re doing isn’t any good. Or maybe it’s something else, but likely you’ve encountered some sort of focal challenge when it comes to seeing a work through to the end. First off, with a big project, I’m committing a loooong time to it, so I’m bound to have ideas at odd moments, away from my desk when I’m not actually working. I usually have a pen handy, sometimes my notebook, as well. Regardless of how I snag the idea out of the air at that moment, it ultimately gets transcribed to my master file for that story, sooner than later. Working longhand, I’ve got a notebook for my novel in progress; it’s broken into sections for plot brainstorms, character notes, rewrite notes, etc. Some writers have more detailed systems, others have less; regardless, it’s critical for me to keep everything in one place so that after my finished draft, I can page through my notes and see if there’s some insight I had a year before that I forgot to weave into the story.

I also have this voice in my head that says, Seriously? You’re really going with that? You may have some similar inner criticism that pipes up while you’re just trying to finish a bloody first draft. So first, here’s some theory, and then some practice.

One of my writing teachers in college once said, “Give yourself the freedom to write a piece of crap.” He’s right... the world won’t end if you’re sentence isn’t the verbal equivalent of Zoolander’s Blue Steel. You can always rework it later, the key word here being later. Think of demolition crews and construction crews; they’re both necessary for a job, but they’re not going to work on the same job site simultaneously. That would be a disaster, to say the very least. Understand that while that self-deprecating voice might really burn, you need that voice; the trick is to strike a balance between your critical mind and your creative one. Too much criticism while you’re trying to create, and you’ll never finish anything; if you never challenge yourself, you’ll never get better (and worse, while never getting better won’t necessarily stop you from getting published—or rich—you’ll be utterly incapable of taking criticism from anyone else).

The world won’t end if your sentence isn’t the verbal equivalent of Zoolander’s Blue Steel.

In practice, I’d suggest one thing above all else: Never tolerate criticism from yourself that you wouldn’t tolerate from a workshop. If someone in a workshop told you that your character felt flat or your dialogue sounded stilted, you might or might not disagree with them, but that’s what workshops are for. They might press you with specific examples from your work and, again, you may not like what they have to say, but their criticism is in pursuit of making you a better writer. On the other hand, if someone in a workshop said that you suck, you should just give up, that you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ll never be published, etc., you most certainly won’t like that and, depending on the forum, you’d likely tell them to get fucked. Because that’s not constructive criticism—it’s not even criticism—it’s petty spite that doesn’t serve to make you better.

When your self-criticism pipes up during the creative process, force it (i.e., yourself) to be specific. If you’re telling yourself, "this sucks," it’s only fair that you ask yourself, "why?" Likewise, "I’ll never get this published," isn’t helpful; "This dialogue sounds too cliché," on the other hand, is. You can be as harshly critical of yourself as you want—in fact, I encourage you to do so—but if that criticism isn’t specific, then ignore it. And for those times when it is specific, I keep a piece of paper (actually, a dedicated page in my notebook) and I write them down as they come to me. As soon as I write something down, my inner critic goes silent—it knows it’s been heard, so there’s no need to repeat itself. So by forcing my critical voice to be specific, and then noting that specific criticism, I go from hearing "This blows" over and over until I give up, to hearing "This secondary character is taking up too much space," just once. The critic learns that vitriol accomplishes nothing, that constructive criticism is taken seriously, that it must wait its turn. And ultimately, this encourages your critical mind to speak up more, and do so more appropriately. Remember, your critical mind is just as important as your creative one; just like your creative one, it needs to be nurtured.

The Long Haul

Many of the questions and concerns that lead to this piece had to do with a story dying on the vine. Some said they lose interest, their attention gets hijacked by a new idea, or they obsessively rewrite before they’re finished and then run out of steam. These are difficult to address because there is no easy answer other than the most obvious: stop doing that.

A brief digression... Understand that writing fiction is fundamentally counter-intuitive. While I have great reverence for storytelling, the fact is it doesn’t pay much, if at all. And the gratification of seeing a work completed only happens after a lot of effort, to say nothing of the gratification of being published. And the process itself, well, we all enjoy it or we wouldn’t be here, but it’s painstaking and exhausting, even on a good day. Of the myriad ways one could spend free time outside of work, family, etc., water skiing, collecting comics, pretty much any hobby or recreation is going to sound more immediately sensible to yourself and your loved ones than inventing stories and writing them down over many months for virtually no pay with slim likelihood of them ever seeing the light of day. So what I’m saying is, cut yourself some slack. You’re doing something very difficult that obviously has great importance to you, otherwise you’d be doing something else. There’s enough pressure on you, from you, that you needn’t beat yourself up any more. Life can do that job on its own just fine, without your help.

The best advice beyond the obvious (and rude) "stop doing that" is to realign your goals according to your personal stumbling blocks. Do you re-write too much, before the story is finished? Then set yourself a goal to finish a story before you begin re-writing. Do new ideas get in the way of your current project? Write them down, all in one place, much like I suggested with your self-criticism. Then set a goal to finish a story, or x-amount of words before moving on to the next idea. Many of us set word quotas, time quotas, or some sort of hurdle to get us to a certain point in our daily writing goals; overcoming your personal stumbling block is a matter of amending your daily goals accordingly.

I’m fully aware that such advice is easier said than done, and it’s likely not that illuminating. I’m not much of a motivational speaker—strike that... I suck at motivational speaking. If you’re getting a pep talk from me, then the apocalypse is near. But it’s the truth; story arc, character arc, grammar, syntax, etc., all can be taught. But sitting down and practicing them—and being willing to make mistakes, to write something crappy more often than not, to cut yourself some slack and tell your inner critic to toe the line—that’s simply a decision to be made individually. And like any other difficult task that requires a personal decision in order to begin, it gets easier over time. First you jog one mile, then a mile and a half, then two, then five. Next thing, you’re running marathons.

Or, as I’m fond of saying, don’t wait for inspiration to write; write to become inspired.

About the author

CRAIG CLEVENGER is the author of The Contortionist's Handbook (MacAdam/Cage, 2002) and Dermaphoria (MacAdam/Cage, 2005). He is currently living in San Francisco, California, and completing his third novel.

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