Last week I touched on how I began writing fiction—and how my first two characters (Gary and Michaela) dropped in on me, unannounced, in freshman English class. Today I’ll unpack more of my writing process.
When I write, I seldom know where my characters will take me. Sometimes I have an idea where I want the story to go—I always kind of know that—but I leave the details up to them. If I’m inspired to tackle a particular scene, I’ll get right to it. If I have no clearly defined idea what I want to cover, I’ll review something I feel may need to be fleshed out more fully. The characters eventually take over and fill in details … and before I know it, the whole scene, or section, or chapter, is written.
Occasionally, though, characters will opt out of the writing process. Some people call this “writer’s block”; I call it petulant and unacceptable behavior—and I always decline to give in to it, or let my characters engage in it.
There are many ways to deal with writer’s block. Try envisioning an empty pitcher on a table … and imagine it filled with ideas. My only empirical evidence to validate this recommendation came from a member of my former writers’ group, who told me, “I tried that. Except, I filled up the pitcher with tasty lemonade … it was so delicious I drank it all. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon running to the bathroom, and I didn’t get any writing done anyway.”
If the ol’ empty-pitcher trick doesn’t work for you, here are some other ideas you might find helpful. Then there’s the advice that’s worked like a charm for me: Don’t be afraid to drop a character into a perfectly untenable situation.
Some years back, Gary went on strike. He flat-out refused to talk to me. Turns out, he was in a snit because I was “within earshot” when he revealed his deepest, darkest secret to his best friend. The big dope [and I call him that with the greatest of love] failed to realize I already knew that particular secret—because I’d written it into his character! Still, when I began writing the scene in which Gary was supposed to have a discussion with his program director, he refused to provide usable dialogue; he’d sit there, pout, and give me the hairy eyeball.
After about three days of this, I put on my meanest-writer-in-the-history-of-life hat, gave him my best disapproving glare, and said, “Okay, Gary, you don’t want to play nice? Let’s see what you do with this.” And I plunked him on a couch in the anteroom of his wife’s oncologist’s office, waiting to learn whether her latest round of chemo worked. That got Gary falling all over himself, begging to have that talk with his boss!
Sometimes it takes threatening the dickens out of characters to get them talking.
So now you’ve got your outline (or not), you’ve crashed through that evil writer’s block and you’re cruising along; chapter after chapter appears out of seemingly nowhere. Finally, you arrive at that magical moment: You type “The End.” Your first draft is done. Ta-da! Sound the trumpets, uncork the bubbly, alert the media … your great American novel (or memoir or biography) is finished and now you’re ready to find an agent (or self publish it).
Not so fast, Cupcake. You do know what Anne Lamott says about first drafts, right? No? Then I strongly recommend you thumb through her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s probably my favorite volume about the art and craft of writing. When you reach her chapter on first drafts, you’ll get to the heart of her message: Don’t worry about how lousy your first draft is, because you’re going to rework, revise, rewrite … and probably revise again. And nobody’s going to read that first draft, anyway. I invite you to check out this quickie book review.
After you’ve revised and reworked and polished, it’s time for you to hand your manuscript over to a disinterested party, someone with no stake in the outcome.
Your mom, your spouse, your best friend, and your dog will all give you a thumbs up … well, maybe not Ralphie, but he’ll cock his head to one side and give an enthusiastic tail wag, expecting a nummy treat for his unabashed approval of your fantastic literary work. The others will tell you it’s magnificent, wonderful, the best thing they’ve ever read … and other kind-intentioned lies. Don’t get me wrong: We all need that kind of ego stroking … but there are times when we need to hear the unvarnished truth about our writing.
What you need now is a reader with no stock in making you feel good—and no earthly reason to do so (i.e., their next birthday present doesn’t hinge on their liking your writing). You can find readers online, or through your local library or university. Need other ideas regarding where/how to find readers? This article from The Indie Voice can help. And if you belong to a writing-critique group, you’ve got a ready-made pool of potential readers. IFW also provides a professional critique service.
When selecting a reader for your manuscript, here are some important considerations to keep in mind.
As you probably already know, everyone has an opinion. As you grow as a writer, you’ll learn whose to trust—and whom to politely thank for their input and recommendations … and then toss their pages of notes into the recycling bin. As I always remind editing clients: “The recommendations I’ve made are my professional opinion, based on years of experience editing manuscripts. However, this is your work—and you have final say as to what revisions you make to it.”
Once you’ve gotten input from trusted readers, dive back in and revise. Then seek out the services of a competent editor—someone in whose work you feel confident, and whose opinion you trust. Even if you, yourself, are a competent editor of other folks’ writing, let me offer some advice: Never attempt to edit your own work. You know what you’ve intended to say, and your brain will trick your eyes into reading what you think you’ve written. Always rely on a second set of eyes—preferably a set belonging to a trusted editor.
In closing, let’s go back over those steps. If you want a catchy acronym, here ya go: SQUEEEK! It’s not spelled correctly, but it’ll do just fine.
Sit down and write
Quash writer’s block.
Undertake writing your first draft.
Enlist readers to review your work.
Engage an editor.
Kick up your heels and celebrate!
Now go write something!
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in October.