Quick, quick, slow

Here are some steps toward a quick rough draft. Pick one or two from the quick beginning section, several from the quick middles section, and at least number one or number three from the quick endings section.

Quick beginnings:

  • Start with an interesting bit of language
    1. Something you overheard eavesdropping or
    2. A phrase that is stuck in your head
  • Start with a character’s name and with that character doing something
  • Put something you like in the story
  • Put a thing or situation that makes you nervous in the story
  • Start with an accusation or an interdiction

Quick middles:

  • Make things
    1. Complicated for the main character
    2. Worse for the main character
  • Show power shift as a result of a character’s action
  • Let characters think about
    1. Their actions
    2. The events of the story
    3. Another character
  • Show power shift again as a result of an action
  • Show power shifting once more
  • Coincidences and dreams
    1. Can get characters into trouble
    2. But never out of it

Quick endings:

  • Show power shifting irrevocably
    1. Always with the main character as a primary witness
    2. As a result of the character’s action
  • Show at least one of the following
    1. A process begun earlier in the story is completed
    2. A restatement/return/echo of language from earlier in the story
  • Clearly show a change in the character or a reversal of roles
  • Resolve the question of “what’s going to happen” in a brief summary

 

Include many, many images. Be willing to revise extensively and repeatedly.

 

Points of view are flexible

The main point of any point of view has to be not confusing readers; that’s so central it often goes without saying. In my efforts not to be confusing, however, I sometimes don’t allow myself to see some of the possible flexibility points of view provide. Crossing to Safety, for example, is clearly in first person, but consider these sentences:

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?”

Suppose they are sitting on Aunt Emily’s porch, looking down across waist-high ferns and raspberry bushes to the lake. It is a day of traveling clouds. The porch is a sheltered pocket, though the wind is strong enough to scrape limbs across the roof.

Almost without exception, the next thirty-four pages are the first-person narrator providing readers with details of the inner lives of other characters. The narrator does remind readers periodically that he is imagining these inner lives. Contrasts between the narrator’s suppositions and the actual inner lives of characters (as they might have been revealed by dialogue) aren’t obvious.

The next time I write in first person, I’ll use this sort of narrator.

(What’s a good name for it, by the way? Not omniscient, because the narrator doesn’t really claim to know those inner lives. Unreliable doesn’t seem quiet right, either.)

The shrunken draft

I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but creating a “shrunken draft” can be a way to get to know a long draft.

  1. Ask yourself what specific element of fiction writing would you like the next draft of your narrative to focus on.
  2. Highlight that specific element of fiction writing in an electronic copy of your rough draft. For example, highlight scenes in green. Points of view, descriptions, different “times,” foreshadowing, even specific words could be highlighted. However, highlighting more than one or two elements at a time can be confusing.
  3. Reduce the font to the smallest size you’re comfortable with.
  4. Reduce the margins.
  5. Find and click on the View Multiple Pages feature of your word processing program. Continue making these and similar adjustments until you can see as much of your document as possible.
  6. Consider the ratio of highlighted to not-highlighted text. Perhaps contrasting colors reveal long sections of description and few scenes, for example. Or, a narrative you thought shared points of view evenly between two characters does not.
  7. Do the ratios your shrunken draft reveals please you? Do they fit into your expectations for the draft? What do you need to do to address differences between what you’ve got and what you’d like to have?

 

Toward a conclusion

Here is an excerpt from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. The excerpt is from late in the book, in the last few pages of the edition I have. I like the way it models a conclusion, and I’ll try and do something similar with the project I’m working on.

Fourteen months had passed, but Margaret still stopped at Howards End. No better plan had occurred to her. The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat, August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie’s rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.

So, here are some obvious fiction writing strategies, just in this excerpt, that bring readers toward the conclusion. The passage of time is stated directly and connected to a specific place and character in the first sentence. The second sentence restates that connection to the character. The third sentence suggests the past and present in an ongoing natural process associated with the environment: “The meadow was being recut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden.” The fourth sentence strengthens this connection, repeating them with minor and more specific differences. The fifth sentence is shorter than those around it, more general, but also connects the natural repeating processes with the character. The six sentence is one of the longest, is specific about the place and how it influences the character. A short seventh sentence contrasts with the previous one both in terms of length and its content: “. . .  a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now.” The last sentence focuses readers back on the characters’ present moment, using setting, and prepares for, creates an expectation of, one of the final scenes.

Below is a rough attempt to use some of the same strategies. I’m not moving toward another scene, and though I’ve got a smaller cast of characters, more of them are present as I try to wrap things up.

Eighteen months later, after Reynolds remarried, just the three of them still lived in the townhouse. Asking Elizabeth to move out was as strange an idea as asking her to stop using her feet and walk on her hands all day instead. The tiny garden they shared still needed replanting; the compost pile needed turning, little as it was. October would arrive and they would have to clean the gutters and downspouts. In December, they had to keep the walk and deck free of snow and ice. Billy would post photos of them working. The routines they set for themselves were part of how they stayed together. Every summer they would consider new air conditioning, every winter a new furnace. As Billy lost more hair he wore one cap to keep him warm and another to stop sunburn. As Cassandra got older she wrapped blankets tight to stay warm and drank ice water to stay cool, all within the same five minutes.

When Elizabeth finally moved in with one of her boyfriends, the townhouse became too tranquil, too quiet. Together they finally discovered the peace of an empty nest, but without ever having had children.

 

 

 

Storytelling sustains

[T]he very act of writing assumes, to begin with, that someone cares to hear what you have to say. It assumes that people share, that people can be reached, that people can be touched and even in some cases changed. . . . So many of the things in our world tend to lead us to despair. It seems to me that the final symptom of despair is silence, and that storytelling is one of the sustaining arts; it’s one of the affirming arts. . . . A writer may have a certain pessimism in his outlook, but the very act of being a writer seems to me to be an optimistic act.

–Tobias Wolff

Asking why

Remember that a story is always trying to get at the business of human nature, to tell us that this is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. To do that we have to get below the surface. Below the action and down to the values and motivation. The important question that the story must ask is: Why? Not: What? Why does N. do what she does? One thing she does is fall in love with X. Why? How did that happen?

–John Dufresne