My Process 1: Imagining
This is the first in a series of posts about my process for writing short stories, from scratch to finished product. It’s changed a lot over time, and it’ll probably change a lot more, but for now these steps have been working pretty well for me, and it might interest you to see a complete breakdown of everything. Disclaimer: everyone has their own methods, and these are just mine. This isn’t an instruction manual, it’s a journal.
So, with that out of the way…
It starts with a thought. I’ve finished a story or novel or whatever, and I go for a walk, or I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling, or I sit outside and drink tea, and I think. Mainly, I’m trying to achieve one thing with the pattern of my thoughts, which is to feel one of a few specific emotions. I want to feel creepy crawly, or melancholy, or dark, or horrified, or all of the above. The thoughts I concentrate on are any that encourage these emotions inside me. Images, sounds, and concepts flash through my brain until one catches me in some way, makes me feel right. Then I put it aside and keep going until I have a bunch floating around.
Here are some examples of thoughts I might have during one of these brainstorming sessions:
A woman’s disembodied head follows a screaming boy down a street.
A silhouette stands in a doorway with white eyes and a downturned red mouth.
A man wakes up with the certain knowledge that he will die the moment he falls asleep.
A field of long yellow grass stretches to the horizon against an orange sunset, swaying in the wind.
Green islands floating in black space.
A notebook which makes true everything you write in it.
Most thoughts I discard immediately, either because they’re boring or too cliché or because I can’t see the potential for a story. Some appeal to me on an emotional level, others strike me as cool concepts, but are for now nothing more than potential.
Once I have a few of these thoughts and images, I pick the ones I like most and start asking questions about them. Why is the head following the boy? What kind of things could a person do with that notebook? What characters might live on those islands? Eventually, I find I get fixated on one of those ideas and ask more and more questions, each answer building the story a little bit and occasionally providing me with ideas for some cool scenes.
I’ve learned that my own ideas tend to be of three main types. The emotional based (the ones that make me feel creepy or melancholy), the concept based (imagining interesting items or settings that I want to explore), and the character based (I have a character that I find interesting). Whatever the type of story the initial idea is, however, I must be sure to include the other two elements before I start. If I have a creepy image, I need to add an interesting character/s and a concept. If I have the concept, I need the character and creepiness, etc.
The other important thing I need before I start, as crazy as this may seem, is the ending. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I write better this way, because many authors, my idol Stephen King among them, hate this way of writing and think it spoils all the fun. I have found, however, that having a killer ending in mind before I start is half of what gets me excited about a story.
Finally, once all these things are clear in my mind, I start working the details. So far, by the way, I haven’t written a single thing down, and most likely all of this progress has occurred over the course of a one or two hour walk. This is the time I start thinking about the overarching structure – hook, build, payoff; beginning, middle, end. I think of character names, who they are, and how they relate to each other and themselves at the beginning verses the end.
Sometimes when I reach this point, I swear very loudly, discard everything and start again from scratch. Usually if an idea is bad, I notice it early enough to nip it in the bud, but not always. I have actually drafted and edited countless stories, only to realise they weren’t any good, didn’t have heart, were executed badly, etc. and deleted them without showing them to anyone. It happens. The only antidote to this that I know of is to be picky with your ideas. Don’t just sit down and write something because it seems cool and you’ve already developed the plot and characters and all the rest. Don’t write something even if it’s good. Write it only if it really gets to you, if it makes you want to run to your computer and write the whole thing in one go. Don’t settle. If you’re going to write the thing, liking it isn’t good enough – you have to love it – and this goes double for novels.
But let’s assume that now, at the end of my walk or meditation or tossing and turning in bed at night, I have done everything right. I have the characters, the concept, the mood; I have the details, the structure, the plot, and I love the story so much I’m burning to write it. The last thing I do in my mind is find out what the thing’s about.
I’ve written about this in a previous post – the one true sentence. Also known as the Hemingway method, also known as the Controlling Idea, also known as the Theme. This is a single sentence, which you believe to be a truth about the world, or people or whatever, and it is the thought around which your story revolves. It can be anything, as long as you really believe it, and it’s relevant to the story. I have written many stories, for example, around this sentence: People are animals.
Once I have that, I’m ready to go. The final step of the imagining phase is to put some of what I’ve been imagining down onto paper. Usually I’ll grab a random piece of scrap paper and scribble the title of the story (which almost always changes by the end), the summary of beginning, middle and end sections, and the summary of the first few chapters or scenes (No more than a short sentence or a few words in each case.)
Title: Black Book
Beginning: Guy discovers book which makes true what he writes in it, experiments.
Middle: Guy becomes obsessed, starts manipulating his world to his advantage.
End: Guy twists things beyond repair, despairs, writes his own death into the book.
First scenes: a) guy goes for a walk, depressed, finds book in gutter and starts journal.
- b) feels better, starts writing fantasies as well as reality, fantasies come true.
- c) Starts experimenting with more outlandish ideas.
This is a simplistic version, because I haven’t taken the time to imagine any other characters or cool scenes I’d want to include. Still, it’s pretty close to what I typically have written down before I start a story. Once I have this, I’m pretty much good to go, since a, b and c add up to at least two or three thousand words right off the bat. Once I get to b or c, I’ll be able to more clearly make out what the next steps should be, and I’ll go from there.
That’s it for planning. Beyond this point, it’s time to put your balls where your brain is and write some words. Next instalment is all about the juicy meat of the thing: First Draft.