Part One: Lofty Thoughts
I once heard that writing is the only socially acceptable way to be a compulsive liar, and in my case, it couldn’t be truer.
I miss how in high school and college, writing in public could so easily be masked as “studying.” Now it’s “just writing an email,” or “making really long shopping list…”
I’m quick to launch into metaphysical reasons why art is necessary. But honestly? When I fumble for my notebook or whip out my laptop, I’m not thinking of “reflecting the image of God” or “the significance of aesthetics.” Instead, my thoughts are a minefield of images, ideals, and emotions—passions that give meaning to life but find little place in everyday routine. The heartache I felt in tenth grade is healed and buried, but there was something exhilarating about it…so it seeps into my love stories. The hope that springs from lifelong friendships is too precious to log in texts, Facebook messages and conversations I only half-remember. So that hope finds immortality in character arcs and plot lines.
A story is a place where passion can be preserved in tact, like a pressed flower, and perhaps painted over to be more vibrant than before.
Here the “compulsive liar” part comes into play. Often, art serves me as a way to bring my mediocre epiphanies to their full potential. Friendships blossom into lifelong journeys complete with prologue, climax, and denouement. Favorite places explode into universes and kingdoms. And of course, every life experience could use some ruby-eyed dragons.
But these reasons for art discontent me sometimes. I feel self-absorbed and ungrateful, like I can’t accept my life the way it is, or appreciate the fantastic reality God created. Then again, my compulsion to spin shadows is driven by fulfillment as well as longing…from joy and wonder, as well as sadness.
I don’t want to replace my experiences but to extend them: to see them in different colors and with new eyes.
In short, I write and act from an innate longing for eternity. Art serves as a way to fully appreciate concepts bigger than myself, to examine and admire them from every angle, and to perpetuate their significance in my life. Humans, in their hearts, experience many things in similar ways, but often those experiences are never validated. We think we’re alone in our deepest desires. Sometimes seeing our hearts in print gives us permission to let them beat—and I hope that my art will give that validation.
Part Two: the Actual Work
Well, that was fun. But now I have to take off my philosopher glasses and put on the old ink-stained apron.
Just because Jo March’s writing process wasn’t realistic doesn’t mean I can’t dress up as her sometimes…
To any person who has read Little Women, the idea of a fiction writer is glamorized. A true writer, or so we think, is struck by inspiration and, driven by a passion beyond her control, shuts him or herself in an attic for a night. Ten hours of concentrated genius, and then—poof—a novel! Many years ago I crawled out my shell to participate in a teen writing group, and the director asked all of the participants why and how they write. The responses were dramatic, ranging from “The ideas just come to me” to “the voices in my head tell me I must write about them!”
Imagine how dull I felt when I described the incredibly technical process I follow when writing. Yes, the fantastical aspects of the immense worlds I spin from my pen are organic…but if I stayed in Inspiration Land all the time, I’d never finish a thing. “Voices in my head” don’t come up with literary structure, consistent voice, and clear delivery.
That said, most of my stories spring from an experience. The inspiration for my current project, for example, grew from memories of my time with prodigies at a tiny private high school. Real life experience feeds a story like kindling on a fire. It’s all very well to know that I want a quest, a monster fight, and a kiss in the end, but priceless moments from real life are what cause me—and probably my readers—to take a story seriously.
Anyone can learn to notice the world around them. Turning experience into stories is like pressing flowers, and then taking their seeds and planting new, immortal ones. If I could give one piece of advice to fellow writers, it would be to hoard their memories, every emotion and sensation. Don’t experience an important life moment and then let it slip away.
Of course, then there’s a danger of your stories being autobiographical, which dampens a story’s ability to grow. You really can’t re-plant a pressed flower. You bury seeds from it in a new place, and then give it space to become a life in its own right.
But again, all inspiration starts with something real. You can avoid being autobiographical by changing the setting (a music gig at a coffee shop, for example, could become a small concert hall in a palace) changing the people, and most importantly, changing the stakes. The singer for the “music gig” could be singing for the last time in her life, rather than her last time at Coffee Cottage. Once one becomes accustomed to repainting real life memories into stories, everything becomes an inspiration, and ideas appear around every corner.
Unsurprisingly, the Oxford Bodleian Library makes for wonderful castle scenes…
Next, I get a feel for the setting of a story, and if I have enough inspirations linked together, I will already know quite a bit. But I must always resist the urge to plow ahead without asking myself questions. What do people value in that place? What is the climate like? What does it smell like? What would I like or dislike about the place if I visited it? The small details are what make stories come to life for me.
After that, I establish a skeleton for each character. It’s not enough to know that a person is handsome, impulsive, and good with a sword. I must continue to ask questions—why is this person impulsive? Is he afraid of missed opportunities? What happened to him to make him afraid? No one can flesh out a character completely up front, but if I preset “rules” for how a character acts and stick to them, I avoid sounding like I am making up something as I go.
At last, after I have generated ideas, a world, and character skeletons, I scuttle through an instensive outline. While voice will change with each person, an integral, teachable part of this step in process would be that I always try to write from what I “know.” If I have done my homework, I should not have to make up what a character would say. Rather, I can ask myself about their past and discover, rather than create, how they would react. Writing from what I know is probably the most defining characteristic in what separates my weak pieces of fiction from my strong ones. It does not matter if a scene takes place in a modern day college campus or a glittering castle; if I give characters reasons to do what they do, the situation will appear realistic.
To briefly touch on the beast of editing: I find it most effective to edit for content simultaneously with writing a chapter or section, and then go back and edit for delivery when I am finished with the initial draft. I know this goes against the “serious writer” philosophy of draft draft draft, but really? There’s no one way to write. Do what works for you—not what’s most comfortable—but what works. That’s your true style.
Still, it’s helpful to try out new ways, which is partly why I’m sharing my process. Mostly, though, I’m just grateful for all the people that have supported me in my journey, and I wanted to share with them a little of how I do what I do.
Thanks for reading—but now it’s your inky apron time. Make some art out of life today.
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