Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative

Narrative

Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full Narrative

In the last post, I suggested that you might want to try the haphazard approach to writing. There will be a point that you have written all the component parts of your story or memoir but they’re not in an order or form which would make sense to a reader. This post is about taking all the bits and bobs of scenes you have and whipping them into a full narrative.

Building into a full narrative

Read over all the pieces you have related to this story. In doing this, you get a shape of the story. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What is the rough order of the scenes? How do you want to tell the story? Sequence the scenes in a way which feels right to you.

What scenes are missing? Sometimes (often), you need a transition from one event to another. Or you might think that the reader needs to understand the motivation of the mother better to make the rest of the story work. Note the ones you need to add.

What are redundant? If an event is especially important, you may find that you’ve written more than one piece covering more or less the same ground. Actually, this is good. It allows you to consider the different ways you handled that scene (e.g. different point of view, told rather than shown, etc.) to decide which fits best with the shape of the story. You may even find that combining the scenes works.

Are all the scenes building to where you want to go? Sometimes, you write scenes which don’t fit. This makes sense. Creating the body of writing gives you a feel for the type of world you created. It is only at this point that you understand the shape of the story enough to know which scenes contribute and which take it off in another direction.

This is where writers can get unnaturally attached to pieces or scenes they love. You need to keep the whole story in mind and cut or change ones to fit its flow.

Where does the story start? On reflection, you may find that the story starts later than you thought. This is often because you have scenes which give background or do set up. Try to start the story as close to the beginning of the plot as you can.

Does your original ending still work, given the rest of the story? Might, might not. But it’s worth considering whether the originally planned ending fits with how the story has evolved.

You’ve still got editing

This may feel like editing but it’s not really (okay, maybe it’s a kind of substantive edit). You’ve still got to go back to fill in missing scenes and ensure the story builds in a way which engages the reader. This is the point where you need to check the name of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage.

Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach

energy

Writing with Energy: The Haphazard Approach

In the last two posts, I discussed why starting a writing project at the beginning of the story or at the end, can have unexpected challenges. In this post, I’ll discuss what the haphazard approach is and why I think it produces works with more energy.

The haphazard approach to infuse energy into your writing

Seems a bit silly to call this an approach but it’s the only term that comes to mind. And being haphazard, it also seems a bit odd to be listing the steps to follow. But here goes:

  • Close your eyes. Think about your story or memoir. What comes to mind? The day you found out there was no Santa (I hope I’m not giving anything away)? When the heroine finds out she has been betrayed?
  • Whatever comes up, write about that. Just start typing.
  • Keep going. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the middle of the narrative you want to tell or if you’re unsure of the exact surname of Aunt Mary’s third cousin by her second marriage. Make a name up and keep going.
  • Write as much of the scene as you can, investing all your energy and creativity into making this the best scene you can.
  • When that scene is done, repeat the process with a different scene. Doesn’t have to be the prequel or sequel to the scene you’ve just written. Just anything that interests you at this moment.

It can’t be that easy

It isn’t easy, in fact. It’s very hard work to get down the emotions, action, and settings in a way which reflects what you want to depict. But it ups the chances that you are writing from a place and about a subject which energizes you and your writing.

So, you continue this haphazard way, not worrying about continuity of story, possibly changing the name of your hero half-way in, perhaps writing a scene which is very similar to one you have already written. Doesn’t matter. This is all stuff you can fix later. Just get down as much as you can in as vivid a way as you can.

One problem

I am basically advocating separating the creative process of generating the story from the equally important but different process of developing a narrative which hangs together and makes sense from the first page to last.

But the astute among you will have figured out that, while this haphazard approach helps get the story down, there is a point where you have got all the component parts but not in a form which others would recognize as a story. Next post.

Not the only way

Naturally, this isn’t the only way to tackle a writing project. One writer I know has to have the first line before he can start. Dickens had to have all of his characters named before he could get going. Other writers plot the whole thing out before they write a word (I’ll have more to say about this in another post). You can even actually start at the beginning or end of your narrative if you take into account the caveats I’ve outlined previously. But I encourage you to give my method a try. I have found it works not just to write the story but occasionally, even allows magic to strike.

Do I Start the Story at the End?

end

Do I Start the Story at the End?

In the last post, we discussed some of the disadvantages of starting your story at what seems like the natural beginning. So if the beginning has problems, the obvious question is What about starting the story at the end?

What is it?

Although this seems oxymoronic, it can be effective. Stories Told Backward? gives examples of novels which use this device.

Basically, your opening scene is the end of the novel or memoir. Where the protagonist triumphs or goes down to worthy defeat. Where the boy gets the girl or they part with a memory that lasts forever.

From there, you can start at the beginning of the story and unfold the story as you would normally. If you are really tricky, you can move backward in time so that the second scene is the event immediately prior to the ending, and the last scene is the introduction of the characters. If you can do this, more power to you. I’ve never been able to figure out how.

But there are downsides to starting with the end

I want to make a distinction between starting your initial writing with the end and, after much thought and editing on your final version, choosing to start with the ending. The latter may be an excellent decision but I’m discussing the first draft here.

You give away the end.

Obviously, the reader knows what’s coming. This can work if you can infuse the story with a sense of an impending and inevitable doom. Readers will keep reading even if, or perhaps especially if, they dread the outcome. However, if you can’t keep up that level of engagement, your readers may lose interest as they know (or think they know) where the story is going.

And of course, the resolution is no surprise. An exception would be if you are able to change the meaning of the ending. For example, when the reader experiences the ending as a first scene, they might conclude the main character is getting the comeuppance he deserves. Writing skillfully, you might weave the story so the reader realizes by the end that the protagonist has been wronged. The ending stays the same, but its meaning changes.

There may be an impatience to get to the end.

This can be true for you as well as the reader. Because you present the end first, you may be tempted to take a straight line route to it and thereby perhaps miss out on the interesting byways and character development which you might otherwise be open to.

It can have the same effect on the reader. Readers who don’t know how the novel will end are more likely to follow you wherever you want to go (within limits). But if they know what has to happen, they may be impatient with scenes which, at least on the surface, don’t seem to be building to that ending.

You pre-determine where you are going.

To my mind, this is the biggest drawback to this approach. I believe that a story which unfolds as the situation, characters, and your creativity dictates has a much better chance of being compelling than one where you go in with blinders on.

Next post: My preferred way to start a writing project

Breaking the Rules

rules

Breaking the Rules

The previous post had examples of where the author broke what seem to be cardinal rules of writing and not only got away with it, but produced a stunning novel.

Great, I can do what I want

This type of break-the-mold book can make some writers think, “I can write whatever I want because these celebrated authors did.” Given this mindset, the writer might be resistant to feedback which tries to steer him to more tried and true methods. He might even see it as trying to dampen or change his unique voice.

Uh-huh. Well, okay, there’s always the possibility you’re writing an iconoclastic novel which will confound your critics when published to great acclaim. I always leave that possibility open. And I do buy that if you don’t believe in your novel, nobody else will. So, you may be right. But on the other hand, you might not be. So, why not read the rest of this before you toss the idea?

Walking then running

These writers didn’t skip from novice to iconoclast in one leap. Cormac McCarthy has been publishing novels for over 35 years. Similarly, Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has both a long history of writing for prestigious journals but also had already published a much acclaimed novel, Moth Smoke, before Fundamentalist.

These authors undoubtedly spent many long years honing their craft so that they could use the traditional methods with ease and mastery. It is only after they reached that high level of competence that they understood when a particular technique didn’t serve the needs of the story, and launched into something which amazed their readers with its audacity.

How do you square the rules circle?

So, what if your writing teacher or writer friends are telling you one thing and you think you’re following a different star? Well, as I’ve elaborated in other posts, slow down the automatic reaction to reject the feedback and try to find anything that might be useful in it.

Say the feedback is that your descriptions are too long even if beautifully written. This sticks in your craw. They admit the passages are stunning and still want them cut down. What’s with that? Have they no literary sensibility?

So, here’s where you need to slow down. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Is there anything useful in the feedback?
  • Too long for what reason? What is it preventing the reader from doing?
  • Is it possible that the delightful description is slowing the action?

You might huff that your readers should invest the time required to allow you to fully paint the atmosphere in which the action is taking. Fair enough. You may be right.

Experiment

However, how horrible would it be if you experimented with moving more quickly to action?

I’m not suggesting you do so and then lay the new piece before your critics as you confess the error of your ways. But just when it’s you and the computer, could you give it a try and then decide its value? Does it help the narrative? Does it serve the story better to rein in the description? If the answer is on balance, yes, then factor this into your future writing. If on balance, no, then you’ve seriously considered the feedback and decided to ignore it which is okay.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses

fundmentalist
horses

The Reluctant Fundamentalist and All the Pretty Horses

The really annoying thing about writing is that for every sacrosanct rule that we’re supposed to live by, there’s some writer who comes up with a narrative which breaks it and damn if it doesn’t work. Like Cormac McCathy’s All the Pretty Horses and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Take the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Reading the first few pages, I thought, “This can’t be a first person monolog for the entire novel. That’s ridiculous. It’s never going to work.” It was and it did!

The author breaks the monolog, in fact although not in form, by having the protagonist ‘repeat’ the words of the American he is speaking to before responding. Similarly, there are long flashbacks which take the more standard form.

But still, a full novel monolog. It shouldn’t work, it does, and is even necessary for the nature of the ending (read it—it’s worth it).

All the Pretty Horses

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy, the author of, in particular, All the Pretty Horses. It won the National Book Award in 1992 so I thought I would give it a go.

I hated it at the beginning. Hated, hated, hated it. For one thing, McCarthy had dialogue like (this is my imitation of him):

“Is Ruth coming?”

“Nah, she’s busy.”

“Won’t be no fun without her.”

Who’s Ruth? Who’s talking?

Also, he had long passages in Spanish (without translation) which moved the action forward. And his sentences were often (again my imitation): He hit him with a shovel until he intervened. Aaahh! These are all male cowboys. Give me a hint!

I was pissed but decided to read exactly half-way before giving up to figure out why he was so praised.

Around page 75, I fell in love. The descriptions of the West spoke to me as if I had been born to it. With characters who don’t talk much and whose internal life is almost never revealed. With only their actions to show, McCarthy created a compelling story with basically one authorial hand tied behind his back!

Yes, he still did unattributed dialogue, untranslated Spanish, and confusing pronouns. But it didn’t matter. I loved, loved, loved it.

So some authors can break from the traditional way and make it work. Sometimes, wonderfully.

Accordingly, can you break the rules, too? Next post.