Turning the Haphazard Approach into a Full 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


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?


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

Finding Your Distinctive Voice


Finding Your Distinctive Voice

In the previous post, What is a Writer’s Voice, I listed some characteristics of a writer’s voice. Your voice is you on the page and can be comprised of what you like to write about, type of characters you favor, style of writing, settings you use, etc. Every writer needs his or her distinctive voice. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country, that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

How do I develop a voice?

Not by sitting down and deciding what it is. Right, I’ll just fill in the categories or I will write about high powered people in urban settings. A voice developed this way would be as mechanical as the method used to generate it. It is not an analytic or reductive exercise. Voice, once developed, is as distinctive as it is hard to describe. You can’t point a finger to where it resides in a work, yet it infuses everything.

The way to develop your voice is to write. Write and write and write. Launch many expendable pieces, as urged by William Stafford. You of course don’t have to stick with one setting, one type of character, one type of plot—in fact, you shouldn’t. Experiment with different settings, structures, characters, persons (first, third, etc.). You try writing about your old home town, or your grandfather’s day, or the latest intrigue at the office, or a fantasy of what you would like life to be. Each story helps you to both get more comfortable with the craft of writing but also helps you to define you as a writer, to allow you to sink into that space which is the magic of writing. Take the time and space to find out what is unique about your writing.

Getting feedback

The type of feedback you get and from whom is always important but it is especially critical as you are finding your voice. When you are in the midst of experimenting, you don’t need someone harping on your overuse of similes. Because a lot of similes may be part of your voice. That kind of criticism early on might make you think you should cut back when your voice may not be stable enough to know for sure.

Seeking feedback which is highly technical or specific may not be right for you as you are starting out. Instead, you are looking for readers who can tell you what they like best about what you have written.

Do I need to put everything on hold until I have a distinctive voice?

Of course not. It’s an organic thing and will develop as you do as a writer. In fact, your voice may shift somewhat over your writing career. And that’s fine. It’s not a stable state any more than it is fully definable.

The key as always, is to write, write, write. Magic, magic, magic.

What is a Writer’s Voice?


What is a Writer’s Voice?

I was always confused when critics talk about a writer’s voice. What exactly was that? And frankly, even though I think I have a better idea of what that means now, it’s still a bit vague. I think a writer’s voice can consist of:

  • Settings he typically prefers. Cormac McCarthy picks settings I hate—cowboys, post-apocalyptic world—but I love his writing.
  • Types of characters often used. Do they tend to have an active inner life or is everything revealed in what they do?
  • Language or diction. Is it fairly formal or informal (like this blog)?
  • Imagery and description. Does the author tend to fully situate the reader in the setting through description or does she tend to allow the reader to imagine what things look like? Are the metaphors and similes to die for, poetry in disguise, or are they more functional?
  • Type of plot. Psychological drama or action thriller? Romantic or pragmatic?

There are many other possible components of a writer’s voice but I don’t think we need to beat a dead horse. Suffice it to say that voice is what makes you uniquely you as a writer. Let’s take Jane Austen as an example.

  • Settings she prefers. Middle class semi-rural England.
  • Types of characters often used. Women protagonists, usually with an active inner life, often a little bit outside the norm of that period (poor, orphaned, etc. Okay, Emma the exception that proves the rule).
  • Language or diction. Formal language but with both a wicked and elegant turn of phrase
  • Imagery and description. I would say the Austen tends to let you imagine what things look like unless you need to have the detail. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, she describes Rosings, Lady Catherine de Burg’s residence because the reader needs to know how imposing it is. But otherwise, she tends to leave it to the reader’s imagination. And her writing, while elegant and witty, is not poetry lyrical.
  • Type of plot. Romantic novels of manners, and the small things in life which are big.

Whether or not you concur with my analysis, I think you would agree that Jane Austen would not have written a novel about prize fighters, or the slums of London. She would not take on the big social issues of her day as Dickens did in his but instead focused on the individual trying to make her way in the world.

Similarly, Mark Twain tended to semi-rural, small town America. His characters often spoke in a colloquial way and the writing was frequently humorous as well as biting. It’s not that he stuck with this always—much of his writing does not fit this description, but he developed a style of writing—funny, satirical, unadorned, straight—which is characteristic of him.

So, there you are—voice. Next post: Finding Your Distinctive Voice.