My Writing Process, or Dirty Dancing with the Muses

Some people are plotters, some people leave their characters adrift in hopes they will do something interesting. Stephen King is in the latter camp, adamantly a member of the let-the-characters-do-their-thing party. I imagine Tolkien must have been a plotter, and a big one. He started out building a language and then wrote a story for it.

I’m neither of these. Or maybe I am both. Am I bi-procedural? I don’t often plot things out in detail, at least not for short stories. Though I am not averse to writing basic synopses and outlines, just so I don’t forget my great idea.

I did do a whole lot more planning for my novel/full-book-thingy, which included outlines for each chapter, characters lists, world and city maps, and sit downs with friends to discuss concepts. I feel like the planning helped a lot in that particular case.

For the novella I am currently writing, I wrote a basic two-page synopsis (which was actually required by the publisher as part of the pitch), but that just included a cast of characters and some basic chapter breakdowns. When I actually sit down and write the chapters, I don’t look at the synopsis, but rather let the story go where it wants to go. But I also don’t like to leave the story completely up to the characters. They don’t know what makes for a good read.

I just wrote a new short story today in a blaze of creative frenzy. I was struck by a muse and it would not be ignored. I knocked out 2000 words in the first two hours of the morning, took a short break to ingest some calories, and finished the final 1500 words in another hour or so. A complete draft of a 3500 word story in four hours is not to shabby!

Sometimes muses come, and I feel the writing is always better than when I have to force it. I imagine muses are different for everyone. Mine can be particularly strong. I usually find a muse in one of two ways: either listening to music, or reading about some intellectual topic such a science or mythology. The former are more common and usually give me fantasy stories, the latter usually offer science fiction tales based on the science I am reading about.

I started getting into writing when I was young because I was a daydreamer. I was always playing scenarios and stories through in my head. After watching medieval shows like The Tudors for example, I usually imagine myself traveling back in time. What would I do to advise the king? Of course, I’d start by teaching them about basic hygiene. No more armies crippled by dysentery. Then I could start my own unit of ninjas. Take old England by silent storm. Princess being held in the tower? Get her back ninjas! My own medieval special forces.

Daydreaming is what sends me muses. After getting an idea or a muse, I usually mull it over in my head, playing through the scenario like a movie. This is probably why my writing is more action centered and visual, since the story is visual to me. The more I daydream on a story, the more potent it becomes, the more motivated I become to write it, and in the end, the better the result.

In the case of this morning’s story, I have been thinking about it since yesterday evening, when a few lyrics from a song I’d heard a hundred times suddenly decided to catch my attention. At that point, the first thing I did was replay the song a dozen times to milk it dry. There were a few more lyrics that inspired bits of the story. I woke up this morning and drove to my morning class, playing the song again, repeatedly, in the car. The story concept was so full at that time, I decided to write down some chronological notes.

Now, I’m not going to give away what song inspired today’s story, I will tell you I wrote a story a couple weeks back under similar circumstances. That one was inspired by A Flock of Seagulls’s “I Ran (So Far Away)”. I let you imagine where that took me.

While writing the story, I never looked at my notes, it was good enough that they were there and the idea was secure. I started with the initial scene that had been in my head the night before and let the story build itself, but keeping it close to the road I had paved through all my previous thinking. This morning’s muse was particularly strong and gifted, so I had little trouble getting it all down. I think I had to stop to think through a paragraph or look up a word less than ten times. It was a great writing session. I imagine this initial session like taking a lump of metal and hammering it into the rough shape of a blade.

Now, a couple hours have passed since I have seen my raw draft. I am about ready to go back to it. I have my blade, but now I need to fix any flaws in it, mend the cracks, heat-treat and sharpen it, and affix a fancy handle (If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Forged in Fire). I will look over my raw draft and do a basic proof, while at the same time checking for consistency and continuity in the narrative.

After than, I need to have a friend or two take a red pen to it. That’s a critical step before something is truly ready to be published, at least professionally. There’s a limit to how much an author can see of his own work, like a sort of tunnel-vision or color-blindness. An extra pair of eyes will always improve your writing (well, unless the author has an extra pair, which is weird, and still doesn’t solve author bias). Get some comments, write some revisions and maybe then it’s ready to be sent to someone in a stuffy office somewhere just waiting to ease their stress by trashing something violently. Even if I can only help to ease one soul, maybe it’s all worth it…

Nah. Gimme money! Well, that’s my short story writing process. Usually. Sometimes. It is the ideal, anyways.

That’s my spiel. I hope it helps you think through your process.

So how do you write?

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