|It’s been a long, challenging winter loaded with enough twists and turns to fill a novel. Heck, five novels if I’d had the time. Happily, winter’s coming to an end and with it, I find myself eager to blog, to write, and to do a great many other things that I’ll share on this blog in the days and weeks ahead.
In the meantime… The more I write, and the more I teach writing, the more I realize the value of writing across the mediums (screenplays, novels, comic books, stage). Each medium has its particular demands, yes, but each medium also has an emphasis that can help to hone your storytelling skills. The stage-play focuses on concept, character and unfolds through dialogue. The screenplay (and comic books) provides you with the advantage to truly tell a 1,000 words in one image. Prose gives you the opportunity to go deep into the character’s psyche as well as ‘damn the budget’ — the only cost is your imagination.
Plot, on the other hand, is universal. Today’s guest blogger — author Elisa Lorello — shares her thoughts on plot development and writing. She makes some great points about tackling the job of creating stories. Ironically enough, her latest book, Adulation, is about a Hollywood screenwriter and the pitfalls (and upsides) of falling in love. A fun read, btw!
Very often someone will ask me, “How hard is it to come up with an idea for a novel?” For me, ideas are the easy part. I’ve got tons of ideas. They hide in plain sight, like Easter Eggs in the nooks and crannies of everyday life. The writing is the hard part. More specifically, the rewriting. That’s the blood, sweat, and tears part, the part that requires attendance, focus, and listening.
So what do I mean by “attendance”? The word conjures up a public school classroom with a teacher towering at the front of the room, counting heads and making little check- and x-marks in her gradebook. In this case, attendance has several connotations. The first is similar to the schoolroom definition—you’ve got to show up. That is, determine what’s the best time for you to write, the best space or environment, and the best materials. Some write from midnight to two in the morning. Some write for fifteen minutes in the morning, right before leaving for their job, or perhaps during their lunch break. Some write precisely two thousand words every day and will even stop in mid-sentence when they’ve reached their word count.
For me, my peak writing times are between ten and four o’clock, and I take breaks in between, although I try not to let those breaks last for too long. I’ve also learned that I am much more productive and clear-headed when I write before I get on the internet, so I’ve been consciously trying to make that a habit.
But attendance also means presence. I don’t physically write every day, but when I’m in the middle of a WIP (work in progress), I am constantly mindful of it. I’ll go for long walks or drives, and during those times I’ll do a lot of thinking and mental composing. It’s an opportunity to spend quality time with my characters, listen to their conversations, observe their behaviors, and empathize with them. By doing so, I am attending to them, nurturing them, telling their stories on their behalf.
For me, focus is about turning off iTunes, turning off the internet (unless I need to use it for a quick reference), and metaphorically tuning out the world around me. That’s not to say that I hole myself up in a windowless room—on the contrary, a window with a view is vital to my writing. I recently relocated to a house in New England and finally have a spare room for an office/writing studio. My desk is right next to a window from where I can see a patch of blue water in the distance—perfect to sit and gaze and let the words come to me. And for those days when I need a change of scenery, I go to a coffeeshop and simultaneously soak in and tune out that atmosphere, provided the place isn’t too loud or busy. One of the cool things about writing is that it’s a portable profession. So many spaces are conducive to it—a library, beach, the shower—just as long as you’re not letting distractions get in the way. When I allow that to happen, when I willingly go looking for them, then I know I’ve got writer’s block, and thus my attention and focus needs to go there so that I can overcome it as quickly as possible. Easier said than done sometimes.
One of the keys to rewriting is listening. Another is rereading, which sometimes overlaps with listening. As I described above, when I’m not physically scribing or typing words, I’m mentally writing, and much of that happens by way of listening to my characters. I was inexperienced with writing fiction when I wrote my first novel, Faking It. But I quickly learned during the drafting process that it wasn’t about me putting words into my characters’ mouths; rather, it was about me listening to what they had to say. I didn’t always want to go where they took me; but when I didn’t follow their lead, the writing didn’t work.
I had a hard time with Sunny Smith, one of the two protagonists in my latest novel, Adulation. I just couldn’t get a grasp on who she was and why she behaved the way she did. I wasn’t sure what she really wanted. And no matter how much time I spent with her, she didn’t seem to be letting me in on any of her secrets. So one day I decided to dialogue with her, wrote it down like a Q&A. (I recommend you do this exercise longhand.) I was so frustrated at that point that I think I asked her something like, “Why won’t you talk to me?” I wondered: Was I trying too hard to listen? Was I not listening enough? It took several dialogues, but eventually she came through. It very well may have been a power struggle between us.
Another aspect of listening comes by way of feedback from other readers. Before I submit a manuscript to my publisher (and if you don’t have a publisher, take this step before submitting to an agent or self-publishing), I turn it over to a few trusted readers—some may be professional writers themselves, or may share a particular expertise with a character. Others may be inexperienced writers, but are able to read the story objectively. Additionally, I seek out people who won’t give me unconditional praise, or, conversely, disrespect my work or me. Feedback has to be constructive. It’s just as important to know what works as what doesn’t, and why. The challenge is to leave your ego at the door and be open to what your readers have to say, especially if they’re striking a nerve with you.
Adulation was the first novel with which I worked with a development editor. Fortunately, I had a great experience with her. I was quite receptive to her notes, and when I wasn’t and/or rejected her suggestion, I asked myself, “Is this an ego-based decision, or is this a writing-based decision?” I’d say at least 50% were ego-based, if not more.
Listening is also crucial when writing in collaboration. I had a terrific experience co-writing Why I Love Singlehood with Sarah Girrell because we listened to each other. We spent hours talking about the story, the characters, tossing out what-ifs to each other, etc. And when one of us objected to something, the other would say, “Make your case.” She would do so while the other listened. More often than not, each persuaded the other. And when we didn’t, we made compromises. The result was a book we loved, and a partnership we’re eager to resume.
What do the words attendance, focus, and listening mean to you? How do you apply them to your writing process?
Visit Elisa’s Facebook page.
You can buy Adulation at Amazon — the eBook is currently on sale for $0.99. It’s