jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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Getting to the Story's Core

While reading jaylake today, I was struck by what he reported about his writing progress yesterday.  He said, "In the past two days I’ve managed 4,500 words on a short story." 

Jay's word throughput has always been remarkable, and he's talked about it himself when asked.  He clearly is an outlier in terms of usable word production.  He reminds me of Robert Silverberg who said that when he first started writing professionally, he was doing about a million words a year.  A million a year is 2,740 words a day, approximately. 

I've had some 2,740-words days in my career.  Once, just to see if I could do it, I broke 10,000 words in a day (but I couldn't go to sleep for weeks afterwards unless someone was holding my hand), but a more typical day is around 1,000 words, and I have lots of days in the 200-500 word range.

I wrote to Jay about this and said, "Something I find interesting about your writing pace is not how quickly you produce words (although that is certainly noteworthy), but how fast you must get in your head to the essential meaningfulness of the narrative. When I'm writing a short story, I have a tendency to nibble at it because I'm working out in my head essential questions, like "why do I find this material worth spending time with?" and "what is this bit of narrative REALLY about?" If I have a lot of time to work, like I do at the Rainforest Writers Retreat, I can bootstrap my way through several steps in the same day, but if I only have an hour or two, a length of time when I might be able to type three or four thousand words, I only get a thousand words on the page. You must hone in on the heart of the story in an accelerated way. That's interesting."

He wrote back in his comments about his process, and included this bit: "Unfortunately, almost by definition, I don't have a lot of insight into how this process works, as it is essentially invisible even to me."

The invisible part of the process fascinates me.  Here's what I've decided about my own process through the years:
  • I write about what I think about.  This sounds terribly, terribly obvious, but it seems to me that many young writers don't get this.  They are stuck for ideas.  They tell me they don't know what to write about.  "What do you think about?" I ask.  "What do you care about?"  That's where the material comes from.
  • A breakthrough for me in discovering my material was to journal about memories.  I've had the same 24-hour days everyone else has, but like everyone else, only a tiny fraction of what happens to me makes it into my memories.  My theory is that everything I remember is meaningful for some reason, or I wouldn't remember it.  Every single thing I remember is potentially a story starter.
  • Ray Bradbury thought essentially the same thing.  He said that when he was young (20 or so) that he sat down with a notebook and wrote a long list of images from his past: the ravine, the lake, the baby, the pedestrian, the old man, etc.  He said he's been writing stories off that list ever since.
  • The fun part in composing is deciding why I think about a thing.  The thing could be an image, or a line of dialogue, or a song lyric, or a bit of a dream that I can't shake.  Or maybe something pissed me off.  I'll start a story because I have that tiny bit to work with, and the bit itself may give me the momentum to pile up a bunch of words.
  • At some point, though, I slow down because I want to know why the thing I started with is significant or meaningful to me.  When I figure that out, I will have reached the core of the story, and I can go on.  I told Jay that I "nibble" at a story.  Slower word production for me is not laziness, or an obsessive urge to edit, or a lack of confidence--it's me worrying the characters and plot around whatever the story's central idea is.  Sometimes this "worrying" can take days or weeks where the story just creeps forward.  Once I've made the conceptual breakthrough, which is just me realizing what the meaningfulness of the idea is for me, I can plunge to the end.
  • I can get to the breakthrough point faster if I have a lot of uninterrupted time.  I get this when I go to a writers' retreat, like the Rainforest Writers' Village, or when I divorce myself from my house and go to the bagel shop for hours at a stretch.

What's important about this musing for me is the realization (that I made a long time ago), that I can't write worthwhile stuff unless I work persistently and consistently at it.  Writing, for me, is a kind of thinking, and the only way to get that thinking done is to keep at it.

I have to carve away slowly to get to the core of the story; Jay says, "I do is a lot of pre-writing down in the sinkhole of my subconscious," which allows him to get to the story's core more quickly.

Everyone has a process.

Tags: writing

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