I’ve been hanging out with writers a lot lately. Truthfully, I always hang out with writers as much as I can, but the last month is a lot even for me. First ICON 40. Great time guys! Then Nanowrimo’s kick off events. Also a great time! This weekend the Des Moines Writers Workshop had its first informal retreat. Seven of us stayed in a rented house on Lake Panora, talked about writing and wrote. It was a blast and I’m sure there will be other more official retreats in the future.
As I talk about writing with dozens of writers, patterns emerge. In particular I’ve noticed a huge pattern between wanna be writers (people who say they want to write but don’t actually write), struggling writers and those achieving success. The more concretely a writer can talk about their story, the better the chance they are actually getting words on paper.
By concrete I mean they are able to discuss their own story in a specific and tangible way. The more tangible their discussion, the more words they are writing, almost invariably.
For example when our critique groups first started we had a poet that when asked about her poetry, would start with a long winded personal story about her life, it would often trail off without coming to a point and with a barely whispered apology that she “hadn’t written much lately.” That is not concrete. She has since faded from the writing scene.
Another writer friend would start by talking about his setting, what kind of story he wanted to write, the music and the times that influenced his thinking. Again, it’s not a very concrete discussion. Unlike the poet, he has not faded from the scene. He’s been workshopping his early chapters and came to a class we offered on story planning.
The result is that his discussions of his story have evolved over time. It’s less about the setting (the setting is incredible, by the way, and I can’t wait to see the story completed) to talking about the characters, the events that occur and how they move the story along. Alongside this evolution is another one, he’s gone from talking about the story to writing it.
Another friend is working on a piece of historical fiction with a significant fantasy element, or possible a piece of fantasy with a historical element. We all how that goes. She’s stuck in what writers sometimes call the messy middle, where the main storylines are in motion, you know the ending, and you have no idea how to get there.
We were discussing our progress to the group over wine one night. Her discussion started with “There’s this guy who helps the main character.” As she talked about this guy (not a very concrete description) and we asked her questions, the details emerged. How he helps the protagonist. How he also helps the antagonist. His motivations for doing so. Slowly specific events emerge where these things happen. By the end of the discussion she’s looking for a name. He’s no longer “this guy.” And that’s where the writing magic happens, when you move past the generalities and discover the specifics.
I am by no means exempt from this. I am into the fourth Bear Naked book and I’ve been struggling with the series for some time. Part of it, a fairly big part, is Jay Toumi. I know where that character is going. I know Jay’s struggling with identity, particularly gender. But I didn’t know how that was going to be resolved. Until I started creating specific scenes and details. Now Jay has their own subplot in the upcoming books and some resolutions are looming on the horizon. And I’m fifteen thousand words into the novel. It’s a great feeling.
The TL;DR version (Too Long, Didn’t Read, for those not fluent in internet lingo) is this; if you can’t talk about the story, the settings and characters in a tangible, detailed sort of way, you don’t know your story well enough to write it.