I used to sit down and write a short story in an evening, tinker with it through the week, prepare it for submission and send it out to literary magazines. Only one of the week-longs has been published; the rest are sticky with rejections. Some encouraging personal rejections from editors lets me know there’s possibility on the horizon.
So, these last years (yes, years), I’ve dedicated myself to the study of creative writing craft and practice. I’m better at the studying part. I continue to write every day, but the complexity of understanding and applying the layers of what goes into the making of a great story is daunting: word precision; grammatical sentence variation; paragraphing; elucidating the wonderful complexities of human beings through character development; the importance of setting as metaphor; tension and movement (that winding thread of impossible-not-to-follow suspense we writers gift our readers in its many guises of plot).
So far, I suck at writing plot. Funny thing: I can tell a story verbally, stringing along my listeners through crescendos to a climactic punchline and raucous laughter, but I can’t do it on the page. It’s not the same thing. It reads like a limerick: I know an old man from Nantucket…
Another aspect of writing practice I’ve learned…no, I am learning: I should suspend working on craft aspects of my story until all the generative writing (read: stream of consciousness, letting it all flow out, write to explore, write to open up) is complete. I make the mistake of thinking I am done my “first story draft”—my “generative writing”—over and over and over and over and over again. An absence of plot is a good indication more generative writing is to be done. Even I get bored by my characters not doing much of anything, you know, looking out the window and sighing deeply.
Two fantastic resources (shining guiding lights) for how to exhume plot from the heavy toil soil of drafts:Alexander Chee and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.
I’ve been working through Andrew’s Living Revision exercises on a short story I rewrote [again] in July. I was actually sailing through the exercises, exhuming some pretty interesting discoveries (like, my own memories and emotions—yes, I cried several times through these exercises—that are driving this story). Kudos to Andrew’s methods for helping me get that far. But I got stuck, petrified (in the stone sense), on page 101 (of 288) when tasked to write an “expansion draft”.
I found myself rewriting the same paragraphs of the story, and I did this without any copy and paste…it seemed I couldn’t expand anything, couldn’t go any deeper. I wondered whether I should just quit the project for a while and try something new (which feels like admitting defeat).
Then, last week, I listened to a podcast, Between The Covers and a craft talk with Alexander Chee and Tin House called, “From First Draft to Plot”. Chee explained his own experiences, through twenty years of teaching creative writing, how emerging writers (yes, after 6 years, more?, of part-time-squeeze-writing-into-my-busy-life I am only just deserving of the title, “emerging writer”) have not developed the skills (yet) to query the scenes they have written.
Chee explains there are many implications in student’s draft scenes that have not been dealt with…unmet implications the writer is ignoring. His advice: ask questions of your scenes, such as, how did the character end up there? Why? Where is this character from? What was their schooling like? Chee says, “to build a story and a plot is the process of interrogating the scene, again and again with questions and each time you get answers, push back further and further into the story as far as you can go.”
Of course, most of this additional writing never makes it into the story, but instead becomes the skeleton, the subtext, the backstory the writer must know, know on instinct, know on a sub-conscious level, in order to puppet master their story to life.
So….I’m writing questions. I’m writing answers. I’m going deeper. Write On.