Last week, I was chatting with a new crop of students about writing stories, and this was one of the questions that arose. (Speaking of crops, September is, by the by, an extremely hopeful time for teachers, you know, because rather like farmers in the springtime, we’ve just got a new crop in the ground, and are really, really hoping it’s going to grow and mature into a bumper crop. Not wither on the vine, an occasional but distressing reality for farmers and teachers alike. Eww.)
What the student meant was: how do writers write the story? And several things came to mind almost immediately. Hemingway, of course, famously said that there was nothing to writing --- you just sit at a typewriter and bleed. Yeah, okay, depressingly accurate at times, but not a particularly encouraging thing to say to a bunch of fresh-faced, eager students who have visions of becoming the next J.K. Rowling.
Stephen King, likewise famously, has said you write one word at a time. Better… but that, too, despite its realistic take on the craft of writing, is a tad deflating for a bunch of newbies --- sounds rather like running a marathon after extreme exhaustion has set in and you desperately resort to doggedly telling yourself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. (Yeah, I know writing can be like that at times, too, but again, there’s no need to be deliberately discouraging to a bunch of noobs, is there, now? If they’re serious about writing, they’ll find out about its slings and arrows of outrageous fortune all too soon as it is.) So I searched for some more uplifting thoughts. And found a couple. Yay me.
Now, in the model railroading world, when one is designing a layout, the choices can be overwhelming, particularly if you are attempting to model a portion of a real railway. How to choose what to model? From where to where? What to include? Leave out? And so, some years ago, one of the hobby’s better-known track planning gurus came up with what he called the LDE --- the Layout Design Element. The premise was simple: in modelling a specific part of a real-life railway, you choose a series of the most operationally and scenically interesting bits --- towns, industries, bridges, tunnels, trestles, whatever --- and string a bunch of them together in a visually appropriate and realistic way (because after all, we’re not aiming for a track plan that just resembles a bowl of spaghetti). And you leave the endless miles of bare nothingness out.
Writing’s rather like that, too, and recently, I saw a really good quote backing this assertion up admirably: Alfred Hitchcock, the filmic master of horror, said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” Well done, Hitch! That’s exactly what it is, and that’s exactly what we do.
In our fiction writing, we chronicle a life (or lives), performing the delicate excision of the mundane, dull bits and focusing/elaborating/nurturing the interesting and the exciting. Nobody particularly wants to read about the minutiae of our days… brushing teeth, grooming, routine interactions with the people in our lives --- unless those activities are integral to setting up major plot points. Case in point: James Thurber once wrote a very clever and amusing short story titled “The Catbird Seat,” in which the protagonist leads such an ordinary, drab life that, when he consciously and cunningly deviates from that lifestyle to --- ahem --- ‘remove’ an adversary at work, no one can believe the tale of his wild behaviour… and he’s exonerated. But for most stories… we want the Bigger Events in a character’s life. And so that becomes the major challenge for the writer, choreographing a delicate ballet of what to leave out, what to hone in on, and how to skip over hours, days, weeks or whatever span of time to weave an engrossing tale.
And how do you do that? the student asked. Hmm. Well, I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule, actually. At least, not one I would want to pass on.
(There are lots of writing rules out there, promulgated as supposedly Deep Pronouncements by Famous Writers, and while they may sound great in theory, I think the primary justification for them is so said pronouncements can be broken. My own fundamental rule of writing is simply this: write the best damned story you can, however you can. The rest is, really, just window dressing. Stephen King is very disparaging about adverbs, for example, but look in his work and you certainly find an adverb or six.)
What I do when writing is ensure I have at least an idea where the current situation is heading, then just… well, select the most interesting and relevant incidents relating to how we get there. (Contrary to what people who know me might think, I’m a pantser, not a plotter. The last time I wrote about that facet of writing was here if you’re interested.) Unfortunately, for anyone wanting a pedantically detailed GPS-style roadmap about what makes an interesting read (“head left for four pages until you encounter a dragon; nod politely to it, pretend you’re just passing by, then abuse its trust by skewering it where the sun don’t shine”) …well, I don’t really think there is one. You do it by instinct --- not especially helpful to say, I know, but true. You can only do it by writing what you find interesting, ‘cause that’s the only roadmap you have… and if you hope to be published, you have to hope others will find it interesting as well. Eventually, if you keep doing it (like any endeavour: practice, man, practice) the Muse will visit more often, and you’ll get better at sensing what to put in and what to leave out. Your instincts will improve.
And --- contrary to the hokey-pokey --- that’s what it’s all about.