Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing the Whole Story - Ten Pages of Fiction

Yes, it is the longest single assignment for the course.  But that's okay.  During the course of the semester, you've each written a variety of stories and poems and essays.  And this will serve you well.  You've picked up several important skills in writing style and content.  Whether you choose to expand a piece you've already submitted or instead decide to start from scratch, you have the tools to write a good story.
As I mentioned in class, the whole story does not necessarily need to be the whole story.  It can be the first chapter of a novel, or it can be a completed short story in eight pages.  The main thing I'm looking for here is that you have eight to fourteen pages of a coherent narrative.  The story might not have the entire beginning, middle, and end, but all pages submitted should be part of the same story.

First, a few thoughts on the changing nature of your story:

My hope is that you've already given some thought to which story you'd like to write.  This, I think, is very important - whichever story you write, it should be something that you yourself find interesting.  Today's "write the ending" exercise in class was meant to help this process.  As you wrote, you may have noticed some new ideas coming onto the page, ideas that you hadn't previously considered for your story.  If this is the case, try to think about how these new ideas relate to your story.  How do they relate to your personal stake in writing this story?  Often, you'll find that events in your own life shape the kinds of stories you want to write - this is natural.  If you find the story you're writing is not the story you started to write, this is all right.  In my own experience, the story that I want to write is often different from the story I need to write, and so I end up producing a manuscript very different from the one I first envisioned.

Next, Keep Going:
For some writers, the hardest part of any story is simply getting the words on the page.  The first draft, for many, is tinged with self-doubt.  The impulse to make every word count, to write sentences which are clear and concise and wonderful.  Even before the first scene is written, many writers are thinking about how to link that first scene to the next scene and the one after.  And this works well for some.  But this approach is not for everyone.  I recommend taking the quick approach instead.  Instead of measuring each word before putting it on the page, trust your own inherent sense of the story.  Write quickly, and keep writing.

If you find your progress stalled, it's often better to take a break than it is to sit staring at the screen.  Or, if this doesn't work, think of a new twist to toss into the story.  When stories become hard to write, it's often because there isn't enough conflict to hold the writer's interest - if you challenge your protagonist with something new, you'll find that story will start to write itself.

The corollary is that your protagonist must have the freedom to do whatever it takes to succeed.  In writing, the sky isn't really the limit - it's more of a mile marker.  Your protagonist fails a chemistry exam?  Well, he could hack into the school's computer using the same skills that allow him to play thermonuclear war with a Department of Defense supercomputer (the movie War Games).  Or let's say she's a virtuous person who is dedicated to the protection of England against the infestation of unmentionables plaguing the countryside - she'll break out a katana and some martial arts skills to ward off the zombies and Mr. Darcy (the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

This said, make sure that the conflict affects the narrator personally.  For example, the chemistry test grade might not worry someone who doesn't care about school - if he's a Bill Gates type character, he might not care enough to spend ten minutes hacking into the school computer.  Or an Elizabeth Bennet character might find that she doesn't much care for slaughtering zombies if the zombies themselves are only feeding upon the mangled remains of Mr. Darcy.  In writing, find the desires that drive your character forward, and then reveal how these desires will lead this character to take on the conflict.

Finally, Revise:
True, there's more to writing than finding and idea, writing it, and then revising.  But in a real sense, these are the only elements of writing we have time for in that first draft.  If we paused to consider the value of every image and symbol before jotting it down, we'd never finish a complete draft.  Instead, save those considerations for the revision stage. When you find yourself worried about each word, just remember that you'll revise later.  You'll proofread the spelling and grammar before bringing the final copy to class.  (You will, won't you?)

When you go through the first revision, there are couple key style considerations I would like you to watch for:
1. Take out any excess words.  Adjectives, adverbs, extra prepositional phrases - many of these can be deleted.  If a reader will understand the meaning of a sentence without the modifier, that means the nouns and the verbs are doing their job and don't need the distraction of pop-up ads.  (jectives, I mean)
2. Use specific nouns and verbs.  Instead of "the car drove by," aim for "the Cadillac rolled past," or "that Corvette hugged the corner."
3. Shorten the long sentences to one clause (or a maximum of two).  Every noun-verb combination in a sentence represents a clause.  "I ate a gyro sandwich when I was studying for the chemistry exam I'd have on Thursday" is a sentence with three clauses - "I ate," "I was studying," "I'd have an exam."  Note that the sentence starts to feel awkward once we pass the word "studying."  For this sentence, break of that third clause: "I ate a gyro sandwich when I was studying.  I had a chemistry exam on Thursday.  But I wasn't worried.  I knew I could always hack into the school computer to change my grade." 
4. Use the correct dialogue syntax. Refer to your dialogue handout to correctly show speech. "They read my handout carefully," he said, "and everything their characters said was clearly understood."
5. Use Active Voice Protagonists act. Avoid passive forms such as "The worm was tied on to the fishhook" or progressive forms such as "He was tying the worm on." Use "He tied the worm to the hook and caught salmon." If you do you passive voice, be sparing and use it with good reason. When in doubt, though, active voice is almost always stronger.
Summing Up
The ten page whole story is meant to be challenging, and I'm looking forward to seeing the directions you take your stories.  As with the regular assignments, I encourage you to take risks in your stories.  If you need to start and stop and restart, that's all right.  If the story doesn't feel "ready" as you're coming up to the ten page mark, don't be alarmed - that's a natural feeling.  Very few stories ever do feel "ready."  But as long as you stay true to the story and write what feels right, you'll do well.



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