My guess is that the headline question has you thinking that I might be crazy instead. Well, that’s possible, but I’d like you to reserve judgment until you’ve read further.
Something happened a few days ago that has me thinking about the direction and evolution of my writing career.
Let me start with the middle of last week and explain. I attend a writing critique class every Wednesday that consists of a group of 10-15 published and unpublished writers. The focus of the group is improvement of one’s writing ability and the format is that of a critique workshop—the attendees bring in up to a 10-page sample of their current work in progress. This may be in the form of a chapter from an evolving novel, a short story, an essay or even a poem.
This semester, as well as the last, my offering to the class has been short stories. Because of this class, I’ve published three rather good (according to the class) short stories in the last year.
This is how it works. You volunteer to bring in a portion of your work in progress every 2-3 weeks, provide copies to the group and then read aloud what you’ve brought while the class follows along and makes notes.
That’s when the fun begins! Each of the classmates gets about three minutes to say whatever they want about your work: from praise to complete teardown of the work—usually it’s a combination of both and the result is that they identify the strong points of my writing as well as the weak points that require more thought and probable rewrites. The opinions vary from grammatical changes to content shifting.
I’ve grown as a writer because of this class and I value every word that comes out of my fellow writers’ mouths whether it is good or bad. Each critique is honest and constructive and has to be taken as such.
Unfortunately, other parts of my life have been getting in the way of my writing lately and I’ve brought nothing to read for a bunch of weeks. So last week the class moderator looked at me and asked, “So do you have something you’d like us to look at?” My short answer was, “No.” The longer and more correct answer was, “Of course! I’ll have something ready for the next class.”
My intention was to create another short story (with a long range goal of having enough short stories to publish my own anthology of murder mystery shorts later this year).
So two days ago, I sat at my desk in my quiet writing alcove and stared at a blank computer screen for what seemed like hours—nothing burst forth from my mind, nothing went on the page—with no seed of a plot, no interesting or devious character came to mind, I thought of no interesting murder weapon to create a central theme and I couldn’t even generate an opening paragraph. (Sigh!!)
As I rested my chin on one clenched fist, I suddenly realized something that struck me as funny at first: what about a story of a murder that was actually not a murder?
The creative juices started to flow: Homicide detectives realize that a murder victim is not only alive but has walked out of the morgue overnight, literally freaking out the ME and the detectives the next morning when they find an empty gurney. But I didn’t envision a zombie story, nor did I want to write a near death experience story. The victim had to be a real person who comes back from the edge of death and mystifies science…there has to be a villain…there has to be a believable, scientific explanation for what happens.
So I finally had a plot for my short story—and about 3,000 words later I would have something great to read for the next class.
I did a character profile workup of two interesting homicide detectives, added a quirky ME, and slipped in a “normal” victim with an overprotective mother. So, I had characters and a workable plot—and about 3,000 words later I would have another short story, both for my critique group and for a future anthology.
I started writing, but the story kept evolving. I kept writing and the characters began to take on personalities of their own. I kept writing and the story got more involved. I kept writing until I had 2,887 words and a great beginning of a story, but I was at my ten-page limit for a class read.
Could I shorten it? Absolutely not! The facts were that I had a great opening line, a great opening paragraph and the beginning of an interesting story, but I had no middle and no ending. What I had was a good first chapter—but a first chapter of what?
The answer is, “I’m not sure at this point.” I really like the storyline and I like the direction it’s taking, but the characters keep telling me there’s so much more story to be told. It’s as if they’re whispering to me what to write next. For three hours yesterday afternoon, I was in another world with no perception of real time. The scenes and dialogue seemed to come from the characters themselves.
If I had to guess where the characters take me, I would say I’m nowhere near addressing the real conflict. I think this piece is going to end up as a novella and I should continue to let the characters dictate the arc of the story and the eventual conflict resolution—if there is even one out there.
I’ve named this work Almost Dead, and there’s specific science behind the pivotal event that precipitates the story arc. But I’m not going to talk about that part just yet. I’ll leave that bit of pharmacology for next week’s blog.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Okay, my friend, you’ve got me hooked! Can’t wait for the next instalment.
Thanks so much for taking us along on your well-told writing journey: educational, enlightening, relatable and fun
Thanks, James. One of my 2014 goals is to get my debut novel published (been sitting on the floor near my desk waiting for those last few edits), but the characters in this new story are beginning to distract me! I wish I could ignore them, but they’ve got so much to say! 🙂 All the best to you.
Interesting, James. And I’m thrilled you have a story to run with. Everyone writes differently; I like to have an ending before I go too far, but some writers just let the story flow. Whatever works for you is the best way. It’s also nice that you have a good critique group. That’s a valuable asset for a writer.
That critique group has been so helpful for me to grow as a writer. I was with them yesterday and we were all talking over lunch that we’re like family, only with a little more honesty about what works AND what doesn’t in our writing. All the best to you and your writing career.
I have been following your blog for some time, and have enjoyed them all. I was fascinated by your description of being “possessed” by a story as I understand completely. My first novel, Whispers in the Night, provided such an experience for me. I lived inside the main character’s head for over a year as his life unfolded for me. I’d like to say that I invented it, but I can’t. He lived it, and I reported on it. Keep up the good work. It’s very rewarding in the end.
Thanks so much for your kind words – you make me feel appreciated! 🙂
I simply love your description of what happens when a character takes over the story you’re writing – “He lived it, and I reported on it.” I’m going to have to steal that phrase sometime, you know! Your comments are much appreciated.
There are times when the story grabs ahold of you and races. And times when it does not. I’ve been fortunate lately that the story is just running. Faster than I can write sometimes. I’m really feeling good right now, but I spent many hours stuck in the mud before I got here. Keep up the good work, James!
Thanks for your comments, Mary. I like the description you wrote about “getting stuck in the mud” because that’s exactly what it feels like. Glad you’re on a roll lately and my best wishes that your writing continues to flow well. All the best to you!
What a pure joy to read this blog today, March 29, a month after it was posted. It is timely, and right on! Since I just found you, I haven’t read later installments to see how your “novella” to be has progressed, but I had to write to tell you “THANKS!” for sharing your experience. It is helpful to know others have the same experiences. To those who posted comments, I, too liked their descriptions about being possessed when writing. I, like you, will steal the use of molloutthere’s words: “He lived it, and I reported on it,” and share it with my writing writer’s group. Having a good group to work with is indeed a secret gold mine. Good luck to you!
Thanks, Pam, for your kind words. You are so right about GOOD writing groups – they inspire, nudge, push, and sometimes frustrate – but above all, they keep me striving to be a better writer. All the best to you!