Friday, June 12, 2009

FOR WRITERS: A STORY & THREE TACTICS..Guest Post by Debra Snider

[Today we have an interesting and informative post from guest Debra Snider. She talks about her own writing life and shares some tips that have benefited her work. You'll find throughout some links to more information and resources on her website.--CF]

Writing fiction has been the single biggest surprise of my life. Not because I didn’t want to – being a novelist was my original career goal, until I realized as a junior in college that I had something to prove in the business world. Not because I didn’t expect to – I’ve always loved to craft words, be the result a letter, an email, a legal document, a tweet or any other vehicle for expressing ideas with force, clarity and beauty. Not even because I’ve enjoyed some success as a novelist – as one of my characters says (about something else altogether), “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could do it well.”

No, what surprised me was the totally unexpected and entirely mystical way in which I became a writer of fiction.

I enjoyed a 21-year career as a lawyer and business executive before I came full-circle and started writing fiction. I wasn’t someone who longed to be a writer instead of what I was; I loved my first career. And I wrote constantly in that life. Majoring in English in college may be a relatively less-traveled route to law school and the business world, but it’s a good one. I had a huge competitive advantage as someone who knew how to manipulate words, who understood that there are always multiple ways to look at any person, event or situation, who placed a high premium on making written products not just serviceable, but also concise, linguistically and grammatically elegant, and, well, beautiful.

After I retired from my business career, I quickly wrote my Suit Yourself Essays, with a sense throughout that I was downloading the management, leadership and success strategies in my brain to a place where they would be safely encapsulated and I would no longer have to think about them.

No sooner were those essays written than the American Bar Association asked me to write a book about the eye-popping results we had achieved in the corporate law department I ran. Writing The Productive Culture Blueprint cleared my head, I think, and created space for fiction to fill.

A few weeks after I finished the ABA book, I woke up way too early one morning, my mind full to the brim with a short story so vivid it felt as if it were somehow hanging in the air in the bedroom instead of contained in my head. I felt feverish, both wide awake and as if I were still asleep and dreaming. I could see the setting and the characters. I could feel their feelings and the crisp, cold air they walked through. I knew their names and their idiosyncrasies, where their story started, how it developed, and where it ended.

I raced down three flights of stairs to my office, opened my computer and let my fingers fly. Eleven hours later, I stopped, the story captured. I had completely lost track of time, I hadn’t eaten or gotten dressed, I had waved abstractedly to my husband when he said goodbye on his way to work, and I felt, the entire time, as if I were transcribing via my keyboard something that was actually happening on some plane of consciousness I had, before that day, never experienced. The original vision did not dissipate the way dreams do; it glowed more and more brightly as it transformed itself from pictures and feelings into words.

For me, writing fiction is like taking dictation from fascinating dictators. I don’t outline. I don’t think about where to go next. I don’t write in order. I simply listen to the characters and scribble frantically to keep up with what they’re doing. I trust them to move backward and forward in time in a way that will make sense when they’re done with me.

I know I create my fiction – I haven’t utterly lost touch with reality – but I don’t feel like a creator when I write. I feel like a conduit. I often watch words and paragraphs appear on the screen as if they’re coming straight from some external place through my fingertips without any stopover in the parts of my brain I’m familiar with. It’s far more like being an observer, a witness placed in a private and exceptionally engrossing parallel world for the purpose of documenting everything.

My characters come to me whole, right down to having names (some of which I don’t like). They’re very pushy, and they’re in charge. I feel possessed by them. I write on their schedule, and they are impossible to confine to regular hours. When they’re busy, I write all the time – usually at my computer, on my laptop or in a notepad, but also in my head while I swim, drive, play blackjack, or talk to other (real, not imaginary) people. I’m mentally three-quarters someplace else whenever I’m doing anything other than write.

Luckily in terms of my relationships with other people, I discovered while I was writing A Merger of Equals that it wasn’t necessary to commit things to screen or paper the instant they appeared in my mind. Ideas, words, phrases, even whole paragraphs did not disappear if I didn’t write them down immediately. It was possible to take breaks, to live the rest of my life, even to write Working Easier, my second business book, while Merger’s story developed. When I did sit down to write, what I needed was always there, sometimes much improved for having fermented or ripened.

My process is iterative. Even during the possessed phase, the characters do occasionally relax their hold and allow me to push them to the back burner for a while. When that happens, I reread what I’ve written – sometimes the most recent scene, sometimes a different section or chapter, sometimes the whole book. When I reread, I correct, edit, rework, tinker, check chronology, stare into space as new ideas bloom, etc.

I use three specific writing “tricks” for everything I write – fiction, emails, blog posts, and every other written product I want to make as good as I can make it. These tricks help me shift my perspective, shake loose ideas, accurately and effectively express what’s so clear in my head, and work through what one of my Twitter buddies calls the “woolly bits.”

Write Longhand
I originally tried this because I found myself in the car with no laptop and a head full of words. Writing with a pen in a notebook was so effective that I’ve been making opportunities to do it ever since. The flow of words from brain to hand to pen to paper is unlike the flow from brain to fingertips to screen. You’re forced to write more slowly. It’s a more tactile experience: the feel of the pen in your hand; the way it glides on the white paper, trailing inked words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in its wake; even the inevitable cramps in your hand and forearm. The ability to add new thoughts via little carated inserts, to cross something out but still be able to see it, to create a runic record of your thought process with no extra effort as you write – the whole approach is entirely different from typing on a computer, and it leads to unexpected – and often very impressive – writing. You also have a natural editing opportunity when you eventually type what you’ve handwritten into your computer document.

Print and Edit in Hard Copy
It’s amazing how differently your eye sees and your brain perceives when you read text printed in black ink on white paper instead of flickering on your computer screen. Typos leap into high relief. So do disjointed transitions and poor or extraneous explanation, exposition and phraseology. The shift in perspective inevitably reveals ways to make the work better.

Read Aloud
You often see suggestions to read dialog aloud. This makes sense; words said aloud work differently than words read, and dialog that seems fine in writing can show itself to be awful when spoken. But reading aloud isn’t just for dialog. It’s a great way to proofread and polish, whether you read to someone or alone. Your tongue will trip over typos and other errors your eye has glided past for months. Bumpy sentences, unintended repetition, and all sorts of other writing that just doesn’t work will become (painfully) plain. And it’s fun, really fun, to hear your words ringing in the air.

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Christopher Fletcher said...

Thanks again, Debra, for sharing your advice.

I think it's interesting to hear about all the different methods that writers employ to help their process work better for them. Personally, your first tip about writing in long-hand is one that I'm afraid I have completely lost the ability to do: my hand writing is totally illegible, and way, way too slow (these few words that I have just typed here so far would take me twenty minutes by hand and I wouldn't be able to read it five minutes later, and my wrist would hurt--I may be developing some carpal tunnel syndrome or something). It might have developed from the fact that I was writing on a typewriter when I was a very young kid and then moved to computers. One thing that I will do by hand, however, is jot down notes and outline-type material when something occurs to me when I am away from a keyboard (and then hope that I can read it to flesh it out later).

I do enjoy editing hard copy sometimes though, especially when I am wanting to work on something in a situation where I either can't be or don't want to be at the computer. If I was less of a miser about paper and ink, I would probably do more of it. It's also useful if you just need to be able clearly see more than one page at a time. Once in a while I end up with a document where bits and pieces of it are not in the right order and it needs to be reorganized. The literal lack of space on a screen can make that harder than it needs to be, and that's where a print-out can really help. My novel-in-progress was in such a state a few months ago (all kinds of scenes and chapters in wrong order) that I finally broke down, printed out the whole thing and spread it out on the floor so I could see what was where. Then I physically reordered the paper pages and went back to the file on the computer and was able to speed through fixing the electronic file.

And, yeah, I concur about reading aloud. I like to do that, too, and often forget about it (note to self: read it out loud more often). It's probably the quickest way to figure out whether a sentence makes sense or not.

Debra Snider said...

I'm so glad to have had the chance to write this for you, Christopher! And yes, I read it in hard copy and aloud before I sent it to you.

I often wonder if people who have always had computers available will find writing in longhand as useful as I do. One of the (few) advantages of being older is having spent one's formative years (and, in my case, college years too) writing without a computer. I certainly don't do the bulk of my writing by hand, but I do love the shift in perspective it inevitably creates.

As for printing & working with hard copy, I have 3 suggestions: recycled paper, 2-sided printing, and the smallest font you can read without squinting. :)

Hope your readers enjoy this post & find it useful!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the article Christopher - it was really informative and I agree with Debra that, by sometimes writing longhand, there is a different quality a person produces.

I like these guest posts - keep them coming.

Julie Roads said...

SUCH an inspiring and wonderful and important view of writing! Thanks for sharing, Debra...I'm one of your biggest fans!

Angela said...

Fascinating insights from such a strong personality.

I’m very interested in your 'possessed' state when writing fiction.

As a psychology graduate and reader of strange fiction, I’ve always liked the analogy of the conscious mind as a boat on a huge ocean. People might believe they’re in control in their ordered little cabin, they may even steer the thing from time to time, but huge forces are at work all around them.

So when you described the story and characters taking hold of you, I thought of the little boat and the way your writing is like the storm. Seems you know how to ride the waves, though.

Writing longhand is something I love to do, with a pencil because it’s so sensuous. You can press hard for emphasis, but if you press too much it breaks. It makes a lovely noise. You can feel it scrape. On paper, you don’t have to go left to right, you can get diagrammatic, or just plain silly. And longhand does slow your thoughts; force you to be more meticulous. But I’m too often up against deadlines, so it’s the clackety clack of a keyboard – where’s the romance in that?

Visiting the British Museum last year, I looked at the original manuscript for Jane Eyre. It was 10 inches from my nose beneath glass. Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting was exquisite. Neat and highly consistent. Such discipline. Does anyone have that anymore?.

The hard copy proof-reading tip? I had abandoned the process purely to save paper and ink, but coincidently am returning to it: mistakes do jump out at you. I also try the on-screen trick of changing font, zoom level and margins to force the eye into seeing things fresh.

Reading aloud is also something I do, though my colleagues get miffed. Words flow in your head because after the fourth draft you know your work by heart, but in your mind I’m sure you’re actually mumbling. So reading aloud puts back the pressure for it to work.

I also read in my head with the voices of well known personalities that I think suit the tone I am aiming at (I’m a copywriter, so it’s like picking the celebrity that would do the voice-over for the advert). I find this reveals the phrases that are off-key very well.

A fascinating read, thank you Debra.

Anonymous said...

Longhand- Love it! Recently rediscovered it's myriad rhythms in a creative writing class.
Being possessed with a story- Has not happened to me yet. But I just know that that's the only way for me to go. For a real story to happen. Otherwise, I will be a non-fiction writer forever! And that would be a bummer. Indeed, no other word can better describe my disappointment with that prospect.

To all- pls save paper. I try to but I am not doing enough.

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