(This is the second post of a three-part series On Becoming a Writer)
‘Writing’ is its own animal. Finishing writing a story has that same feel as a kiss with someone you’re in love with. It’s like fulfilment inside a moment. As watching the sunrise from the depths. It’s something else. So writing a story is, or should be, or it is to me, its own reward. I don’t write to ‘be famous’ or to ‘be rich’ or to ‘impress’ my family or my friends or to ‘be published’. I write to write. I write because I love it. And thinking like that is, in my view, the best way to keep writing. To keep at it. Because it takes a long time to become good at it.
When I was young I loved to invent stories. I would plot ‘plays’ and ‘characters’ for me and my brother to enact in the garden. Until my brother got tired of it. So the stories just kept going in my head. Finally, I decided to write them down, scared I’d forget about them. But writing them down was much more difficult than I thought. They kept changing in my head and the words I put down didn’t really convey everything I was thinking. I started a couple of novels but by the third chapter I felt my style completely different from the beginning. It was changing fast and out of control. Maybe because I was young: I was about 13 at that point. So I made a conscious decision – one of the most successful decisions I ever made in my life: I should write short-stories until I was able to dominate my style. Short-stories were easier to control, and I would finish writing them before my style changed. I also decided that I would purposely write each story in a different style – try never to repeat the form of one story I’ve written already. I did this for years! I wrote stories without dialogue, I wrote stories only with dialogue; I wrote stories with several POV’s, I wrote stories with a single POV; third person POV, first person POV; stories with song lyrics popping up; stories with humor, stories with tragedies; satirical stories, surreal stories, real stories, with strong endings and open endings. For years, I learned and nowadays I can tell you that I am very flexible in my writing, I can change the style almost as I please and that happens because I wrote short stories for years in my teens.
What I didn’t do was very long stories. My short stories were usually well… short. Just a few pages long. And I missed the space, because I felt I wanted to develop characters and I was unable to do it properly. So I started writing novellas. I still thought I was unprepared to write novels, but novellas, 40 or 50 pages long, sounded about right. I did this for a couple of years. Must have written about six or seven of them – some of them now lost in the graveyard of obsolete computer operating systems. When someone challenged me to participate in one of the largest literary contests in the country I had a novella just written called THE ICE IS NEAR. I submitted it and won an Honorable Mention. I also got a few notes from one of the juries showing me, to my utter shame, how many spelling mistakes I had made. This was before Spelling Check Programs came along. I got in my head this wouldn’t happen again and in a matter of months I stopped making spelling mistakes altogether. Months after that I submitted a short-story, MINDSWEEPER, to the same contest and won it.
A novella is a lovely format. It can be perfect. It’s long enough to develop a character and short enough for the plot never to confuse you. You can control it. But for some reason, it’s also not much fun to write. It misses something. So I was in my mid-twenties when I decided to go back to novels. I wrote my first one, OUT OF MY HAND, and loved it. I loved writing it and was very happy with it, but as I gave it to some people to read I started finding problems with it. More and more problems. So I put it away and wrote another one. LISBON BYTES. And then another one, DARWIN, and then another one THE FALLEN MOTHER. They were all awful. People didn’t like them. I got a meeting with a publisher who was kind enough to read one of them and she was sad as she said: ‘there’s nothing there’.
So I left it for a while. I wrote screenplays and plays and other stuff – nothing that was produced, or anything. I could not ‘not-write’. That was impossible. So I wrote. With no plan. For years. Then finally I started working on a project I had downplayed for a long time. A story about a Special Forces operative from the future who ended up on a different planet that resembled Earth in the Middle Ages – THE ALEX 9 SAGA. It took me 20 years from the first idea to the finished product, but I finally wrote it and submitted it to one publisher I knew (because I wrote one short-story for an anthology of his) and he loved it. I was a published novelist a year later.
And that’s basically my story. Becoming good, or good enough, at writing was not easy. But after this entire struggle I believe I have some things I can share about writing. First thing is: it’s all about communication. I promise to write a lot more about that subject in the future but for now let me refer you to this post.
Second thing: I started putting a process together. Everyone has his/her own process and I will not cover the particulars of my personal process this time. Also, I have to say I only started writing systematically good stuff when I found my Voice. Your Voice is the understanding that you have ‘something to say’. Find out what it is, or you will suffer. I will also write about that in the future. Let me tell you now, instead, broadly, what are the main phases of my process. They are as following: gimmicks, concepts, stories, structures, first draft, final draft, edited draft. Here they go, one-by-one, see if they make sense to you:
1.Gimmick: imagine I was having lunch with a friend or something and eating spaghetti and an idea came to me – ‘what if there was this race of aliens that grabbed on to your face and laid an egg inside you and then they grew and came out through your belly as you ate?’ I bet my friend would jump and say: ‘That’s brilliant!’ Understand: this is not a story. Not even a concept. But it’s a good gimmick: something that attracts an audience. Gimmicks, in my experience, are the genesis of a concept.
2.Concepts: then maybe I went home and sat in front of the computer and developed a concept – ‘What if there was this cargo ship that followed a distress signal to a planet where they found those eggs and brought an alien to the ship, and the alien was a terrifying predator who killed them all – except the hero.’ The concept is the first seamlessness of a story. If it’s a High-Concept, as they tell you in Hollywood, it will be able to convey the attractiveness of the story in a line or two. I try to collect as many concepts as I can, and I write them down on an XL spreadsheet. That way I’m never short of ideas to write about.
3.Story: a story already has a protagonist – ‘Ripley is this crewmember in the cargo-ship Nostromo and she has a cat. As the alien destroyed her crew, she is able to vanquish it through intelligence and daring actions until she throws it off the ship. The cat also survives.’ This is much closer to a story. Because you have characters. At least the protagonist is now clear in your head, and most likely also the antagonist. At this point it can be important to start to develop the characters more and more – even though I confess it’s rare for me to have the characters fully developed until I’m well into my writing. But do as it fits you.
4.Structure: some people call it an Outline. But I mostly start with an Aristotelian program: Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3 – Beginning, Middle and End. How’s it going to play out? When I have the whole structure in my head I many times check it against Snyder’s Beat-Sheet. Check out SAVE THE CAT for that. The Beat-Sheet basically decomposes Aristotle’s 3-Act structure in 15 beats. And it’s a hell of a tool. I love it and I use it. But mostly to check if I have everything in the right place.
5.First Draft: then I write. This is the slowest but usually the most interesting and pleasurable part. It can take years or weeks or days. I keep thinking as I write and I change things and nudge the story here and there. But I try not to get stuck, never really stop. I can stop actually putting down words for a few days, but my head must always be there, working the scenes, deciding what the characters are going to do, figuring out what comes next.
6.Final Draft: when I finished the first draft I go back and look at it and re-write and work at it some more. And then I give it to beta-readers, people I trust that will give me their first impressions. After that, I’ll go back to the draft and change it until it ‘feels’ finished. That’s when I start editing or give it to a professional editor.
7.Edited Draft: after going through the editing, the text is finally ready for publishing. But that’s another track altogether. My opinion is that you shouldn’t confuse the two. You write, you finish it and you put it in a drawer. At this point, I’m ready for another story. I will try to publish my finished stories of course, but the Writing Track is now mostly closed. And I didn’t write about Ripley and the cat, of course, or I’d be sued into oblivion, even though I would love to have come up with that idea.
You don’t need to work the same way I do, of course. Nobody does it the same way. But you need to find out YOUR way. Make it about the story. Make it about the people who will read it. There’s a line that goes from your heart and mind to the characters’ hearts and minds to the reader’s heart and mind. If that line is one of the most important things in your life, then you are a Writer. Preserve it. That line is fragile. You can work in your process and your style and your writing for years, but your goal must always be the same: to create a strong enough, fine enough, lasting enough line. Can you captivate your characters so they captivate your audience? Can they captivate you?
You need training. We all need training. We all need a lot of hours putting down words. You can have writing courses, coaching, advice, literature degrees, whatever. Those are sometimes useful and sometimes not. But there’s no substitute for one thing: writing and writing and writing.
Back in my twenties, I trained Aikido for a while. Aikido moves are lovely and clever and fluid. Sometimes I would turn to my Master fascinated by a move and I would start saying something like: ‘Master, I was thinking about this move…’ And he would invariably stop me in my tracks and say: ‘Don’t think. Do. Black belts may think. White belts must do.’ I may not be a black belt in writing yet. Maybe a brown belt or a blue belt. I still have a lot to learn. But I can stop and think about writing for a little bit. My advice to you, whoever you are, is this: train and train and train. Write and write and write. Don’t argue with me. Do. That’s how you become a warrior. That’s how you become a knight. That’s how you become a writer.