Set the Goal
The first post in this series introduced a seven-step process that furniture builder Michael Fortune uses when designing new pieces in his shop. Fortune wrote about his process for Fine Woodworking’s December 2013 issue. Today, we move from a general analysis about project to clarification of specific elements. As Fortune says in his article:
Do I want a completely new design, or something to match an existing style? Do I want to learn new techniques? Work with specific materials?
So, writers, what do you want from your stories?
Old or new? What to do?
Do you want to write a series, or do you find yourself aiming at one-offs, stories rather than novels? I’m not sure you need to choose, and, in fact, I’ll go so far as to say you shouldn’t.
I’ve had a novel in-progress for nearly two years now, with the third major revision underway. To help build my story world, I’ve penned a handful of short pieces that take place in the same setting and with the same characters. These pieces were never meant to be included in the novel, but form a backstory (in some cases) or tangential scenes that deviate too far from the main narrative arc. Writing this way has allowed me to productively procrastinate when I’ve just not had the gumption to pick up the WIP and smooth out the rough spots.
If you’re stuck on a novel, why not give a short piece a try? It doesn’t have to be much. Just a flash piece, maybe 500 words at most. This can help in a few ways. First, it gives you an outlet for writing, which is always good. Second, it can help you get a better understanding of a character or story element that you’re struggling with. And, finally, it can even help you develop your plot in ways you couldn’t otherwise have thought to do.
New Techniques, Anyone?
I’m always up for a challenge with a creative endeavor, but with writing it can be painful, stultifying even, to feel challenged by the work. When writing bogs down due to confusion, lack of focus, dissatisfaction with the story/plot/characterization, then the job of writing becomes just another form of tedium, no different than holding down office furniture at a day job.
To combat that sense of failure and ennui that creeps up at times, I like to play with writing techniques to see what comes out of the process. This can be something as simple as refusing to use the letter ‘e’ for a whole sentence. Then a whole paragraph. I’m serious. Try it and see what you end up with. Restrictions can be troubling, but there’s a fulcrum in every restricting feature. On one side, we feel bound and stuck. On the other side, we’re free to explore a limited set of tools, and that ends up feeling expansive and liberating.
Specific Materials? Tried and True or Wholly New?
I’m a big fan of classic noir fiction. The punchy dramatic dialogue, the dark scenes, bleak landscapes, the loss of direction, the sense that everyone’s working a con or throwing their hat in the ring for a shot at the big payoff, and the sudden sensation of triumph when the mystery is solved — these are some of my favorite tropes to include in my writing.
But they don’t do much to let people into the deeper emotional layers my characters possess. And there’s a degree of over-played stereotypes where female characters are concerned especially. Not every woman need be a femme fatale, though she may express some qualities of the archetype, just as every man need not be the hard-boiled, quick-witted gumshoe.
It’s worth it to explore different character tropes and archetypes, and to put your characters into uncomfortable scenarios to see what they’re likely to do. Part of writing genuine, authentic characters involves experimenting on them, putting them through any number of wringers and paces. You’ll be surprised by what you see on the other side, and it might be just the piece you needed to bring the whole project together.
Next post: Generating Ideas. Fortune says “This is the fun part.”