Embrace the Messy Writing Process

Sunday, May 19, 2013
"When we read, we start at the beginning and continue until we reach the end; when we write, we start in the middle and fight our way out." Vickie Karp, poet

I teach writing and I am guilty of this one thing: making the writing process seem logical, easy, methodical. It's not.

Writing is a messy way to write a story. We struggle with the writing on so many levels, from story to grammar, from spelling to characterization. While it's messy, writing can be taught and some of the tangle can be straightened out. There are 29 typical plot patterns that help in the early stages to lay out the possibilities for a story. There are at least 23 ways to fight a sagging middle. But still, you must write. And it's messy.

At a recent writing retreat, I had a series of ten five-minute exercises for the participants to do. In a fast-paced hour, I asked the writers to set aside their pre-conceived notions of their story and just play. Explore. Revel in messiness. There's no magic in these exercises, the magic is in DOING them, in exploring the story freely, in letting the messiness lead you to a new level of story.

So, I offer here some suggestions. Take an hour and force yourself to try a variety of ways of writing your story, of thinking about your story. Don't let the internal censor out of its cage during this time. Just write.

  • 1st v. 3rd. Which ever POV your current draft takes, write the opening scene in the opposite POV. Or, try 2nd person POV, present tense, I don't care. Just try a different POV and/or tense.
  • Attitude. Your character should go into the opening scene (or choose another important scene) with a certain attitude: arrogance, annoyed, indifferent, angry, lazy, etc. Give that attitude a name. Then, at the top of a clean sheet of paper, write the opposite attitude. Now, write the scene again, but this time, your character has that opposite attitude.
  • Setting. Change the setting. If it's a bedroom in 1971, make it a farmhouse kitchen in 1330. Or write a scene that takes place beside this beaver pond, while the characters are slapping at the mosquitoes and hoping for a glimpse of the beaver family. Make a drastic change of setting and write.

  • Write a letter. To whom would your character want to write a letter? It can be an angry tirade, a confession, or a description of a vacation trip. It can be written by hand (yes, write it in cursive), written as an email, or just as a friendly letter. Write a letter from your main character's POV. Write an answer to the letter.
  • Put something in the character's hand. Give the character something to do with his/her hands. Maybe a mother walks into the bedroom of her grown son and sees his old baseball glove. She picks it up, oils it, then sits and cuddles it as she rocks. Or, give her an iron skillet. Perhaps, a sewing needle. Put something in your character's hand and get them doing something, working to infuse emotion into the story.
  • Describe. Of course, you have descriptions somewhere in your story. But have you written the descriptions from the main character's POV? Write a new description of an important setting or object, and work to let your character do the telling. What would s/he notice? Be specific.
  • Compare. Write an extended comparison--from your main character's POV--between something important to the story and something that appears random to the story. Maybe compare the character's grief at a funeral to climbing a mountain. How do they compare? I don't know. But your character might know. What this does is bring characterization into the moment of grief in a new and fresh way. Write the comparison and let it take you to an unexpected place.

Think of a couple more "mini-assignments" and write those as well. Be messy. Be creative!


Margo Dill said...

I love THE ATTITUDE one. I'm going to try that, especially with my YA character. Thanks, Darcy!

writerspearl said...

Yes, attitude ... I tend to forget that one. And putting something in their hands, that's good too. These are all good. Those are some of my favorites.

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