Wake up, Polly Parrot.


How I Write
by Brian Plante

Once in a while, a beginning writer asks me, "How do you write a story?" I'm not very comfortable answering this, because what the beginning writer really wants to know is, "What's the right way to write a story?" That's not at all the same question. The procedure I use to put meaningful words on paper may be very different from the "right" way for another writer. I don't make any claims that I know what I'm doing, other than the fact that I sell a story now and then. Other writers do some things differently, and who knows, maybe in a year or two I'll do things another way, too. All I can say is how I do things now.

It starts with an idea. Some beginners think that this is one of the hardest parts of the process, but it isn't. The world is filled with ideas. You only have to keep your eyes and mind open for interesting things that might make a worthy basis for a story, and write them down immediately so you don't forget. I have a box of index cards, and a very large computer file filled with seemingly random thoughts that serve as story fodder.

But an idea is not a story, so next I take one or two of the ideas and try to come up with an engaging plot that revolves around the ideas. This is a bit like assembling a puzzle, figuring out what characters, settings and actions will make for a good story. I generally plan out the entire piece in a scene-by-scene outline. Sometimes the outline can get pretty detailed, almost a rough first draft all by itself; other times it's just a flimsy skeleton to build on.

If I need to do research on something (my setting, or some point of history or science that is crucial to the story), that comes next. A trip to the library or some net surfing is all it takes. I don't exhaustively research -- just enough to get through the story without making myself look like an ignoramus with some bonehead mistake the reader might pick up on.

Next comes the part that outwardly looks the most like real "writing" to an observer, even though all the steps are important parts of the process. I sit down and bang the thing out on the computer. Usually, I do the first draft in one long sitting for a short story, or a couple for a novelette. For these sessions, I start in the early evenings on weekend nights when I don't have to get up for work the next day, and I write well into the early hours of the morning. Once all the "pre-production" work is done, I can write the first draft pretty quickly, since I don't have to pause every few minutes to wonder what comes next, and the midnight shift is the best time to put in the long hours without interruptions.

After the first draft is done, I usually let it sit a month or more. I e-mail it off to a couple of other writers to look at and critique, and then I try to forget about it. I find that if I put off revising the story that I find many more problems to fix than if I do the revisions immediately after finishing the first draft. I'm just too close to the story after the first draft to view it objectively.

Time passes while I work on the different phases of other stories, maybe starting a new one, maybe finishing off some old ones. When I have sufficiently forgotten the story, I can reread it with fresh eyes and consider the suggestions made by my critique group. Then I start revising the story. I cut out stuff that doesn't work or add meat where the story is too thin. Usually my first drafts are pretty skimpy, as I skip over things in my haste to get them down on paper, so more often than not the revisions add length rather than slim the story down. I usually go through two or three passes through the story, fixing things up, and then it is done.

Finally, I send the story to a magazine or anthology that might publish it. But that's how I market the thing, not how I write, so I'll stop here.

There's no big secret to writing, although some writers make out like it's some holy ritual. You just do whatever feels right to you. Experience is the best teacher. Don't worry if another writer does things differently. Some outline, others write off the top of their heads. Some write quickly and clean up later, others write slowly and carefully and revise only a little. Some research a story to death and other just wing it. If you want to write, just write, and eventually you will find what works best for you.

Copyright © 2000 Brian Plante

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