Saturday, February 13, 2016

My Writing Process. Or, How to Become an Imperfect God.

I published my first piece of fiction way back in 1990.  It was a story called, "Random Access," in a magazine, now defunct, called Anthropomorphic Science Fiction.  
I was working on two stories at the time.  One was about a computer controlling the thoughts of people by removing certain memories.  The other was a sappy story about finding one's true love, inspired by the relationship I was in at the time.  Neither of them were going anywhere, but I worked on them diligently as best I could.
One night, though, my girlfriend asked me to stop by the church where she volunteered.  During our conversation she informed me that she had decided we weren't right for each other and was breaking it off with me.  
Oh.  Ok.  I understand.  
On the long drive home, I kept thinking to myself that I was taking it surprisingly well.  There was no noticeable pain.  I wasn't angry.  Not even disappointed.  Maybe I was more mature than I realized.  Maybe I realized, deep down, she was right.
When I got home and walked into my bedroom, I could see the two most recent manuscripts for the stories I was working on sitting there, side by side, on my writing desk.  
"That's one story."  
It was an epiphany.  I threw the two manuscripts in the trash.  I turned on my trusty Macintosh Plus.  I spent the night writing a story about a man in some near future, having just been jilted by the woman he loved, visiting a psychologist that was actually a sentient computer system.  The computer replayed his memories of the relationship and selected those that would ease the man's emotional state if deleted.  When the man objects, the computer forces the man to relive the break-up, in the coffee shop.  The man gives permission to have his memories altered.  
The next morning, I made one change, moving one paragraph before the another.  I printed it, stuck it in an envelope.  I sent it out.
A few weeks later.  I got my first acceptance letter.  
I spent the next couple of decades trying to figure out how I'd done that.  
I came to realize that I had experienced a sort of prodigy-flash.  I followed a process of writing a story without realizing it.  I had zipped through my method for creating a story in a light speed rush.  So fast, that I didn't see or feel the steps I had taken.  
I believe that it is important to be able to know one's process.  You can't call yourself an artist if you can't.  You can't create consistently if you don't.  Other people may believe otherwise.  This is for me.  
I've published some more short stories in recent years.  I've watched myself as I've done so, taking note of the things that helped me get the story done, and those processes suggested to me that lead me astray.  I think I can finally say that I "KNOW" how stories come out of me.  
And here it is.  The Erick Melton Story Writing Process: 
Step 1: Write a Fairy Tale. 
I got this from a panel at a science fiction convention on outlining.  According to the panel's moderator, it's the method writers at Pixar use to outline their stories.  They write outlines that read like fairy tales.  They start with "Once Upon a Time...", go through, "And then, one day...", and a series of "And then..."'s, until they reach, "The End."  
Starting this way alleviates me of the burden of writing dialogue and scenes for characters I don't know yet.  It allows me to discover who they are as I make stuff up, without me being critical of how it sounds.  And it points out the parts of the story that really excite me, as well as those points I need to improve or cut.
Once I have my fairy tale done, I can start working with it.  
Step 2: Snowflake the thing.  
I got this from a website I found years ago, called Advanced Fiction Writing, created by a man named Randy Ingermanson.  It's a method for growing a novel bit by bit.  There are several more steps to the Snowflake process than I've written here, but they're enough for me when writing short stories.  
1) Logline - This is a single sentence, about 15 words or so long, that summarizes the story.  It is also useful as your "elevator pitch," the one sentence you give to an editor or agent to tell them about your project before they get out of the elevator you happen to be sharing.  
2) Paragraph - A five sentence paragraph, giving greater details to story I want to write.  For me, each sentence correspondences to one part of a three-act structure.  An Opening.  An inciting Disaster, not the protagonist's fault.  A Building Disaster, created out of the protagonist's efforts to fix the situation.  A Crisis of Faith, where the protagonist must decide to either persevere and carry on (Keep the Faith) or where they try something completely different (take a Leap of Faith) in order to succeed.  And finally, the Conclusion.  
3) Character Outlines - Pretty much what it is.  A list of the principle characters, their Goals, their Motivations (different from Goals), background and storyline. I also designate who the Protagonist, Antagonist and Impact Character are here.   
The "Crisis of Faith" I mentioned above is an adaptation from another tool I used called Dramatica Pro.  It's an application that asks you questions to build a story.  My "Crisis of Faith" moment comes from one of the questions they ask, which is whether the main character remains "Steadfast" to his beliefs as to how he should succeed, of if he takes a "Leap of Faith," to reach to his goal.  Changing "Steadfast" to "Keep the Faith" made that choice clearer in my mind.  
"Impact Character" is also a concept from Dramatica Pro.  Protagonist and Antagonist are pretty clear.  Protagonist is the "Hero" of the story.  The Antagonist is the person trying to stop the Hero from getting what she wants.  Impact Character is someone trying to influence the Hero in her quest, often trying to change how the hero does something, even while supporting them in their goal.  
The best example I can think of right now is Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy.  He wants Luke to destroy the Death Star, just like everyone else.  But he wants Luke to use the Force to do it.  Think how the Star Wars storyline would change if Luke keeps his targeting computer on, and sends those proton torpedos down that shaft using his piloting skills.  This shows the importance of the Impact Character.  
Step 3: Write the Story.  Pretty much says it, right?
Step 4: Rewrite it using Scenes and Sequels.  
The concept of Scenes and Sequels can be found in various sources.  Mr. Ingermanson has his own article about them on his website.  I think of them as pulses.  Decisions and Results.  They break down like this: 
Scenes: Goal.  Conflict.  Disaster.  
The Hero has a goal in that moment.  Something or someone tries to stop him.  His effort results in one of two things.  "Yes, but..." scenes end with him getting what he wants, but with unexpected complications that create new difficulties.  "No, and..." scenes end with him failing to get what he wants, and with something compounding the problem, making it worse.  
Sequels: Reaction.  Dilemma.  Decision.  
The Hero reacts to the disaster, or to the inciting action that starts to story off.  A problem is created that the Hero needs to solve.  She reaches a decision as to what she needs to do, setting her goals, which creates the next scene.  
There are writers that will use their scenes and sequels to outline their story first.  I tried doing that.  It didn't work for me.  It does work, though, when I'm trying to improve a draft to make it better.  
This comes from a teacher I had in college, a man named Dean Hess.  It came from a class on directing he was teaching.  Someone asked him about all the "rules" the book we were reading had about how to direct a scene or a play.  The student wanted to know how you remembered all those rules when you were actually working on a play.  
Dean tried to answer the question a couple of different ways before waving his answers away.  "It's like this," he finally said.  "Artists create the way God does.  You just do what you think is right.  But since we are not perfect the way God is, we make mistakes.  When you feel that something isn't working, that's when you take the rules and look at what you're doing through them.  When you see what the problem is, you fix it, put the rules away, and go back to being God."  
Step 5: Polish it. 
Step 6: Submit.  
Step 7: Become God for a new story. 


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