Category Archives: essay
The Process of Writing Fiction Is Actually Just Describing Tiny Moments and Then Some More Tiny Moments
Posted by Derek Berry
After a first draft, written in a fever of creative spirit, I begin to finally ask myself what the story is actually about. From writing, I learn what I actually intend to write about. Because of this, the final draft of a story appears very little like the first draft. Now and then, a singular phrase or description will remain, a simple description or inspired aphorism. I record everything that happens in a matter-of-a-fact way, first with the entire story and then scene by scene.
If Character A steps through the door, Character B must first open the door. Will Character B gesture or embrace Character A? What does this say about their relationship? Will Character B walk inside, or will Character A lead them further into the house? Will Character A offer a drink, a snack? What kind of niceties would be exchanged and how would they interact, given their personalities? Where would Character B sit? On the sofa, chair, on the floor maybe? Would Character B sit at all? Would they look at Character A as they talked or at the floor? Would they study the new environment? If I’m writing from Character A’s POV, should I describe the room? Or should I…
On goes the process. I ask myself every inane question possible, sketch out each movement and gesture in a massive narrative architecture. On one hand, I wish for the story to flow smoothly, to make sense. Most of the “work” of writing involves writing small moments. Someone blows their nose. Someone places their thumb in a book to keep their place. Someone unlocks a bike from a street post. Someone cracks their knuckles. Each movement translates an emotion, the vocabulary of theatrical gestures offering context to lines of dialogue. Each movement is calculated and makes anatomical sense, at least to the best of my abilities. I recall a particular critique from a fiction writing professor about a story I wrote, which involved a window. Several times in the story, an elderly and yet stalwart woman climbs in and out of a window, and throughout the story, the window changes heights. At times, she struggles to enter the window and later on she leaps out the window and lands below without any trouble. Because I had not paid enough attention to little moments, I created a tiny seam in the narrative, a warp in the vision. The tenuous dream film reel projected on the reader’s skull tweaks out, and the audience is temporarily thrown into darkness. And when that happens, the film or story is partly ruined. One remembers that one is consuming a story rather than living inside the story.
That’s half the story, the technical step-by-step process it takes to compose a scene. During the first draft comes a different sort of work, the creative part of the writing. The writer must also create new worlds, even if the places technically exist in real life (I don’t actually write fantasy). Because the reader must live within the dream. And often dreams have moments of absolute presence, of epiphany. And in the creative frenzy of the first draft, often these moments arrive.
Between the gestures and the conversation, the step-here and step-there, the said and the sighed, come moments of un-reality. Only within the context of a complete dream, a stable narrative architecture, may these moments appear as something other than trite, but rather something perfectly human.
I spend a lot of time searching for a particular moment– an ethereal moment that transcends the literal and the literary, something that lifts the reader into the air. Like when you’re on a rollercoaster at the top of the hill, and you’re not sure you’re then until you plummet. Like that. I want to capture moments of brilliant presence, when the character has become human and the words on a dead tree have become vision. The moment’s hanging there, waiting to crumble, but right now this moment is perfect, a floating light above a lake. Maybe something no one’s ever seen before.
But it’s recognizable. We become comfortable in the world the writer builds, a living hallucination that derives from looking at marks of ink on paper. And here, in these human moments, we live.
Posted by Derek Berry
Lecturing in a middle-school classroom two months ago on the finer points of poetry explication—in laymen’s terms, explaining that not all lines in poems are, in fact, literal—I fielded questions from the crowd of seventh-grade would-be writers, half of whom actually liked me (because I was young, the teacher insisted) and half of whom squirmed to be released into the wild frontiers of winter break. Hand shot up, “How do you become a writer?”
The question stumped me because—
1.) Am I writer? Do I get to call myself a writer now that my first book will be coming out soon or do I have to wait until I can pay the rent writing? Writers are mythical creatures, like unicorns, and I’m unsure whether I might call myself a unicorn just because I’ve strapped a spiraled horn to my forehead.
2.) I don’t know.
I tell the young girl the only answer that dings at the front of mind, like a mallet against a carnival strength-test. I say, “Write. Just write.”
Seems simplistic, sure, maybe a cop-out answer. I could hear already a collective groan as the students perhaps anticipated an oncoming lecture on the virtues of hard work. But I could not lie: there’s only one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. Ever since beginning education at university, I have flagellated my ego for deciding not to enroll as an English major with a creative writing concentration. Makes sense, to study writing if you’re a writer.
In some sense, however, I have studied writers for years: I read books, essays, magazines, and poetry. Read, read, read, consume knowledge; write, write, write, spit that knowledge back out in a practical context. I mean not to demean the value of a good writing program, though, because if that’s what works, it works. In my experience, writing programs offer both an incentive and time to write. Studying at university as well as back in high school, I had both incentive and time: I wanted to write books and I made time to write books, stories, and poetry.
There are several paths that might help you become a better writer: taking classes, engaging in writing critique groups, or reading “On Writing” by Stephen King. Or you could read blogs like this. But none of that will matter if you never sit down to put in actual work. Morris L. West, author of The Devil’s Advocate and many other books, once said, “In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.” (http://www.advicetowriters.com/home/2015/2/6/books-must-be-written-not-talked.html)
There ain’t no hocus pocus, no special pill, and no inspiring book: just write. All the rest’s just background noise. You could be a best-selling author or an amateur middle-school scribbler, but writing makes the writer. So you wanna be a writer? Then pick up a pen or place fingertips to keyboard and begin.