The Creative Process: Writing a Story

Anyone who likes to write has a process, a series of steps or phases that they go through when they want to tell a story.  Everyone’s process is different in some way, but we all go through the same basic series of steps from the initial idea all the way to the finished product.

But as anyone who has written a story will attest, the process can be difficult.  Some people get hung up on the initial idea, unable to come up with something or unable to turn their idea into a cohesive story.  Some people struggle with writing the story, finding it hard to begin their story, end their story, or even just get from point A to point B within the story.

So I thought for today that I’d give you a look into how I do things, my specific creative process.  If you do things differently than me, don’t worry about it.  Writing is not a formula or an equation.  There is no one correct way to do it.  I am showing my process merely as an example, with the hope that seeing it all laid bare might help you gather up your ideas and jump-start your own process.  So here we go.

 

Phase 1: Initial Idea

When an idea hits me, I usually don’t expect it.  It can come at any time: while I’m at work, taking a shower, watching a TV show, or even when I’m sleeping.  It doesn’t really matter when or where it pops up, just that it does.  I have brainstormed ideas before, but I feel that the best ideas come naturally, when you’re not trying to force it.  Once I have the idea, I begin the process of shaping it into a cohesive story.

But before I even get to the outlining part, I run the idea over in my head.  I ask myself some questions.  Would this idea make a good story?  Is there room for this idea to expand and change?  What kind of characters should I have? I ask myself these questions and more to make sure that the story I want to write is one that is worth writing and one that I feel strongly about.  Because if I don’t feel good about the story I’m writing, then who will want to read it?

 

Phase 2: Outline

Now we get to the outlining, which many people take for granted.  I used to never outline things at all when I wrote papers in high school and so on.  But over time, I learned that outlining generally makes a paper or a story go much smoother than it would otherwise.  An outline allows you to draw a road map of your project, showing where you want to start and where you want to go.  How deep you want your outline to be depends on you.

My outline consists of four parts: title, setting, synopsis, and major events.  The first part, title, is pretty obvious.  I use this part to write out what I want the title to be.  If I currently don’t have a title at the moment, I use this space to brainstorm until I pick one later.  Setting, the second component, is also pretty clear.  This is where I write the setting down that I plan on using for the story.  This is usually more of a check to make sure that I keep myself consistent.  I plan on expanding this section at some point, and use it for greater purposes than I do now.

The third part of my outline is the synopsis.  For this, I like to imagine that I’m writing a pitch or the description for the story.  It’s a brief overview of the story, introducing the main character(s) and the setup for events.  I write it like I’m trying to entice, like I’m trying to get someone to read my story.  That way, if I ever do pitch it somewhere, I have something written down that I can draw from.

The final part is the major events.  This is the meat of my outline.  This is where I write down all of the major events that I can think of in the story, and describe them in detail.  It also serves as a general chronology of the story, showing where it begins, where it goes, and where it ends.  Once I actually begin writing the story however, these things are subject to change, either slightly or completely.

You may outline your stories in a completely different fashion, yours more in-depth than mine or less.  It all depends on the person and the situation.  I have sometimes wished that my outlines were a little more in-depth, but I have trouble thinking of a good way to do that without creating excess busy work.  As for right now, I’m fine with my outlines.  I may change my method in the future, but that’s the nature of writing.  It is fluid and ever-changing.

 

Phase 3: First Draft

This is where most of the work for me takes place.  After outlining the story, I usually wait a day to let the outline sink in before I begin writing.  And then, I just write.  There’s not really much to say about this part, other than that it often takes a period of days, weeks, or even months depending on the size of the story.  The most recent story I finished took about a month to write, and ended up being nearly fifty pages.

The most important thing to remember during this section is that this is only your first attempt at the story.  When you read it back after you’re finished, it may and probably will seem very rough.  You’ll find spots that you don’t like, sentences that you can’t believe you thought sounded good.  You’ll find spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and just general logic issues abound.  If it makes you despair, just remember.  You will have a chance to fix things.  It’s not like this is the version people are going to read.  The next part of the process is where I make the version I want people to read.

 

Phase 4: Revisions

Once I’ve finished the first, or “rough”, draft of a story, I like to let it sit for at least a day before I go back to it.  Trying to immediately revise a story after you’ve finished it is a fool’s errand.  You will only glaze over obvious mistakes in your writing, because you’ve become too close to it and spent too much time with it.  The most important part of revising is to let some time pass before you take a look at your work again.  It gives your mind a chance to refresh itself and let go of innate biases.

I used to wonder how many different revisions of a story I should do, and the answer is simply that there is no answer.  Like I said, writing is ever-changing.  There is no concrete method or answer for it.  You have to make your own path, which I understand is incredibly difficult for some people.  Some people want a basic formula or an equation when they do things.  They want there to be one correct way of doing it, with the only obstacle being the journey to get to the predetermined end.  People like that usually don’t do too well with writing, not that they’re failures or anything for it.  They’re just built a different way.

I learned recently that when it comes to revising, it is a good idea to try to focus on one particular aspect of your work for each revision.  For example, on one revision you could focus on spelling and grammar.  On another you could focus on character consistencies.  On yet another, you could focus on logical issues with the story, asking yourself “does everything make sense within the world” and so on.  So that’s what I try to do now with revising.  I used to just read over the story and change anything that popped out as wrong or odd to me, but now I’m trying to do it differently.

Revising is a tough job, because you aren’t always sure how much you’re really doing to it.  This is the part of the process where it’s a good idea to get other eyes to read your work.  Send your story to a friend or two to read, and have them tell you what they think and point out anything they don’t like or that they think doesn’t make sense.  You don’t have to do everything they say (because then it would be more their story than yours), but do take their criticism to heart, and use it to create the best possible story that you can.

And sometimes, you may want to even scrap the story you have, and start all over.  I know I’ve done that with a couple of stories before.  But most of all, write what you feel and never apologize for it.

 

That’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and until then, have a great week everybody.

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