Monday, March 19, 2012

In Spite of Opinions, Education Works Sometimes

I have just finished my spring break. In a fit of minor irony, I spent the whole break applying my education. This is the story:

On the twelfth of this month, so just exactly one week ago, my mentore Jenny found a contest with a particular theme. We thought it'd be cool if the UGWP all attempted to write a story which fit the theme. We have just enough time to maybe write a story before submitting to our next critique meeting at the end of this month, do the critique during April, and get our critiques back in time to rewrite before the May first deadline for the contest. We are the Underground Writing Project, after all, so doing projects is a good idea. It made me nervous, though, because my writing process almost always takes a gazillion years. I have to ponder and meander and experiment. There's a lot of not writing parts of my process. Having only thirteen days to bring a story from nothing but a random prompt to fully fleshed seemed undoable in that time.

I'm down for trying and going down in flames any day. The try needed to be a good one, so I did the following:

Step one (happening on the twelfth): My first inspirational process is musical. The contest theme is "In the Dark." I had no idea for characters or situations at first. To discover some I put my zune on shuffle and thought about the phrase "In the Dark" and things that therein might occur. After an hour or two of my utter mishmash of musical taste I had an answer to the question which every story ought to answer; that question being: who is it about, what does he want, what's in the way, and does he get it or not? I had an answer. It felt good.

Step two (still on the twelfth): I wrote a mad and completely banal three pages of prose that gave the loosest possible rundown of the story. It was hardly even useable as an outline, but it did suggest certain continuity strengths and weaknesses to press or amend.

Step three (still on the twelfth): Wrote a dramatic outline. I've talked about Shakespeare's Five Act structure before. I really believe in it as a useful tool for designing interesting, dramatic story structures. If you like bullet pointed outlines especially--I do--then it's a great way of visualizing how the story could really look while leaving yourself enormous flexibility. The outlines I write in this vein tend to look like a bunch of visuals and trigger points that might be essential to telling the story. Through experience I've discovered that this outlining process has some huge drawbacks. "Finished" stories written entirely and only according to this outline tend to be somewhat flat and obscure, somehow. Without a little coaxing they lack directness or conflict. It's strange but true.

Step four (still on the twelfth): Tried to start step four and discovered that writing the same story from start to finish twice in one day got annoying and I couldn't quite conjure the will to start. Took a break.

Step five (on the thirteenth): Wrote a Five Beats outline of the story. A couple months back, Jan C Jones, an editor of sorts, came to be a guest critic at a UGWP meeting. She explained that movies often have a structure of five major "beats," or important steps, that make an entertaining story. I found the advice really good. I'd been thinking about trying it as an outlining technique, so for this story I did. It took up one page of my notebook. So far all of these outlines had taken up almost eight pages, which together is not that much writing, but it was a huge amount of work. I'd written the story three times in two days already and I was gaining the familiarity that I think you need in order to tell a story well.

Step six (on the fourteenth): Now, I wanted to write it as a script. There are three kinds of scripts with which I have any familiarity: movie scripts, play scripts, and comic book scripts. I've recently had a positive experience using a comic book script as an outline for a story. I wanted to try it again. For this one I decided to try a script for a play. A friend of mine suggested that stage play scripts emphasize where people are on the stage. That would be important for the story I had conceptualized. Scripts are a good outlining tool, I feel, because you can get a whole story out, with scenes and setting and dialogue and all, without fussing with especially pretty prose. You're freed up to leave the prose aside and concentrate on it later. Well, I started the script. It never got very far because by page two of it I had a sudden inspiration of a good way to start the actual prose story. It felt right to leave the script aside and just strike into the story while the energy was there.

So now today is the nineteenth. I just finished writing the story--it needs some editing, but it's all outside my head now. Because of the intense outlining I did there the process was pretty fast. I had five whole days to dawdle. Now I can go over it and fix typoes. The ride was fun, though I lack objectivity about the result.

I think this was a good process. Y'all should try it.