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How I Go About Writing Fiction

Writing fiction is such a tremendously pleasurable activity for me. Sure, there are moments when it feels as if I'm giving birth to a story rather than writing one. (Naturally, I have no idea whatsoever what it really feels like to give birth. Nor do I want to. However, I have been present for the birth of three daughters, and I'd wager that the look on my face at certain moments during the writing process pretty much mirrors the expression on my wife's face about fifteen minutes before labor was done.) But those moments are the exception. Thankfully.

C.M. Russell, Wild Horse Hunters No. 2

A friend of mine asked me recently, "So what's the process? How do you come up with this stuff?"

I answered, "Writers do follow methods, but to tell the truth, sometimes it feels as if I'm simply watching a movie and transcribing the scenes. I may think, 'OK, next, the character needs to do such-and-such,' only to have the character look at me and say, 'Are you kidding me? I'm not doing that. I'm doing this, instead." Crazy as this may sound, I've found that many, many authors experience the same thing. The story takes on a life of its own, and characters develop their own personalities and decisions. No doubt, all this arises in our minds from bits and pieces of life and literature and drama that we've each encountered throughout the course of our lifetimes.

My friend said, "But you're a happily married man. What's the deal with you describing that female character in that kind of detail?"

"Well," I said, "in order to make it somewhat realistic, I have to climb inside the head of each character and ask the question, 'How would this strike so-and-so in this setting and time?'"

Two Basic Approaches

Fiction writers generally approach a brand new story they plan to write in one of two basic ways. We can start with a big plot idea or with a particularly compelling character.

Those who start with plot may work through a series of "What if?" scenarios until they hit upon a tale that just begs to be told. They then, of course, have to populate their story with the characters who will endure (and probably overcome) the big "What if?"

Me? I'm more of a character guy. Generally, I try to, first, think up an interesting individual with whom readers can identify (or at least sympathize), someone it would be easy to care about. Next, I come up with something this new character truly needs or longs for. Then, I get nasty: I come up with a big obstacle to the character getting what he or she needs or wants. I know, I know. It sounds cruel. But nobody wants to read about a character whose biggest challenge is getting a new spool of mono-filament into the head of a weed trimmer. Fear of a truly big loss is what drives a good story. And we read on, anxious to find out how she or he is going to manage to win out in the end.

What's the Hardest Part?

The toughest thing about writing original fiction--as far as I'm concerned, anyway--is silencing my inner critic at least long enough for me to get a first draft completed. Yes, that inner critic is an important voice. (I call on it a great deal when I'm in the editing stage.) But it can really hamper creativity if left unchecked during the early going.

Anything Else?

So in broad strokes, this is pretty much how I go about my writing. If you have any particular questions about any aspect of the process, please feel free to drop me an email. I'd love to answer.

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