Coffee, Cigarettes, and Flannel: The Writing Essentials
Every writer has a process for writing a piece: creating an outline, bullet points, etc.; but another process exists before the writer even uncaps his pen. This process is a fulfillment of conditions which place the writer in a comfortable, inspired mental state. For me, it is the ingredients for a writing marathon. As long as my conditions are satisfied I can write for hours, pausing only to decide the perfect word for an idea. I can write a load of uninspired crap, but with my pre-writing process I can lose myself to the narrative; writing becomes experiencing.
My process has more to do with physical requirements than direct mental preparation. I know a few writers who like to meditate before they write; I prefer to set the stage. In the spirit of sharing, I would like to share my ingredients. Perhaps someone will try some of them and find inspiration (that would be lovely!). They are as follows:
I like to have a few, if not all, of these as fuel for a writing marathon.
- Fresh Coffee
- Marlboro Menthol Cigarettes
- Chopin or Muse on Pandora
- A Moleskine Notebook
- A Sharpie Pen, blue
Next comes the highly elusive writing process. I like to warm up with a free-write, like most writers I know. In writing classes I took in the past, the professor would assign a starting point or give complete freedom. I prefer to write something related to the piece I am working on. In my most recent free-write, I began with a character I had yet to fully explore. I asked myself, 'Who is _____?' and wrote to describe the character and why they were important enough to exist as a round character. That reason lead into the character's relationship with other characters in the story and particularly important interactions. This character directly altered the perception of another character in the eyes of my narrator. I continued explaining everything I could, then asked another question. I used this process to define important plot points. I plan to do the same when it comes time to decide the transition between key points.
A condition of the free-write is that it must be handwritten. I like to flip through the pages, crossing out conflicting ideas, indicating a needed change, and referencing something easily. I always have a small notebook with me to record random ideas or quotes; it's a habit I picked up when I wrote "found poetry." The notebook is convenient to carry around and assures that I don't forget an exciting idea. I can later transfer them to the "Ideas" section in my word processor for later. When I type the free-write parts I want to use, I can edit and expand the thought while staying on-topic. There is nothing more disappointing to me than knowing I had a superb idea, but not remembering it in the slightest (this happens most frequently as I fall asleep).
One of the hardest parts of writing, for me, is finding the perfect word. I like to use rich, but not overly-complicated words. I think this idea first came to me when I read Stephen King's "On Writing." I shudder at the thought of forcing my target audience to consult (again and again) a dictionary simply to understand the narration. On the other hand, I try not to use or overuse common and simple words. When I write, I always have a thesaurus handy. I find the thesaurus to be one of the most important tools of a writer. I rarely use a dictionary because words sound forced when a writer uses one outside of their everyday vocabulary. It sometimes even leads to misused words, confusing a reader and/or changing the interpretation of an idea.
I would like to quickly address a problem of mine: over-characterization. I started many stories out with an okay idea, only to lose it in the midst of creating my characters. Developing my characters is the stage in which I lose all control. I don't usually create too many unnecessary characters; I give traits to integral characters that do nothing for the story or the audience. The characters begin to exist, not for the story, but as something similar to an imaginary friend. I lose all interest in the plot in favor of creating lives: past, present, and future. Moving forward in time, I lose interest in those "people" (or define them as far as possible) for another story and new characters to create. It is absolutely a vicious cycle. I think, for the first time, I may have overcome the obsession with characterizing in my current piece!
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