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Beef Stew

Before we get started, if you didn’t hear, Anne Riley is hosting a Murder Scene Blogfest–sure to be a ton of great stuff to read.  Go sign up here!

Now say it with me: Mmmmm….beef stew.  Doesn’t the stew in the picture on the right look delicious?  I’m getting hungry as I write this.

What does food have to do with writing, you ask?  Let me tell you: lately, I’ve been paying more attention to my writing process–both in terms of my approach and to my end product.  I’ve concluded that the way I write is very similar to the way a cook might prepare a stew or soup: a pinch of one ingredient here, a dash of another ingredient there.

I would love to tell you I’m one of those Iron Chef types who can take the most exotic idea or character, throw him into any situation and out pops a tale so well told, so compelling that it is guaranteed to take the reader’s breath away.  I wish I could tell you that, but it’s not true.

Rather, my approach is to inch along, do the standard recipe with nothing fancy, get lots of words on the page, do tons of free-writing, lots of thinking, re-examine my assumptions, push on, cut out content, add a dash of exposition here, a sprinkling of description there, until what I have at last may or may not taste alright.  In fact, sometimes I’m not even sure the piece is complete when I finally make the decision to put it aside.

Once the initial first draft work is done, I bake in a desk drawer (or more often on my hard-drive) for anywhere from three days to two weeks before I come back to read it.  Only then do I know if I pulled off a tale worth keeping.  Looked at later, the story usually looks and tastes completely different than it did at writing time.  I see things I missed the first time around–either omitted elements that need to be added, or places where fat needs to be trimmed.

Because I am never quite sure how my stories will turn out, I tend to write more than one at a time, understanding that not every piece will be good when it’s done.  For example, in preparing for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest, I actually had two pieces in the running, but the one I originally favored didn’t turn out the way I thought it might–so I posted the second one.

This ramshackle writing approach has required me to learn to review my fiction with an eye for certain ingredients which I believe are essential.  Here are three that I always look for:

Is there an action or decision in the scene/story?  My feeling is that for a story or scene to work, the MC (or group) must take an action to achieve a goal (or take action to avoid a circumstance they don’t want), or must be faced with a decision.

Depending on the length of the story, it is possible for a character to be on the brink of a decision and not actually make it, but movement in the story relies on the MC approaching the point where they must make a decision, or having taken at least a step or two forward in pursuit of a goal.  It is also possible for a story to work if the MC has made a decision and is dealing with the consequences of that decision.

For this one, my most common mistake is to have characters who want things (sometimes really badly), but don’t take concrete steps (or struggle to take concrete steps) toward achieving their aims.  Usually, the chance for action is there, but I miss it in the first draft, or obscure the thrust of action in irrelevant detail.

Do the events in the story matter?  This one is probably the easiest of the three to fix, since what it deals with is stakes: what is at stake for the MC (or other characters) if the decision/action fails or succeeds.  Why is that guy robbing the convenience store?  Because he’s a deadbeat criminal, because he can’t help it, just for fun, or because his sister needs a kidney transplant that his blue collar father cannot afford?

The stake explains the motive behind the MC’s actions.  Without a clear stake, your characters will seem wooden and melodramatic.  With too much at stake–and if your characters fail to act accordingly–your characters will appear cold and uncaring.  Also, if every character in your story has an overly deep reason for the way they act, the drama in your piece may seem overwrought and heavy-handed.  After all, people (and characters) do things “just ‘cuz” sometimes too.

When writing, I typically know exactly what’s at stake for my MC, but I don’t always get it on the page, so adding a few lines explaining what he/she is really after usually does the trick.

By the end, has the MC changed? In my mind, this is the hardest one to pull off, because the change can take many forms.  The MC can learn new information, can understand themselves better, can have a different view of their world, can realize they were wrong about someone or something–the list is pretty endless.

The bottom line is that by the end of the story or chapter there must be something new in the way the MC behaves or sees the world.*  This change is a crucial part of the “a-ha!” moment felt by the reader that signals the end of the story.  If your story doesn’t feel done, it’s probably because nothing’s changed.

For me, I usually get some sort of change in, but it doesn’t always match the direction of the action and/or decision, so I end up going back and rewickering it to fit the beginning (or fixing the beginning to match the end).  It still surprises me how much the setup influences the quality of the ending, and making sure there’s a change is certainly one area where that is true.

These three are by no means a comprehensive list.  There are certainly other things to look out for in good fiction, other ingredients that need to go in to make it taste good.

What about you?  What is your writing process like?  What are the “ingredients” you look for?  What do you find you need to change to get it to “taste” right?

*It is possible for a story where the MC doesn’t change to work too, but these kinds of stories usually operate by comparing the lack of change to a change that should have taken place, i.e. a man who conducts a brutal killing but is remorseless in the end.  The reader understands that a normal man would feel remorse–and so the lack of change at the end creates drama through the comparison.