Friday, October 11, 2013

Writing Takes Time

Writing Takes Time

or the adventures of
Flash Fiction and the Invasion of the Flat People

     A constant topic of conversation and debate in every milieu of writing that I participate in, is the practice and merits of short-shorts or flash fiction. The online evolution of e-zines, blogs, internet journals, writing circles, and competitions, has grown the micro-story exercise into a free-standing genre (or so some think).  The benefits of this style are not to be ignored, but don’t be fooled into thinking that flash fiction is anything more than a warm-up to a much bigger craft.  Just because you have mastered a really good leg-stretch doesn’t mean you qualify as a marathon runner.
     A few years ago (not that I am THAT old -- okay, so maybe I am, just shut up!), it was common practice to assign and be assigned exercises like: Give me a three hundred word introduction to a story and make me want to read more; Give me a list of three to five minor conflicts and how they would relate to a story climax; Pick any two faces on the street and write a character background on both; or Write a short scenario of a crisis/conflict and give me three possible character responses and what might result from each.  These exercises (and there were perhaps a half dozen more) were designed to hone specific skills necessary for an accomplished writer; just like flash fiction, they are only practice exercises.
     I like reading short-shorts, it gives me tremendous insight into a writer’s style, voice, and talents. Yet, no matter how good their leg-stretch is, it doesn’t tell me if they are still going to be in the race at mile thirteen, let alone finish the whole twenty-six-and-a-half mile course.
     Writing takes time.  You should get out your Dymo label maker and put that across the top of your computer screen.  There are no shortcuts.  Once you get passed the ABC’s of fiction structure, a durable story requires a concept that is contemplated, reworked and polished, a locale that has length, breadth and topographic detail, characters that have personality, history, motives both conscious and subconscious, size, shape and bodily characteristics, and a storyline that involves multiple crises leading to a single climax and a denouement of growth.
     Yes, writing takes time and it does take work.  To put all of this into a personal context, I may take a week or more contemplating a story germ attempting to fully grasp what it is I want to say.  I am a literary moralist with a modernist leaning.  My fiction explores the consequences of actions and the lessons to be garnered from the climax of the tale.  I cannot, and will not, settle for a “Hehehe, we find out he did this, so she killed him.  The end.”  I have to figure out why he did it.  What led up to it?  Did he have a choice?  What was the impetus that drove the motivation and the psychological impact of his thought process?  And why did she decide to kill him?  Was there no other choice?  Did she consider the consequences?  Are there consequences?  How does she feel now?  What is the point?  What is there for the reader to take away, contemplate and learn? 
     I need to know where I am going to end, so that I can start my journey.

     That’s the easy part, once that is over, I start to do my research.  Where does this take place?  I get out maps; I look for places where my story would fit.  Different regions have different customs, idioms and viewpoints; the location of a story is critical.  Then I look back at my outline and decide what types of places are needed: rivers, lakes, shopping centers, office parks, highways, neighborhoods.  I study the map and get a feel for the area, sometimes I even keep the map open while I’m writing so I can see north, south, east and west.  To make a point, how many fantasy books have you read where the inside cover is a map of the author’s fantasy world?  You need to know where you are before you can lead the reader through your story.
     The next step in my writing process takes the longest time.  I now have the foundation to begin to create my characters.  I have to give them their names and begin to get to know them.  Where did they come from or grow up?  What kind of education, career, marriage, and/or children do they have?  Do they exhibit idiosyncratic anomalies, psychoses, phobias, fetishes or fantasies, and how might that play into their story and their potential actions and reactions.  What do these people look like?  What about favorite foods, drinks, hobbies, activities? 
     I know by now you are thinking I should be committed.  But I am committed, I am committed to writing as well as I can.  All of this background information cannot possibly fit into my story, but if I don’t know it, what if I need it?  I could just leave it out; leave a big gaping hole of credibility.  I could wing it; fly by the seat of my pants; just “write from the gut” as someone recently told me, but then I’d have to keep track of the made up stuff to be sure it conforms with all the other made up stuff and that nothing contradicts something important I needed somewhere else.  Oy!  That’s too much work.  Give me the facts of my research any day.

    Finally, when I have all of this easy stuff done, I can get to work.  I open a file and write the ending to the story.  Yes, the end comes first.  I need to know where I’m going so I can go back to the beginning and get started.

     Writing takes time.  Flash fiction is fun.  It is a great creative outlet, but it is NOT a genre.  It is a practice exercise to sharpen your skills, and only one of many exercises.  Someday you need to stop stretching your legs and start running in the big race.  That doesn’t mean that between races that you should give up practicing; practice is always good.  Keep doing those leg-stretches, but after you’re done come on up and take your place on the starting line and I’ll see you about 26 ½ miles down the road.

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