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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 17: Story Process

How do we begin to make a story? It seems to me that there are lots of “ways in” to the process, and each writer needs to find the one that works for her or him. Most likely, you already have a process that you like to use. And you have probably found, as I have, that not every story is born and grows in exactly the same way.

So rather than setting out specific steps to follow every time you want to write a story, let me offer you some tools.

1. Receptivity. I have learned that being open to story materials and ideas allows them to come to me more easily. Many writers have been quoted as saying that they just sit at their desks, day after day, waiting for ideas to arrive.

2. Collecting for ideas. On the other hand, sometimes waiting doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. That’s when I turn to freewriting or some other writing practice to get my writer’s mind going. You can also use any of the collecting practices we’ve done so far to help you get ideas stories.

3. Collecting for materials. I find that, once I’ve got a glimmer of an idea for a story, the best thing to do is to collect, in writing, whatever comes to me about it now. That might be some notes; it might be a few paragraphs or even pages. This tool is sometimes known as “pre-writing”: it gives you a chance to get ideas and material down on the page so you won’t lose them and so your writer’s mind can start mulling them over.

4. Simmering. Many writers like to let their material “simmer” for a while before they begin to write the story. Ursula Le Guin is one of them; she says that when the story is ready to be written, it tells her.

The process of collecting material and letting it simmer helps you avoid one of the traps inexperienced writers often fall into. If you just sit down to write a draft, you may forget that the first thing you thought of about the story is not necessarily where the story itself begins. In other words, don’t confuse your process of writing the story with the unfolding of the story itself.

5. Planning. To plan, or not to plan; that is the question. Some writers can’t work without an outline. (I’ve read that Faulkner outlined his novels on the walls of his house.) Other writers (Stephen King, for instance) don’t outline at all. King says (in On Writing ) that he sits down to write with nothing more than a situation and some characters in mind and lets the story unfold from there. It may be that the trick here is not to decide whether you are a planner or not, but to have some planning tools available and be able to decide, at any given moment in your process of writing a story, whether you want to use them. There’s no reason you have to plan out your entire story in advance, unless you want to, just as there’s no reason you can’t make use of an outline after you’ve already written part of the story.

Writers differ in their approach to making stories. Some need to know how the story ends before they can begin to write. Others prefer to start with one or more characters in a situation, and then just let the story unfold.

What is your approach to making stories? Do you like to plan out all the events in advance, or just let things happen? Perhaps some of both?

One way to define story is as a connected series of happenings. If you want to carefully plan out the happenings in a story, here’s one way to do it:
1. Pick one of your story ideas. Then, keeping your pen moving as best you can, list all of the events—all of the things that happen—in the story. Write a short sentence for each one; use the present tense, for now. You don’t have to put them in order yet, and don’t worry about your word choice. Write each event on a new line. Skip a line between each event. If you have a variety of ideas about what events should go into your story, try different versions.
How did this go? What did you notice or learn here?
2. Now read through your list of events and choose the ones you want to include. Do you have too many events? Too few?
How did this go?
3. Now put these events in an order that makes sense to you.
If you like, write the story.

Take all the material you have collected for your story. Imagine how the story will end. Where will your character(s) be then? How is the place or state your characters are in at the end of the story different from where they were at the beginning?(Are they in a new place physically? Materially? Emotionally? Socially?). What has to happen in the story for them to get to this new place? Now make an outline of your story, summarizing where they are at the beginning and where they are at the end; list, in order, all of the event that happen in the story, from beginning to end. You may prefer to do this in your imagination first, then make your outline.

What did you notice in doing this practice?

Here is an alternative to making a plan for your story:
1. Take one of your story ideas and all the material you’ve collected for this story.
2. Choose one or more characters and put them in a opening situation.
3. What happens next? Either a character acts or something happens.
4. Now the character is in a new situation. How does he or she respond to that situation?
5. What happens next?
5. Continue this movement forward from situation, to happening or response, to new situation, and so on. Is the story finding its path? Where does it end?
What do you notice about writing a story in this way?

Which of these approaches do you prefer? Make any notes to yourself that seem helpful about your process.

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