One of my few strengths as a writer is dialogue. I rarely use an outline or definitive plan. Instead I focus on knowing the characters, watching them move and interact. Most important of all is knowing what their motivation is for the scene (why they there and what they want) as well as their background and relationship with the other(s).
I spend a great deal of time in thinking about how the scene starts, the exact lines and scene, and keep that moment in my head. It is almost like a moving snapshot – a gif as it were – that goes around and around, anxious to get out of the loop. And then I let them go and do what they want. At that point, it’s just a question of keeping up with what they say, basically transcribing as they go. They can get stuck, repeat themselves and run down blind alleys. It’s all a matter of trying to keep them on track.
The trick is to move ahead for as long as their voice stay strong. And when the momentum is gone, to step back a little and start again, like getting a car out of the muck, rock it back and forth until it’s back on track. Once the scene is done, it needs to be run through again a couple more times. Time is needed after that, a few days to do a proper edit, focusing on the structure and repetitions and that oh-so-impossible satisfying arc.
I am deep into this blog now (eight years and 1,250 posts) and so this is as good a time as any to finally take a swing at that. What is this blog? Why am I doing this? My writing process! Let’s see if I can narrow that down to a few tips.
ONE: Your process is a personal thing. You can’t just do what people tell you to do. You have to figure out your own process. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond Series, wrote every morning and then went for a swim. Woody Allen writes longhand. I text myself notes on the fire escape.
It can take forever because I am all thumbs (literally) and the typos and formatting are an issue, but I feels like it works. (That said, whatever you do, don’t email yourself notes from the same account as that confuses Gmail, which then labels all of your emails to yourself as junk.) You just have to figure out routine works best for you.
TWO: Maintain a work ethic. Like my father always said, “Life is work. If you don’t like work, then you’re going to have a tough time in this life.” Writing doesn’t happen by osmosis. You have to do the work. There is just no getting around that.
THREE: Watch what goes on around you in life. Look at the details – how people move their hands, how they walk and scroll, how they look back at you – and write it down. The best characters (read: biggest fuck-ups) are right in front of you.
The only problem is that people are all boring as hell in the end and you’ll have to clean that up – in other words, make it fiction.
FOUR: Move around. Do something. Get outside. A moving brain is a thinking brain. Go for a walk. Take a hike. Go jump in the lake. (More advice from my father.)
The more you move, the more your brain gets going. It’s called kinetic thinking. This is especially important when you’re stuck in the story. When you start to move around and think about that – the moving that is – the narrative solutions tend to pop into your head.
FIVE: Write what you know. Write the exact thing that is in your head. Write it. Name the names. Name the jerks you know. Describe them exactly as they are.
Don’t worry about what anyone might think. Not your partner, not your mother, not your kid, not even you. Nobody. That’s the prime stuff, the lunacy of people. Let yourself go nuts on that. That’s where everything is to be found.
SIX: Review and edit. And then edit it again. And when you’re done that, you guessed it. Edit again! Maybe then you might be ready for an editor.
SEVEN: Do the research, whatever is needed. Read up on the backgrounds of everything that you can. Visit the places. Do it for anything that comes up, the park that’s outside the building, the people walking past, the plane overhead. Read about whatever it is.
The most fulfilling reading will always be non-fiction – even if it is fiction. Biographies, the most fictitious of all, are the most revealing. Tales of exploration too. Those are the fullest.
EIGHT: Don’t listen to any of the experts. Screw them all. They are writing about it because they don’t know any better. Like me. Forget about the plot points. Disregard character arcs. There is no structure to any of this. Let your story unfold as it is. Let the characters live their lives.