We say we work better under pressure… but do we? Let’s talk deadlines and how we work and write in a crunch. In July I did twelve 1500 word short stories under the notion of "It's the summer; I won't have anything else to do." Wow--bad idea. It was definitely too much. The only way the stories didn’t suffer was by locking myself away and working every waking minute. But it was a learning experience for sure.
Each story was a stand-alone piece. I created fresh characters with new names and no overlapping communities. It was a struggle to do it 12 times in a row. Here are some observations:
- Plot: I build my storyline around the theme I’m trying to push. This is the hardest part for me—trying to come up with realistic but resolvable conflict. I will usually do this in stages. Day 1 – throw out a few possibilities. The next day I’ll come back and add to it or strike what doesn’t work after reflection. I’ll do this a few times.
- Characters: Once I know the basic plot, I’ll imagine the characters. Ideally I like to have a set of notes on each character with his or her bio. Besides the basics, I look for something unique about them. Meryl Streep once said every time she is in a movie, she does close readings of the text and figures out a secret about the character that she never tells anyone. I try to do the same as a writer. Also, Kent once told me that characters who have seeming contradictions are more believable, so I’ll have fun with that and maybe have a skyscraper window washer who’s secretly afraid of heights. I have never had to base my characters on people I know, though some writers do. I generate them based on what I need them to do in the story, and they always take on an identity all their own. This is my favorite part; they become real to me.
- Naming characters: I start by keeping a running list of character names, and again, I try to use names of strangers or people I only distantly know (writer’s fear of betraying the inner circle, I guess). Then when it’s time to start a story, I first think of the demographic of each main character and then try to match up a name that rings true.
- Place: I argue that Southern writers always emphasize setting because we are obsessed with homeland and history, so it becomes one of the first things we do to ground a tale. I do this. I pick mountains/coast/rural/metro/etc. based on the action happening in the story. That sense of place plays out in the details of the narration and the dialogue between characters.
A Crash Course
So did my project work? Did I make deadline? Well, yes, I made deadline, and yes, I feel that the stories were fine (so hard for me to judge my own work). But now that it’s over…. I realize that:
#1 - When writing multiple projects under deadline, it’s hard not to give in to the pressure of wrapping the story up too neatly. Lesson learned: take as much time as it takes to battle out the details and figure out the truest conclusion, even if it means days of debating and talking out the scenario with friends and family to get the most realistic resolve to the conflict—happy ending or not.
#2 - Keeping stories separate can be tough. Because I write by theme, I always have a pretty clear sense of one from another, but it’s still hard to balance time between them without getting your brain locked in one. I had an assembly line process. I would work on no more than 3 stories at a time. At any given time during the three weeks of writing, it looked like this:
Story C – Revising… Story has been written, the content is the way I want it, and I’m on any of my 3 re-reads to double-check it against itself.
Story B – Drafting… This can be at various stages, but it means that at least something is on my laptop and I will keep adding until I feel the story is told. It should just be a matter of fleshing out the handwritten parts, but I may still battle out plot details to meet word count and fix any holes I discover.
Story A – Planning… I’m not to the point of typing anything yet, but I have pages of notes. I like to work out a blueprint by hand before I start typing. While the storyline may change, I like to have the plot completely mapped out before I start writing. Then even before I start typing, I write out the key passages of dialogue by hand because not having a delete key keeps me from switching to editor mode plus being much slower at writing than typing forces me to slow down and think through dialogue and plot details more carefully.
When Kent suggested I share my July experiment, I wasn’t sure there’d be much to talk about. The world’s longest blog later, I notice I learned a lot more than I realized. This just all goes to show, while it’s great that we study techniques and discuss them in forums like this, there’s really no substitute for locking yourself away and hammering out a story, especially when your hand’s forced with a deadline.