Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Writing the Onion

One of the hardest questions I get about my writing seems like it should be the simplest:
"What's the story about?"
For most of my stories, they start out being about a certain topic, but as I get farther into them, they grow layers, like an onion. Each layer is distinct, but makes up the whole. The surface layer is about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, or a girl falling in love. That's where the idea starts. It is usually that initial idea that introduces me to my characters. What gives them depth and hooks me to them is the layers that come later.

Sometimes I have no idea what those layers are when I sit to write. It is better to have something to work with later, than to have a bunch of ideas stuck in my head, so often I allow myself to get it out as it comes, even when I am not certain where it is going. This sounds like an easy, fluid task, but it's not. I have to constantly remind myself not to stop the flow to spot-check, or worry about timelines, but to let it come out as it needs to. I want it all to make sense, but it doesn't come to me that logically. To combat the feeling that the work might be lost, I create a Parking Lot folder. This is where I park scenes, ideas, conversations between characters, etc. that I haven't decided how they fit within the story, or am not sure how they move the plot along.

These parked items are valuable to flush out because they help me better understand the story, familiarize myself with the characters, try different elements of storytelling, and decide where I want the plot to go. It's a safe place for me to put those ideas that I can go back to as needed. The more layers that develop, the less I park. As the story takes on more elements, the original question becomes more complex. It's no longer just about a boy trying to fit in at a new school, it is also about how migrant families transformed a community. It is a relationship story between a boy and the older brother he idolizes. It exposes mental health issues as they relate to parents adjusting to as many changes as their children, even when the story is written from the child's perspective. It is about a girl mourning the loss of her father, longing for love. It is about a daughter scared her mother isn't strong enough to survive life without her soulmate. The story is more about two flawed people becoming stronger and healing together, than about a girl liking a boy.

Many of those layers start as seeds that end up in the parking lot. Some layers come about from writing out the story. Other times I stop writing and make lists, journal entries, or interview a character. Those parked items then morph into scenes and lead to major revisions. They have led me to omit or replace characters, change the setting and turn plot points that weren't immediately clear when I started the story.

This is the care that goes into the creative process. It doesn't look like in the movies where the writer writes furiously with a burst of inspiration that fits perfectly into the story. Often it is slow. I write and write for a few glorious minutes, and then I hit a wall. I read what I wrote. Sometimes with a smile, sometimes with disdain or confusion. Sometimes taking a few moments to read it and ponder whether it stays or gets parked sparks another idea and I go with it. Other times, I remain stuck. It's a maddening process that takes longer than I ever imagine when I start with that one idea. But, when I hit that sweet spot where I know my characters and they do as they need to advance and twist the plot, it becomes as exciting as watching magic. That's when I want someone to ask me, "So, what's the story about?" and I can say, "Do you have a few minutes? Let me tell you all that it's become!"

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