Wednesday

Your Writing: Stop! Assess! 911!

By Christine Stewart


Eighteen years ago, when I lived in LA, my best friend and roommate took a new kind of defense class for women. The kind with the man padded so thickly that he looked like the Michelin Man with a PacMan head.


Or, as I thought of the men, an inflated Gort head (for the The Day The Earth Stood Still enthusiast).

Julie would come home and alternately practice on me and show me some of the moves (after we lay down some pillows of course!). The first night, the instructor had taught them a mantra to keep the women focused on the process they were learning. It was: "Stop! Assess! 911!" You can imagine how often we leaped out from around corners and behind doors, yelling this and scaring the crap out of each other. Months.

A few years ago, I created a handout that I started requiring my students to fill out, one that gave them an opportunity to similarly engage with their writing before it and they fell victim to ambivalence, inertia, or fear.

Too often writers move from the writing process to the revision process without taking the necessary time to examine what they've written and honestly and objectively (as one can be) evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.
Too often I asked someone in my class why they'd written something the way they had - what choices had they made and how was it working or not working? and would receive a blank stare in response. "That's how it came out," was sometimes the reply.

I agree that, when you are first writing something you should definitely just let it out and not try to edit it along the way. You might stifle a vital impulse! It's thrilling to ride the creative wave and see where we end up. That's why we love writing. When it's on, when we're on, it's a great high.

BUT, once it's down on paper and you've spent some time away from it (at least a week in my opinion, a month if you can manage it), you should read through the piece and be able to pick up on the clues its format, tone, length, images, etc. are giving you about what it wants to be.

You should be able to explain your choices and make a case for them.

AND you should be able to pick out your bad habits (tired metaphors, words we repeatedly use, characters or story lines we are recycling, weak dialogue) and where we are playing it safe. The shortcuts we all take rather than dig deeply from the creative well or challenge ourselves to take a risk either in character, plot, or style.

Only then should you begin the revision process. Otherwise you are blindly slashing your way through possibly good material, and/or accepting the mediocre aspects of your writing. Neither will get you published.

The revision process is your chance to make a leap of faith. To make smart, thoughtful choices about the elements of your piece.

The writing will not be stifled or suffocated. There is still plenty of room for the unknown and unexpected to take hold. Once you start evaluating and examining the piece, you'll be amazed at what new ideas and associations come. Often so many you can barely keep up!

I offer you the handout, with the exciting title of PROSE WORKSHEET. Hopefully that's innocuous enough not to strike panic in even the weakest creative soul. May it lead you to the Promised Land.


PROSE WORKSHEET

Use this to organize your thoughts after the writing of a prose piece, whether fiction or nonfiction. The questions seem easy but they are not. Don't rush through them!

Yes, a story is a feeling or idea that takes you over so you have to write it, but that’s no excuse for lack of organization and structure during the revision process!

WHO IS MY MAIN CHARACTER? (Name, age, description, job, family etc. the basics, plus some of the abstracts: "a recovering shoplifter who is afraid of water, an amazing cook, who has just started online dating"). Write a juicy bio here.

WHAT DOES HE/SHE WANT? (Goal or goals)

WILL HE/SHE GET IT? WHETHER ANSWER IS YES OR NO, ANSWER ‘WHY?’ (Why does he/she deserve it? What will it do for him/her? How will that resolve the story or not? What does it prove, change, how does he/she grow or not grow? Are there larger implications?)

WHAT WILL GET IN HIS/HER WAY? MEANING – WHAT IS THE CONFLICT? WHAT OBSTACLES ARISE?

WHO WILL GET IN HIS/HER WAY? (You may include him/her as well – we often get in our own way).

WHAT ARE HIS/HER STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES AND HOW DO THESE FACTOR INTO THE PIECE? (Include other quirks, fears, dreams, embarrassing moments, successes, beliefs, memories, traumas – these things can come back up and further or obstruct the plot, and also be a means of showing us more about the character, and/or be part of their arc/development).

WHAT IS MY SETTING? (include where character lives (city and home itself), job, family, friends, things like that).

CAN I PICK OUT ANY USELESS HABITS OR REPETITIONS IN MY WRITING? SOMETHING I WANT TO STOP DOING?

AM I USING ACTIVE VOICE, JUICY VERBS, REALISTIC DIALOGUE, ENOUGH DESCRIPTION?

RANDOM THOUGHTS/ASSOCIATIONS THAT AROSE AS I FILLED OUT THIS SHEET:

ANY CRAZY IDEAS? (List and consider them.)

ANYTHING I'VE CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT?

Chris Stewart is program director for literary arts with the Maryland State Arts Council. To follow her work, check out her Sense and Sensibility inspired blog Embarking On A Course of Study and join her The Real Writer Fan Page to take part in the next NAKED Write In!
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