Last night I attended a workshop by Eric Witchey, a prolific writer who has just sold his 70th short story. He says he has at least 50 out to market at all times. Impressive. How does he do it? He has a system of assigning himself prompts and craft techniques to work on every morning. After 15 minutes, if he can envision the end of the story, he keeps writing.
Our lesson was full of acronyms. You have the ABCs: Agenda, Back Story, Conflict and Setting. Then there’s ED ACE: emotion, decision, action, conflict, and emotion. You take these and go round and round until a story is formed. We started with a white board listing possible occupations for characters, then back stories, conflicts, and relationships that could develop from those occupations. This totally works. A story formed very quickly.
Witchey, who has won many prizes for his work, often writes for The Writer and Writer’s Digest, and has taught more classes than he can count, knows what he’s talking about. Visit his website for links to his articles and other information. He preaches that, after a while, these things become natural and you start to think in story structure. You write, a story develops, and then you can massage it to make sure all the elements of a good story are present. Maybe the conflict needs to be more intense. Perhaps we haven’t prepared the reader for the way the protagonist acts at the climax. Maybe the setting isn’t clear. But the basic story is there.
While Witchey uses his prompts and acronyms to get started, he doesn’t plot out the whole story before he writes. Some writers map it all out on a graph or cards in much the same way that people write plays. Here are the characters, here are the scenes, here are the major plot points. Then they fill in the blanks.
For me, if I know everything before I write, the story loses its energy, like a Coke that has lost its fizz. I just put down a sentence and follow it with another and see what happens. At some point, especially in a novel or a long story, I stop and take stock. What’s going on here? Where am I heading? What other scenes do I need to write to get there? Maybe, in a backwards, informal way, that process is my way of creating the structure and planning the story.
We have all heard of writers who do it all intuitively. They write as if they’re taking dictation. God or their characters tell them what to type. That doesn’t quite work for me. I can hear God saying, Think of something, and characters can’t talk to me if I haven’t created them. It’s like when I go on a road trip, I don’t like to plan my stops, but I do have to put gas in the car, pack a bag and bring my maps so I don’t get lost.
With fiction and poetry, I just start writing and see where it goes. With articles, I plan. I gather my materials, make sure I have the answers to all of my questions, jot down a loose outline, mark up my notes to match the outline, lay them out all around my desk, and start to write. After many years writing newspaper and magazine articles, the only difficult part is writing the lead, the first paragraph. After that, it flows naturally because my brain is programmed in article structure.
How about you? Are you an intuitive writer or a planner? What is your process when you are about to write something?