Think You’re Finished? Take That Extra Step

Last weekend, I attended a conference called “Compose” at Clackamas Community College near Portland Oregon. Unlike so many conferences these days, we did not talk about marketing, pitching, platforms or publishing. It was all about writing, and I learned something very important. I learned to try again.

In a flash fiction class taught by Samuel Snoek-Brown, we read some super short stories, then wrote our own. Then we wrote them again. And again. Each time, we were instructed to look for the moment, the epiphany at the heart of our story arc. Even though we were trying to write as short as possible, we needed a scene, a character, and something happening. We needed sensory details. In our second pass, we were to add whatever was missing and subtract whatever was not essential. In flash fiction, which can range from a few words to 1,000 words, much is left to the reader to figure out. There isn’t room to spell everything out. Finally we were asked to write one essential sentence that told our story. That one sentence was so rich because we could not waste a single word..

My next class was memoir, taught by Jay Ponteri, whom I had met last fall when he was one of our guest authors at the Nye Beach Writers series. He’s a dynamic writer but just as impressive as a teacher. With a two-word prompt, “laundry basket,” we filled pages with memories and story possibilities. But here’s the thing. We divided our pages in half. On one side, we wrote what the prompt first brought to mind. On the other side, we jotted down other ideas that came up in the process. Then we took a new page and wrote about those other ideas, starting a new column with what came into our minds next. People came up with wonderful stories, all different. In many cases the original prompt disappeared and the story became about something else. The writers were able to find it because they went beyond that first idea. They let their minds wander past the laundry basket to what else it made them think about and took the time to explore wherever it led.

So often we feel like once we’ve written something, we can’t change it, we’re stuck with what we have. Or we’re anxious to send it out, so we hit save and send and move on to the next piece. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can try again. We can dump all but the one gold nugget that we find and go where it leads us, to the gold mine

Of course it helps to be in a classroom with nothing to distract you, no kids, jobs, cell phones, chores, or Facebook. Look for opportunities for undistracted writing in classes, writing groups, or whatever. Leave your desk and go where all you have to do is write. Then try it again. And again. Don’t think about marketing or publishing. Just think about getting to the heart of the story. If it takes 1,000 or 10,000 words to find that perfect 100 words, so be it.

Now let’s go write.

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Sometimes you just have to go there

In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.

Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.

I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.

Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.

My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit  the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.

And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.

So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.