If you haven’t read the first part of this series, I would suggest doing so. Although you can read this segment by itself, it was intended to build upon the thoughts discussed in Part 1. On that note, allow me to remind you that crafting, as I define it, is the continual process of using every resource and skill you have to grow and shape a satisfying story.
I chose the word grow intentionally, because crafting a story is like growing a plant. That spark of an idea for a story is your seed; it contains every potential of your idea, where it could go, what characters or worlds you could have. You plant that idea, water it, let it take root in your mind until the first few words break through the surface of the paper. Those words are precious and must be cared for. They must be given just the right amount of water and sunlight in order for them to keep coming and become a fully mature plant.
But as your story takes shape, your work never stops. If you let the plant go “wherever it wants to go” you will get an overgrown, silly looking, uncombed bedhead of a bush. You need to prune it. Regularly. But how do you begin to prune a story? Here are some tips that should help you get started.
First, you must have the words written before you can craft. Pruning has its time, and no gardener would prune a seedling because that would stunt the plant’s growth. And yet, sometimes when we write, we do that exact thing and wonder why the story still isn’t finished. I speak from experience. I rewrote the same twenty-five to fifty pages of a story multiple times, without seeing it through to the end. That eight-year-old idea is still suffering from those early prune sessions.
Find a writing buddy to comment on what you have written. It doesn’t have to be a writer, but I’ve found it helps because writers typically know how to give the kind of feedback that is useful. Writer or no, the important thing is that this person respects you, truly wants the best for your piece, and isn’t afraid to honestly comment on the story and how it works as a story. It has to be someone you trust.
Now, let me emphasize this next point. When this person gives your story back to you, you need to listen to what she tells you. If you trust this person, and you know she respects you and wants the best for your piece, then if she points out something, you need to shut down the defensive part of you and seriously think about it. Trust that if something bothered this person, then it needs to be addressed, even if you don’t always address it the way she suggests.
Read a chapter or two at a time before you craft them. It helps if you markup the chapters first, pointing out problem areas, keeping in mind how the rest of the story goes and making sure it all makes sense and flows cohesively as a story. Don’t do this to your only copy, in case you accidentally delete or write over something you actually wanted to keep. Use a separate, copied version to markup and edit. If your writing buddy has commented on your work, you could work off of their copy (assuming they commented electronically). If you really want to see your progress as a writer, save a draft each time you do this.
Read your story out loud. Or even better, get your writing buddy to help you read it out loud (including dialogue). Or if you have two writing buddies, have them read and just listen to the words. Don’t be afraid to stop them and edit the piece right then, or just circle parts that sounded weird or seemed stilted; this is a good way to catch redundancies that you might otherwise miss. Read the part you rewrote, and then read whole sections at a time without stopping.
Pay particular attention to the dialogue when reading. This is why I recommend using a buddy. You know how the character is supposed to sound. But others only go off of your words. The way someone else reads your dialogue will often show you that the inflections you intended to get across aren’t clear enough the way you have them.
Craft in order. I would personally also recommend writing in order, but I know some people can’t or don’t do that. But if you craft in order, it will give you a better sense of where the characters actually are at that point. When something major changes in chapter three, you can weave that change into future chapters much more easily than if you started with chapter twenty-four.
Craft every day. Or at least five days a week. Most people work five days a week; you should find a way to give at least that many days a week to your story. Even if you only re-read the chapter you’re working on, or make some more comments, or do research, or draft a new scene, anything small is better than nothing.
Set a weekly goal. Stretch yourself just a little bit; if you set a goal and think “yeah, I can totally do that” then I would say you’re not reaching high enough. Set a goal that is slightly uncomfortable for you because it will force you to be alert and to snatch up every opportunity to craft. And don’t get discouraged when one week is burdensome and you didn’t quite make your goal (that was this week for me, though technically the week isn’t over yet).
Know your weaknesses. By this point in my writing, I am keenly aware of my weaknesses, the tricks I use to get words on the page. I overthink my metaphors and spend hours coming up with something that ends up bogging down the entire scene, trying to force poetry when I should stick with simplicity. I also use cliché metaphors. The names I come up with for places are horrible 96.7% of the time; I often put Name Here in a fully constructed sentence, so that I can keep going with the scene. (I must admit that my initial title of this series was cliché and horrible.)
My initial fighting sequences are terrible. I get tunnel vision, often feeling like I have to work with the ideas and characters that are already there instead of seeing the option of creating entirely new ideas and characters. In a way, it’s like I use a cliché for an entire scene, setting, character, reaction, etc. I see what I want to see and don’t naturally open my mind to the possibilities. And my characters sigh, shrug, and are silent for a moment more than anyone in real life.
The point is, I know about these weaknesses. So I already have a place to start when I begin to craft. I also have writing buddies who know my weaknesses too and won’t let me get away with them. Don’t hide your weaknesses. Learn them, seek them out, and make them strengths.
These are some of the starting points for crafting. They are broad for a reason, so that anyone can use them with any story. If you don’t already have a story that’s finished, then get writing. And save these tips for when you do get there. If you do have a story that’s written, then start applying these. Don’t worry, I will have more to say on this topic for a while yet.
By Tracy Buckler
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credtis in order of appearance: Salvatore Vuono, Master isolated images, pakorn.