by Phil Geusz
©2004 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
This article is the second in a series of five dealing with the Five 'C's of writing:
Conception, Composition, Critiquing, Completion and Commercialization
Composition is the part of the writing process that most people recognize as the act of "writing". It is during this phase that we author-types sit in front of a word-processor, or take pen in hand, and convert our ideas into real, actual words for the very first time. It takes many hours to compose a novel-length work, and non-writers tend to think there's something mystical or magical about the composition process. To an extent, I suppose there is. Personally, however, I tend to attribute most of the magic to the Conception phase of the project, when all the ideas are bright and pure and perfect. Composition is only magical insofar as you've left bits and pieces of dreaming to be done as you type. In fact, Composition is, for the most part, pure hard work.
It's always intimidating to sit down and look at a plain, unsullied screen or sheet of paper; this reaction is perfectly natural, and one never really gets over it. Understanding where a story really ought to begin isn't easy, and the age-old advice that one should "begin at the beginning" is often of no help at all. One key is to start with an improbable bit of action, or an interesting bit of dialogue that says something important about your character. This is called a 'narrative hook', and writing a good hook is perhaps the single most important skill a writer can learn. It's a way of painlessly immersing your reader into your imaginary world right from the very beginning, so that they willingly seek to know more. Perhaps the best narrative hook I ever heard in my life was uttered by a friend in my living room one evening, in the course of casual conversation. "You never really know how much change you have lying around in your car," he explained to me, "until you roll it over..."
Note how much the sentence above says, in so few words. Instantly the reader pictures a scene where a rather droll young man, with his wits fully present, is hanging upside down in his seatbelt, windshield smashed, looking at all the coins and other junk lying on the inside of his car's roof. From this point the situation could go almost anywhere, and given the nature of the character, it likely will. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a hook!
Another way to begin is to start with a quotation mark. My very favorite story beginning among my own works is that of a novel written from the perspective of a boy who was physically eleven but chronologically sixteen. "Aw, Mom!" were the opening words of the story, and I remain very proud of them. Why? Several reasons. First, I conveyed a lot about the character in just those two words. He is a child, who is protesting against something unpleasant in his life. Since this young man's protest against a terrible injustice done to him is one of the core themes of the work, I am doubly pleased. Second, these words are a very natural means to segue into a discussion that involves conflict, which is usually the most interesting kind. And third, I like to think that every single reader smiled when he or she read those two words, having heard them uttered so many times before. It is my hope that each and every one of them associated those words with the face of a small, cute, yet unhappy loved one. What better emotional bonding with a protagonist can an author ask for?
Once you've written your hook, you have to pay attention to the thousand rules of 'crafting', as one of my writing-friends calls it. Never use a word (other than things like "and" and "the") more than once in a paragraph. Show, don't tell. Try to avoid adverbs; they are not your friends. Write tight; don't include words that do nothing. Avoid digressions -- make sure that every event advances your plot in one way or another. And so forth. Each and every one of these rules deserves a whole column, if not a whole book, and several of these rules probably have had books written about them. Some of them have had columns written about them, too. By me, in fact. If you are interested, please check the TSAT back files for links.
In broad terms, pay attention to your craft as you type, and try to get as much right the first time as you can. But more importantly, keep right on going no matter what, even if you think you're making mistakes. They call it a rough draft for a reason; my own rough drafts are full of typos and especially missing words, an error which I seem to be particularly prone to. I also tend to type "you're" for "your" when composing rough draft, because I am concentrating very hard on many things other than proper word use. This is a particularly embarrassing error for me to make, since I do in fact know better. But I don't let the humiliation stop me. Nothing stops me when I'm composing, short of the house catching on fire.
It's normal and healthy for writers to think they are writing something terrible at this stage of the game; this is because all those beautiful, pure ideas you had during the Conception phase are meeting hard, cruel, imperfect reality. I often feel terribly disappointed with my work at this stage. Indeed, part of the reason I publicly post it is to draw encouragement from others when I'm at my lowest!
A lot of writers talk about needing highly specific conditions in order to work; I can recall one famous artist who believed that he could not function without an apple rotting in his upper-left-hand desk drawer, while a famous German industrialist had his office vented from the stables because he was convinced that the odor of horse manure was a stimulant to creativity. All I can say is, if you need music, play it. If you need silence (as I sometimes do), wear earplugs. If you need horse droppings or rotting apples, hey! Go for it! Make sure that your seat is comfortable, that your monitor is adjusted just right; take care of everything ahead of time. Don't give yourself any excuse whatsoever to stop and take a little break, because once you do it that first time it's very, very tempting to take another, then another, and another until you're no longer writing at all.
In order to gain mastery of the craft, one requirement is that you write enough words in a short enough period of time to facilitate learning. This is not to say that you need to write an entire novel at one sitting; far from it! I try to crank out one to two thousand words a day, five to six days a week, while 'noveling'. However, the minute my output drops to four days a week, all sorts of alarm bells go off and I'll miss sleep or make any other sacrifices necessary in order to do a double-part and make the loss up. Once I had to undergo minor sinus surgery in the middle of writing a novel. For three full days, I was physically unable to write. I made the work up immediately, however, dripping so much blood onto the keyboard in the process that I ruined it and had to buy another. Don't let anything stop you once the words begin to flow, not anything at all. If those one or two thousand words a day do not become the single highest priority in your life, then you are very likely to fail before you've really begun.
Some authors like to post their rough drafts to mailing and/or critique lists on a day-by-day basis; others feel that only complete and highly polished final works ought to be posted. I am of the former school of thought. However, there's much to be said for both positions, and I think it's largely a matter of personal preference. In any event, I believe that it's impossible for anyone to mature as a writer without active reader interaction in some form or another. This phase of the writing process is called "Critiquing", which is scheduled to be the subject of my next column.
My heavens, what a convenient place to stop! You'd think I planned it this way, or something...