Clear your throat – then write
My guest today is Meredith Lopez who shares with us her first encounter with getting those words on the page. It isn’t always the wonderful experience we imagine it will be. Over to you, Meredith.
The first time I sat down to write my novel I pounded out a first chapter in about an hour. This was going to be Epic, with a capital E. Mine would change the face of urban fantasy forever. Maybe even get made into a movie! After hours of researching the historical time period and crafting a simple outline, I felt ready to finally – FINALLY! – bring my characters to life on the page. I let the words flow through my fingertips, as if prose were air and my fingers lungs. My characters whispered into my ear and I dutifully transcribed the scene, the richness and fullness of the settings, the smell, taste and feel of the world around them, the world I had created.
Satisfied, nay, smug, I emailed my chapter off to my writing mentor, sat back, and awaited the hot, gushing praise she would surely heap upon my masterpiece.
She wrote back, “Great, you’ve cleared your throat. Now get writing.”
You know that scene in “Amelie” where she is so devastated she turns into water and melts into a puddle? Well, you could have mopped me off the floor.
Back in college I had a Dramatic Literature professor who was kind of full of himself, but we all forgave him for it because he was also kind of brilliant. Sure, sometimes we had no idea what he was trying to teach us, but we knew whatever he said was important. Of course, years later I’ve forgotten most of his “brilliance,” but one thing stuck with me: when writing papers, he said, do not go with our “Aha!” moments. He did not mean, do not let inspiration guide us, but rather, when inspiration strikes, don’t simply regurgitate it onto a paper and hand it in.
In other words, do not let your first idea be your only idea. If you have an “Aha!” moment, write it down, then think on it for a while. What else could work here? Does this idea lead to others? Can it be fleshed out, made whole?
My professor did not want half-baked musings. He wanted well-developed theories with cohesive, backed up logic. He wanted to be lead on a journey of discovery, rather than handed some undergrad’s fleeting moment of insight.
As a writer, that has stuck with me. The difference in my work between those written from “Aha!” moments, and those written as fully developed stories is staggering: I have several short stories that will never see the light of day because they were written based on a turn of phrase that came to me, or an anecdote I tried to mold into a story. I’m sure most writers can relate to the well-meaning friends and family who point to every clever anecdote and say, “Wouldn’t that make a great story?” Well, no, but it might inspire a good scene in a story. If writing were that easy – you take an idea, put it to paper, and voila, you are a published billionaire – everyone would do it.
My writing mentor turned out to be correct. That first chapter was terrible. For all my hours and days of research and plotting, I hadn’t come up with more than two characters in a room, talking. I had a set-up; what I lacked was the follow-through. No amount of preparation could turn my simple idea into a compelling story that would immerse my readers in the world I had in my head. Only I could do that, but it would take more than a few trips to the library and a simple plot outline to accomplish that. I had to really get to know my characters: who they were, where they came from, what their desires and hopes and fears were. I had to create a world with rules and laws and force my characters to obey. I had to learn how to plot a novel with enough action and suspense to keep the story moving forward without white-knuckling the pace. I had to invent subplots, and supporting characters, and red herrings, and surprises. I had to be sure of payoffs by the end, remember to fire every gun left on the mantle in chapter 1. And all of that had to come after I cleared my throat of my basic idea, got over myself, and sat down to focus on the journey of discovery I wanted to write.
Once you clear your throat, you are ready to say what you need to say. Get rid of all your false starts and flashes of “What if?”s. Take your inspiration but don’t stop there: follow it deep down, as far as you can go, past your comfort zone and into the sweet spot of creativity where ideas turn into tales, where moments become worlds, where “Aha!” becomes “Oh, WOW!”
Meredith Lopez is a stay-at-home writer and mother. In addition to reviewing budget wines for Moms Who Need Wine she drinks and complains over at her blog, Grey Skies, and has a historical urban fantasy novel-in-progress. Meredith was born and raised in Miami, and now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY with her husband and their son, the Juban Princeling.
You can catch my wine-ing here: http://www.momswhoneedwine.com/author/meredith
And keep up with my whine-ing here: http://greyskiesnyc.blogspot.com