Have you ever walked into an electronics store and had a salesman approach and start to pitch the hot deal of the day? I’ve had it happen more than once. It might be a great deal on the latest flat panel TV. Maybe it’s a deep discount on a HD Kindle or an iPhone. But regardless of what the pitch is for there’s something inherently flawed with such an approach. That is, the salesperson hasn’t bothered to ask what you’re looking for; more specifically, what you’re trying to accomplish. Without both of you knowing that there’s likely to be a lot of confusion surrounding your visit.
The same thing applies to bringing ideas to life with words. Some ideas come complete with passion, purpose and the ideal format built right in. Those are easy to write. Some writers will tell you they write themselves. We don’t even have to consciously think of what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s obvious. Others aren’t so cut and dried. It’s those squirmy little buggers I want to talk about in this piece.
I feel lucky to be able to say that it’s rare for me to be indecisive about almost any writing. I believe there’s a reason for that. Years ago I attended a 10-day training course to learn hypnosis and other personal development techniques. I remember being impressed with the two instructors though there didn’t seem to be a lot of structure driving the curriculum. I asked one of these guys how he prepared to give a class. The answer remains vivid in my mind and in my life today, more than a decade later.
He told me that just minutes before starting the class he meditates briefly on what he wants his students to take away from the course. He goes over the various points in his head and simply envisions the class 10 days in the future with all the new wisdom and techniques. I thought he was joking and told him so. He laughed and insisted that was all he did to prepare for the class. He said he didn’t want to use a rigid plan or schedule because each class takes on a personality of its own and that he intuitively knew what to teach based on feelings.
I thought a lot about that and eventually tried it with my writing. The process goes something like this for me: I get an idea. I walk around for a few days or weeks or even months with the idea just thinking of possibilities. Sometimes I make notes and other times I don’t. It’s during this time that I decide who the story is for and what I want the reader to come away with. I don’t make outlines and I don’t plan. And when the time is right I know it’s time to get my butt in the writing seat and get busy.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call it work because that’s when the magic starts. At this point I have ideas for characters but really only a vague idea of what they’ll be like. I know I want them to do certain critical things to advance the story but sometimes they let me know of a better way. Yep. They actually come to life and talk to me. And they’re always right. I’ve had stories develop where the person I thought would be the main character turned out to be a secondary player. You just never know that these people are going to do.
For years I kept this methodology (if you can call it that) a secret. That is, until I read Stephen King’s On Writing. I was flabbergasted (and relieved) to discover his writing strategy was quite similar. I thought the majority of writers out there of both fiction and nonfiction plotted and outlined and wrote to some sort of formal agenda. I was relieved to discover that many don’t. I guess it took a big name guy like King to set me straight. Whatever. It works.
One other thing. For shorter pieces, like this one for example, I go through the process my hypnosis instructor described so many years ago, though I don’t feel it’s meditation as much as it is prayer. Those words are synonymous so I guess it doesn’t matter what we call it. Decide what you want the reader to come away with and who your primary audience is and then just let it go. You’ll be amazed at how spontaneous and better your writing becomes.