What’s Your Process? Fiction Readers Respond

07 October 2020 on Blog, Storystorm  

One of my favorite parts of an MFA program is getting to know other writers on a more nuanced level--beyond interpersonal interactions or their work alone. I get to know peers’ styles, content and thematic trends, and to see how they look at the world, in glimpses, through their work and through conversations inside and outside of classes. One of my favorite writing-related discussion topics is process: how do different writers generate and work with their material?

In the hopes that you find something that resonates, intrigues, or even confuses, I’ve asked some of our fiction readers to share a bit about their individual writing processes. I hope you enjoy reading what they had to say as much as I did.


Charlotte Gross, fiction editor emeritus: I do most of my writing while running. Long, mountainous routes are the best. Cross-country skiing works, too. I can live in my own mind for hours on the trail without feeling stuck. There's no expectant pressure of a page in front of me. Instead, I can play around with different possible scenarios for a character, or polish a sentence over and over in my mind without commitment. Away from other voices, and away from screens, I explore spaces. I can better see how parts relate to the whole. When I return, tired yet energized, I jot down ideas or whole scenes in my notebook. I sketch maps of a characters’ landscape—often influenced by those I wander on foot. 

Via D’Agostino, managing editor: When I get stuck writing a story, I like to take my thoughts on a long walk, just the two of us. I'll think the plot and character arcs through, usually by talking to myself or by imagining I'm having a conversation with the character who is giving me trouble. I'll jot notes down about what I figure out—usually on the backs of my hands—and the walks work better if they're long, and preferably through the woods. If I've got the time, a hike up a mountain is often exactly what my brain needs. Long drives work well, too, because they give me a time and place to be trapped alone with my thoughts. Sometimes silence helps my brain work better, but sometimes, I'll try to put together a playlist of songs I think my main character would like (or, if I'm really frustrated with them, songs I think they'd hate). If I've written myself into a corner with the plot, I'll mull it over before I go to sleep and hope that my unconscious mind comes up with something brilliant (which sometimes it does!). When all else fails, I make a list of all the things my character could possibly do in the situation I can't get them out of, and then pick the riskiest, dumbest, most ridiculous option. I make a game of seeing how absurd I can make it without it becoming completely unbelievable, and then go with that. Once I'm out of the corner and back on track, I'll flag the area in red. After the first draft of the story is complete, I'll revisit the corner and see if there's a better or more realistic way to get my character out. If not… well, being airlifted by a pegasus that can shoot lasers from their eyes isn't a bad way to be rescued.

Jess Flarity: For a short story, I mull through a bunch of different ideas in my head until one sticks out as something I've either never heard of before or there's a question that needs answering before I begin writing. As an example, I've been toying with a science-fictional piece about a moon that has an extremely high oxygen content compared to Earth, say 35% instead of 21%, which makes the atmosphere like that of the Carboniferous period of our planet 300 million years ago. This one change has a huge impact on what life would be like there for humans—not only would fires be twice as hot and start extremely easily, but the amount of free radicals in the air would make it so that people died on average around the age of forty. We would literally be burning twice as hot and living half as long. So, what kind of society would exist there? What would their rituals and hierarchy be like? Every time I go to write this piece I can't get past the scenes where warriors are protecting their tribes from giant bugs (another side effect of high oxygen levels), which indicates that I need to "live" in this setting a bit longer to get past its flashier aspects and into something with more substance. While my world-building may eventually accumulate into enough content for a novel, getting to a single conflicted character with a problem that resonates with a modern audience lies at the heart of this story. Until I know this person, their wants/needs, and the struggle they're going to undertake in a measly 5,000 words to get to a meaningful ending, I've got as Stephen King says, "a cup without a handle." Sometimes you need to keep playing in a sandbox you've created until you unexpectedly find a gem buried in there.

Shelby Colburn: Before writing, I first need to walk around my apartment. I let my bare feet trace the shifting of the hard floors and feel the wooden grains with my toes and heels. Then, I chase my rotund cat around. I watch her primordial pouch bounce left-to-right like a pendulum in a Poe story. When I lay in bed at night, both of my stationary fans must be on. No matter the weather, I must feel the chill of wind caress my skin before a single blanket can be near me. It helps clear my mind and put my body at ease. And then I think: if I was a character, what is the opposite of what real-me would do? I use all my consciousness in those last moments before drifting to sleep to develop the story I want to put on the page. This precious moment before slumber allows me to think in the space between limits and freedom. The next day, when I finally sit down with my laptop, I need three things: ice water, non-lyrical music playing, and a backrest pillow. Then I focus: what is the emotion I want to elicit in my readers? Fear? Disgust? Tenderness? Melancholia? Once I pin-point the core emotion, I circle that reaction with imagery that I personally feel triggers that pathos within me. Once the first draft is written, I take a break and chip away at the sentences that don’t matter to the story. If push comes to shove, I’ll re-write what I wrote, but in only half the number of pages (or words). Sometimes, those limits can create stronger sentences than what I originally placed on my screen. When I finally feel what I have is strong enough to be read, I send it along to classmates or friends. A fresh pair of eyes is important—it allows me to check whether my core emotions and intentions are present in the writing I created.

Danley Romero, fiction editor: I’ve been playing with fragments lately. When I’m generating fragments I will either free-write quickly, setting the text color to white so I can’t read what I’ve gotten down already (which has been great for making surprising jumps from one image, concept, character or scene to another), or I will write more slowly and with more focus if I know the character and situation I want to write about. Once I have some fragments that I feel might work together, I work on constructing scenes out of them, if I’m working on a story, or shaping them into a poem, if that’s what I’m trying to make. I rephrase, elaborate, cut, and improvise around the fragments as I go. Linking fragments has been a fun way to generate drafts, but I want to try to use variations of this technique for revision, too. I’m excited to play with that, and to see what happens!

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