Pen and Scalpel: My Approach To Writing In Ten, Maybe Eleven Steps

Writing is a very personal thing. Too many people look at it as a job or a chore. One of my maxims, Number Seven, would be enough to stop some people dead in their tracks.
“Write every day? C’mon, man, can’t I write when I feel like it?” I hope this isn’t any of you. Yes, you can, and should, write when you feel like it. But you need to write every single day if you’d like to be a Writer. Writers write. They don’t think about writing and only do it if they’re in the mood. Most of us wouldn’t get much writing done if that was our standard.
I’ve thought about how I write and how the whole process works for me. Here are a handful of things I do before, during, and after I write a story. They work for me. Not all of them will work for every person. Take the ones you like and use them in good health.
1. Look For Ideas Everywhere. They are all around you. The odd headline in a newspaper. An ad on television. A light bulb blows out when you’re in the basement looking for something. Any two or three random things can come together and produce an idea for a story.
2. Find Time To Write. You must find time to write every single day. Set aside a half an hour after dinner, get up a half an hour early, write during your lunch hour. That’s what I used to do at any job. It will be a little odd at first, but it’s the writing that counts, not someone’s opinion of how you use your time. My schedule allows me to wake up an hour before my wife does. Plenty of time to get the creative juices flowing.
3. Ask What If Questions. Take an ordinary situation and ask questions about it to turn it inside out. Coming out of church one Sunday, I thought, “What if God gave the Dinosaurs one more chance?” The weird robot vacuum cleaner in Stop and Shop spooked me so much I wondered what it was plotting to do as it crept around the aisles. Ask extraordinary questions about ordinary things and conditions, and your mind will give you answers. Many of the solutions may not work, but enough of them will provide you with story ideas.
4. If You’re Not Inspired, Get Inspired. Need a good villain but can’t get into his head? Watch a movie with a well written bad guy. Some that come to mind are Silent Partner (1979), Die Hard (1988), Time After Time (1979), Superman (1978), Big Trouble In Little China (1986), and Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). All are excellent bad guys. Listen to the way they speak, not the words they say. I’ll leave the rest to you.
5. Use The Five Senses. Have your characters tasted, smelled, heard, seen, and or touched something as they speak or go about their day? Using the senses gives a fictional character some depth and some life instead of them just talking. We get a sense of the world around them.
6. Take A Cue From The Movies. As you write, think of how the scene looks in your mind. Put in details of what things look like, such as table settings or something on the wall. Make every situation a cinematic experience. If the reader can see every detail in their minds, you’ve done an excellent job.
7. Does Your Character Have A Life Before The Story Starts? John McClane has lived a demanding existence before his plane lands in Die Hard. We get details of that from the dialogue between him and his wife, and we get deeper into John’s life as he talks with Officer Powell. Without these details, John McClane would have been an insensitive overreacting bully upset that the Christmas party was interrupted by Hans and his goons. Character details can be slipped into scenes here and there to give them some background. It makes them human and exciting.
8. Keep A Journal. Ideas will hit you at the worst moments sometimes. Keep a small journal with you to jot down any ideas that hit you, no matter how small or insignificant they may be. Keep a more significant journal at home where it won’t be moved or lost. In the story “One Room, Unfurnished,” I had driven for about 17 hours on our way to Florida. My thoughts went to the motel we were heading for, and I couldn’t wait to get into that empty room and go to sleep. At that second, the story idea hit me. I pulled into a gas station for some gas and wrote down the bare bones of the plot in a little journal before leaving the station. Had I ignored the idea, the story might have never come to exist.
If you get an idea, don’t let any of them get away. You never know when a stray bit of data will trigger another idea months down the line. Don’t worry about keeping them in any order. It’s better to have a bit of chaos here. They feed and nourish each other on the page.
9. When You Start Writing, Keep Going. Write as if they were going to take away your pen at any moment. Don’t worry about spelling, language, or using the wrong form of a word. Fix it later. Don’t worry if it’s good or not; just keep on writing. Don’t think about what you’ve written, unless you need it for the passage.
10. Read. A Lot. You cannot learn to write well unless you know good writing when you see it. Read the authors you like. For a real challenge, read books on subjects you previously for which had no interest. They don’t have to be the size of Moby Dick. Even a children’s book on a topic you know nothing about can open up your Creativity. I average about 100 books a year, and I still feel I don’t read enough.
11. Start With A Crisis, And Keep Your People In Jeopardy. Peril keeps readers turning the pages. Create a central obstacle for your main characters, but throw in something every other page to take their attention off of solving their main problem. In the story “The Trouble With Crate 214A,” my protagonists are on the run from something. It broke out of Crate 214A due to the blackout that occurred on page One. The darkness foreshadowed the peril to come.
My approach to writing isn’t for everyone. I’m very privileged to have about an hour Monday through Friday before my wife gets up. That’s my Prime writing time. When I’m in the groove, I can pump out 4-5 pages in that hour. My current project is at that pace. Sometimes I pray that I have the time to put down my thoughts on a particularly juicy passage before I hear the bedroom door opening. Right now, my character is about to meet her death for the fourth time. It’s a long story, literally, but this story is at 94 pages at the moment, and I’m not even at the half-way point.
What am I saying about the Writing process? Well, you have to make yours. The way you write and how you write is up to you. Just make sure that you get it done.
There we have it. There are many other aspects of crafting a story, but these are the essential ones that are good to follow if you want to create something memorable.