How I Start Writing (and eventually finish) a Story

Let’s begin with a note of humility.

By writing this I don’t mean to pretend that I know what I’m doing. I am far, far from the best writer that I know. I am also far, far from the worst writer that I know. I have, over the years, had many people come to me for advice on executing narrative, and since 1999 I’ve made my living telling stories to one degree of success or another. So it’s possible that I might have something to say about it, though I’m not entirely sure. Often it’s the preacher who’s in need of hearing his own sermon the most. So, with all of that in mind, I thought I’d gather my thoughts on my process and put them down here.

Okay, now on to the idea of starting…

Starting a story is often considered to be the most difficult part of the writing process. Somewhere between the limitless potential of your idea and the sudden pressures of meeting that potential, creative lockup can easily occur. The problem, of course, is that you have no grip on the story yet. No inertia to propel you forward. And what’s the answer to that? Like anyone stuck in the mud, you’ve just gotta spin your wheels until you get some traction (this, by the way, is my answer to any writing block you might experience).

And spinning your wheels is easier than you think.

Here’s the thing we’re going to get out of the way first, it’s easy to write… it’s hard to write well. Seems like a pretty thin distinction, I know. But it’s important to remember this at those moments when you get stuck. It’s also important to know that even the best writers only write well occasionally. The magic trick is that they just let the good stuff see the light of day. A great writer has trashed more than you’ll ever know. Why is this so important to understand? Because if we’re going to get through the grueling undertaking of taking our story from root to fruit, then we need to feel allowed… no, empowered, to write a whole bunch of crap. Right now, here at the beginning of our story… at “Once upon a time”… writing well should be the farthest thing from our mind.

“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you’ll never write a line. That’s why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.” – Erica Jong

Let’s talk about the Editor’s Mind vs. the Writer’s Mind. You have two modes when you write. The Writer’s Mind: where everything you write is awesome! You can do no wrong. You’re a genius! And the Editor’s Mind: where everything you write is open to scrutiny and can, nay… must, be improved. These are the two hemispheres of your process. And you have to be careful with them. When the Editor’s Mind is employed too soon or in concert with the Writer’s Mind, creative blockage can occur. But if the Editor’s Mind is disregarded altogether, bad writing will most certainly occur. The two modes are equally important, and you must struggle to keep them separate.

Cool, so back to the nightmare of starting a story from scratch.

Here’s what I do. Page one. Sentence one. I sit down. I stare at an empty computer screen. I take a deep breath, and then I start typing. It doesn’t matter what I type. I type a lot of shit. Crap no one else will ever see. Because I’m free to do that. I’m free, at this stage, to write anything I want and never, ever let anyone see it. I “stream of consciousness” type. I don’t edit myself. I struggle to turn off the Editor’s Mind. It has no role in this part of the process. This is all Writer’s Mind now.

“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught,” – Walt Whitman

At this stage I just write and write and write. If I start to doubt what I’m writing, I push that doubt aside. If I start to feel the urge to go back and rewrite, I fight it. I don’t even pause to gather my thoughts. I quite literally think it out on the page. I stream out about two or three pages like this. Often I’m not writing the story at all at this stage. I’m writing about what I want to achieve with the story, or what I want it to be about, or its formal execution.

I write about things like my “Code-Vibe” (the feeling I want the reader to have while engaging in the work) and my “Hidden Deep Meaning” (what I’m trying to say about the world around us and what it means to be human). Scenes, dialogue, characters, any ideas that come to mind in any order… I write it down. It doesn’t matter how on the nose it is, or how stupid it seems. I shouldn’t be having those thoughts anyway! Those are Editor’s Mind thoughts!  We are cradled in the safe haven of the Writer’s Mind right now.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” – Anne Lamott

I just roll everything I have out onto the page. Nobody’s going to see this, so it doesn’t even matter how it reads. And by the time I hit page three I will have revealed to myself some idea, some moment, some character beat that makes my heart sing. I have revealed the story to myself. I’ve hooked some small part of the “good stuff”.

Next, I throw those three pages away. For every one page of story that makes it to print, I’ve probably typed three pages or more.

 

Now, I take the core idea that those three pages illuminated to me, and I start my “Vomit Pass“. I take every idea I have and put it into some loose narrative order. I embellish it, I fill out the frame and connect the dots. A Vomit Pass is just what it sounds like. I’m puking on the page and it ain’t pretty. It’s not formatted, it’s not thought out, it’s not good. I use “place holder decisions” in some spots, while in others I nail it down like James Brown. It doesn’t matter… this is my Vomit Pass. I’m still using my Writer’s Mind here. When I’m done with my vomit pass I should have the bones (and a whole bunch of flabby meat) of my story from beginning to end. At this point my story sucks. It sucks bad. But nobody is going to see this either.

“My writing is a process of rewriting, of going back and changing and filling in. In the rewriting process you discover what’s going on, and you go back and bring it up to that point. Sometimes you’ll just push through, indicate a scene or a character, leave a space, then go back later and fill it in,” – Joan Didion.

Now…

Now it’s finally time to switch to the Editor’s Mind. Now begins the real writing. The torture. The hating yourself. The screaming judgmental voice in your head that says, “This isn’t good enough!” over and over again. That voice is not bad. Use that voice! That voice is often right. This is the real work. Enduring and prevailing through this part of the process is what separates professional writers from people who simply like to write. And the harder you push yourself here, the better the work will be.

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” – Joseph Heller.

Here the writing process is less like vomiting and more like sculpting. Up to this point all I’ve been doing is dragging the heavy raw stone (the Vomit Pass) into my studio. Now I’ve got this piece of granite sitting there in the middle of my life. A massive stone blob that’s nothing really. Sure, it has some interesting shapes trapped inside of it, but it’s big and it’s ugly. So it’s time to start carving the best story I can from that stone. It’s hard, hard work. But it’s what we do as writers.

“I write a book or a short story three times. Once to understand her, the second time to improve her prose, and a third to compel her to say what she must.” ~ Bernard Malamud.

Through this process characters emerge. My characters don’t ring true to me at first. They feel hollow for a long time during the early stages. To overcome that I look around at the people I meet and know in the world. At my friends and family. I see how complex and real they are. Then the Editor’s Mind asks, are my characters that complex? That real? If not, I keep fleshing them out. I find something about them that will speak to my story, that will compromise the simplicity of my original idea. Later, once my story is in decent shape, I’ll do a character pass, a rewrite solely with the characters in mind.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

Eventually, after letting the Editor’s Mind have its brutal way with my story, something true and real starts to emerge. A vast and complex (hopefully not too complex) structure built atop the substrate of that one good nugget I discovered way back on those first few stream-of-consciousness pages I wrote. A whole finished narrative, chiseled and polished to the best of my ability in the allotted time given (deadlines compromise perfection, but encourage completion. They are a yin/yang thing).

You know what that means?

That means it’s time to start the next one. Time to engage in the whole process over again. And I’ll tell you something, it never gets easier. In fact, if it’s easy, then you’re not pushing hard enough. If it’s easy there can be no growth.

But one question remains. I’ve been telling you to use the Editor’s Mind to push crap into the realm of quality. To not stop until you think a thing is “good”. But what does that mean? What is “good writing”? How do you know when you’ve made the best thing you can make from what you’ve got? This is a hard one. It’s so subjective. You could write TWILIGHT and make millions of dollars and everyone would love you, but I would not characterize your writing as “good”.

Personally, I define quality writing by how much it feels “true” or “real” to me. Everything I do, no matter how pulpy or fantasy driven, comes from my life, my world and the people around me. If you plagiarize your life, nobody can sue you. Warp it, twist it, put monsters in it if you must… but make sure, in the end, that your story and your characters speak to something real, poetic and ultimately human.

A few exceptional examples. David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” is about young fatherhood played as a surrealist nightmare. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is about the Middle East’s role in the history of the world dressed as epic Science Fiction. Alan Moore’s “From Hell” is a graphic novel about the birth of the modern age and the wide arc of human cruelty in the name of civilization, crafted in the shadow of the Penny Dreadfuls. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” is good solid psychedelic rock about how the hidden knots that bound conservative England produced a musician destined to go insane. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is poetry about looking back on past decisions and longing for paths no longer available in our all too short and limited lives. All of these works are masterpieces. And they all have one thing in common. They are all fascinated, darkly or otherwise, with the world and how we live in it.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as “Escapism”. That means you must decide if you’re going to haphazardly and accidently reveal something about your views on the human condition by dashing out crap, or if you’re going to meditate on it by struggling for something more ambitious (which is not antithetical to creating a “fun” story, by the way).

Oh yeah, and lastly, the writer who observes will always be better than the writer who states. Don’t forget that one. That’s a biggie, and I’ve not always pulled it off, but I’m getting better.

Beyond all that scattershot nonsense, what “works” or what’s “good” is really just up to you. Because, pretentious crap aside, “50 Shades of Grey” has made a bazillion dollars… so what the fuck do I know (of course those books are about something too… but let’s not get into it).

“In the end, writing skills are mostly absorbed, not learned. Like learning to speak as a native speaker, learning to write well is not just learning a set of rules or techniques. It’s a huge, messy body of deep language, inspired by bits of readings, conversations, incidents; it’s affected by how you were taught and where you live and who you want to become. For every convention, there is another way that may work better. For every rule, there are mavericks who succeed by flaunting it. There is no right or wrong way to write, no ten easy steps.” – Philip Martin.

If you think this broad overview was helpful, or fun, or whatever… and you want to hear me ramble about more targeted and specific aspects of writing, leave a suggestion in the comments and I’ll try to get around to it.

Thanks for reading.

– Joshua Dysart

Why the fake ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ covers to illustrate this post? Well, writing, at its core, is little more than a long series of agonizing decisions. And nothing is more akin to the experience of writing a story than reading a choose your own adventure book. The only difference, and it’s a big one, is that you’ve got the added work of coming up with the narrative choices as well as having to choose between them. Also, these are funny. You can see the post I cribbed them from here.

Posted on by Joshua Dysart Posted in Journal, Writing

10 Responses to How I Start Writing (and eventually finish) a Story

  1. Dara

    Very interesting reading. I’m always fascinated by the process other writers follow. On my part, the most difficult time I have is shutting off my “Editor’s Mind” in the beginning stages of writing a story. I constantly want to edit and perfect, worried that I may forget to do so later, leaving some of the crap in.

    At some point, I had to just embrace the fact that this is how my mind is wired, and trying to fight it is a losing battle. So instead I tried to work with (and around) it.

    I start with a pencil and a notebook. Old school. Somehow, knowing I’ll eventually have to type this all up, makes me feel that at this stage it’s ok to just go with the flow and put all my ideas down on paper. Also, psychologically, I somehow feel less intimidated staring at a blank piece of paper, rather than a blank screen. So I info dump and write choppy sentences and (in the case of a comic book script) doodle pages and panel breakdowns. Then I refine and edit a bit, erasing or crossing stuff out, until my Editor’s Mind feels better about the whole mess.

    Only then do I sit down at the computer and start typing. Of course, the story still needs a lot of rewrites and edits at this point, but at least I’ve tricked myself enough to not be paralyzed by the over-analysis.

    • Joshua Dysart

      I absolutely agree that turning off the Editor’s Mind is the great battle. I would love to be able to start on pen and paper (or pencil and paper). I can see how that would go a long way in allowing more flow in the beginning. Word programs on computers give us almost too much power at the beginning of the process. Sadly, deadlines have forced me to skip the organic beginning of the process and move straight to the computer. But I completely agree with everything you’ve said here.

  2. Dave Gillette

    I just opened my fridge before seeing this, pulled out a can of emergency Red Bull to act as a placebo for my hopes of focusing on my story, and came across this. I don’t know if synchronicity is the best word to describe how I feel about this, but your post couldn’t have come at a better time for me. Thank you for taking the time to describe the most harrowing and bedeviling part of the writing process. It’s nice to know that it’s not just me driving myself crazy – it’s the writing that’s driving me crazy. Now, I can embrace the madness.

    • Joshua Dysart

      Awesome, Dave!

      Madness is the process! Good luck on your project!

  3. jay thomas

    this was great advice. very simple and encouraging. I think because of this essay that i will have another go at a story tonight. I got a nine month old time bomb in a crib, so I don’t sleep much anyways.

    I can never get past stage one with what I feel are valid story ideas. It’s hard to admit that I’m not going to be perfect with every effort. The prose i’m capable of without effort doesn’t do these poor characters any justice and the effort it would take to create valid characters seems like too much stress. It was nice to hear you talk about the difference between the writer’s mind and the editor’s. I’ll try to remember to shut down my editor’s mind tonight.

    • Joshua Dysart

      Hey, Jay!

      Congrats on the baby!!

      I hope I didn’t make it sound too easy, the shutting down of the Editor’s Mind I mean. It’s not easy. It’s a battle. But it’s a battle worth fighting. I’m really glad I inspired you to make it past the first stage in your work. You can do this! It’s all about tenacity. Sticking with your story. If you only work on it when it’s fun and then set it aside when it starts to get hard you’ll never finish anything. Stick with it until you crack it!

  4. Chris Orndoff

    Hey Josh,
    I’m hoping to learn a little more from you about “Code-Vibe”& “Hidden Deep-Meaning.”

    So with code-vibe…Let’s say you are working a single 20-25 page issue of an ongoing series, as you map out the feeling you want the reader to have, do you worry about just ONE overall vibe that you are focused on? even if within that ONE issue there are 2-3 distinct vibes being pushed by the story. I’m typing this assuming that you might agree that within a single issue you wouldn’t want to cram too many vibes into such a short portion of the story…I suppose my question is this: When working within one issue of a series, do you have a predetermined number of code-vibes that you feel work best—by “best” I mean to say that the reader doesn’t feel over-whelmed and rushed…

    Then onto hidden meaning…I read an interview about your Greendale experience, wherein you said that you wanted to incorporate certain lyrics into the dialogue, but you feared the idea of making it sound gimmicky. To me, by adding in the lyrics to a project, wherein you worked so closely with Neil Young, would definitely be an example of striving to emote a deeper meaning; a deeper meaning aimed at connecting the comic to the art of the music. I have read Greendale a couple times, and It didn’t seem gimmicky to me. I suppose my question here is this: If you found a way to have a deeper meaning to the music through the use of song lyrics, is there any specific concept you think about when trying to attach a deeper meaning to an individual character?

    I don’t know how close I was with any of my assumptions, but I figured that If I tried to express my thoughts on your process, it might illuminate the questions I’m seeking to have answered…hahaha…you’re like Yoda now, answering my deeply-coded questions…

    Thanks!
    Chris

    • Joshua Dysart

      Hey Chris! It’s great to hear from you on here. Okay, let’s see if I can tackle these questions for you. Bear in mind, there’s a danger in over defining this stuff, it’s not a technology, it’s a feeling, but here we go anyway. 🙂

      CODE VIBE
      When I speak of “Code Vibe”, I’m actually referring to two things. I should have been more clear about that. The first thing I’m referring to is the overall single feeling I want the work to create in the reader. The second thing I’m referring to are the influences I’m directly looking at to help inform my creative dicessions.

      So, for instance, with GREENDALE. My code-vibe was WONDER. Could I make a work about politics that wasn’t polemic or cynical? I didn’t know, but I wanted to try. Now there are parts where the book is dark and parts where it’s funny… but the overall vibe I’m going for is wonder. That’s my default setting.

      Right. So then, on top of that, my influences were easy, they were three things: 1. Neil Young himself and the very language he uses when you talk to him, which is lovely. 2. The music of the album, which alternates between sad, angry and anthemic. I do think the graphic novel is all of those things in different parts. And 3. The magic-realism that characterized the early Vertigo comics.

      (On a side note: with influences you have to be careful. You don’t want to become overly derivative and rely on them so much that you loose your own voice. A great way to keep that from happening is to be like a DJ with your influences, dig deep into the crates of life/art/history for inspiration. Don’t be influenced by the mainstream. Chase a deeper code-vibe.)

      Another example, UNKNOWN SOLDIER: DRY SEASON. My Code-Vibe was quiet rage. Rage at the deplorable, seemingly hopeless situation these people live under. I wanted to make readers feel that rage (surprise! It got cancelled!). As a counterpoint, my influences for Dry Season were the old Dashiell Hammett mysteries, particularly THE MALTESE FALCON, which were as far from the IDP camps of East Africa as you could get) and of course my own experiences from visiting the IDP camps and talking to people who lived in them was the other, overwhelming influence.

      Last one, BPRD: 1946. My code-vibe was REAL WORLD PULP. I know it’s not a feeling, but it’s an ambition, something to reach for. I wanted to start in reality, and with each successive issue ratchet up the pulp horror until it’s a complete and total explosion of hilariously awesome over-the-top ideas at the end. My influences were Old Hammer Horror Films, WWII Adventure Pulp Comics and my own personal research into the state of Berlin in 1946.

      So as you can see, Code-Vibe is a little bit of a blanket term that I use to sort of visualize the tone, voice and DNA of the work.

      HIDDEN DEEP MEANING.
      That’s a little bit more clear. It’s the pretentious ass thing I want the piece to say without ever saying it. NEVER STATE YOUR HIDDEN DEEP MEANING IN THE PIECE!! That’s one of the highest forms of failing the show-don’t-tell “rule”.

      So, the Hidden Deep Meaning of Greendale is the role of healing feminine power in organized politics/life/art. In Unknown Soldier it was the affects of sustained systemic violence on a civilian population. In BPRD: 1946 it was about how Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War (which was changed to the occult war for our purposes) complete with echoes of the coming bomb.

      But you were asking about the use of lyrics in GREENDALE. Yes, I did want to get as much of the “music” and voice of Neil into the book as possible. But I didn’t want to overplay that device. Once or twice and it’s something that a reader familiar with the source material can stumble across and be delighted by. But use it too much and it looses its power. This is true of anything you do in your work. If all you’ve got is sex and violence, for instance, then it gets boring fast. Also, if I built the work around the lyrics entirely, I fear I’d be missing the point of my mission. Which was to create an independent adaptation that would stand on its own, tell a strong story and, most importantly, utilize the strengths of comics.

      Your question, “is there any specific concept you think about when trying to attach a deeper meaning to an individual character?” No, not really. A character has to be a person, not a device. If I think about anything like that it’s usually to inform the character’s place and station in life. From there they sort of reveal themselves to me based on the details of their experiences. So obviously the Hidden Deep Meaning affects the kind of people that populate my story, but the characters themselves have a life apart from my own story’s Hidden Deep Meaning. It more affects them than it characterizes them, you know what I mean?

      Does this help? Careful not to take anything I say here too seriously, by the way. The real trick to writing is to keep it fluid and follow no hard-and-fast rules. Inspiration and imagination is what we trade in. Rules and procedures are not always the best way to grow imaginative, inspired ideas. So take all of this with a grain of salt.

      One love.

  5. Chris Orndoff

    Awesome, Josh. I feel ya–I will mos def continue to use this info as reference. I finally red Unknown Soldier on my vacation, and I even convinced my 62 year old Vietnam Vet Dad to read it too. I said “Dad, you only read War novels, I promise if you give this comic a chance you will begin to appreciate what they have to offer.” and I think he truly has begun to understand–so thanks for that.

    5,000

    • Joshua Dysart

      Awesome! I love that. We’ve gotten a lot of stories of people sharing Unknown Soldier with their fathers. Especially issue #21, which follows the life of an AK47 across thirty years of African History.

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