I’ve been writing fiction since I was old enough to read it, and in this, I know I’m not alone. Every year, I teach a creative writing camp for kids, and every year, I see it: The kid writing fanfic (without knowing what that is) based on Teen Titans. The kid writing the sequel to Stuart Little. The kid fathoms deep in an entire universe of her own making at the tender age of nine.
There are scores of accomplished authors who didn’t start writing until they went to undergrad, grad school, or got stuck in the wrong job, had a midlife crisis or a realization in retirement. But for those of us who started young, before we had any idea what we were doing—before we’d even graduated from Language Arts to English—I always wonder: How much of what we’ve learned about writing has improved our writing, and how much has paralyzed it?
There was never a time, as a kid, when I didn’t look forward to working on my book (I was always writing a book). That didn’t happen until I learned to think critically about writing—first, through a boarding school for the arts, then a B.A. in Arts and Letters, and most recently, an MFA in Fiction.
I might have procrastinated on short story assignments in undergrad, but I never stared at the screen, wondering if what I’d written was any good, if anyone would ever want to read it, if I was wasting my time; I was too insulated by my own egotism. That didn’t happen until grad school, when I was finally at pains to prove myself the genius the younger version of myself believed I was.
Not only did grad school give me a heaping dose of adult reality, it seemed to suck the wind out of my sails. Not because of anything my instructors did wrong (though some were certainly better than others). And not because there’s anything inherently wrong with MFA programs (though the pressure to produce polished work quickly, for famous authors and talented peers, does add to the stress). To this day, I don’t exactly know why my MFA program made writing feel so hard, but when I graduated, I was determined to reverse that effect.
In part because I’d come to realize that I was not likely to sign a big book deal any time soon (or perhaps any book deal at all). If I was doing this for myself, with no guarantee of ever making it as a writer, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy it.
I became determined to recover the sense of joy I’d had as a kid, scribbling away in my notebook, and combine that with the skills in editing and revision I’d gained as an adult. During this time, I interrogated every part of my creative process and experimented with very different approaches (for instance, drafting via dictation).
Along the way, I’ve developed an approach that works for me—an approach that combines both what I’ve learned in studying creative writing and some things I’ve had to unlearn as well (for instance, the idea that story must start with character). Most importantly, it’s an approach that has made writing fiction feel the way it should feel for someone who has been doing it for as long as I have: natural.
There are three essential elements and three essential questions for every story I write. The answers to those questions serve as a blueprint when I’m starting out with a first draft, but they’re also a way of evaluating the story as it’s unfolding, and a rubric by which to revise it as well.
Element #1: Form
What kind of story is this?
Modern prose writers, like modern poets, tend to look down on form. We like to pretend that every time we sit down to write, we’re doing something entirely new, inventing each a story whole cloth.
But I believe we’re working in form whether we know it or not, because, inevitably, someone else has written about the same things we’re writing about—especially if what we’re writing about touches upon elements of universal human experience.
The musician Tom Waits, in an interview, once said that before he began writing a new song, he asked himself, “What kind of song is it?” Is it a murder ballad? A sea shanty? A gutbucket jug band thing? A sort of beatnik satire?
I’ve found it useful to interrogate my ideas in a similar way. Is it a death-of-your-spouse-in-old-age sort of story? An epistolary mystery? A bildungsroman? A weird tale?
Listen to any Tom Waits song, and I think you can tell that he understands the history of music, listens widely, and knows what form he’s working in (even if he bends that form to the point of breaking). When you read a story of mine, I hope you experience something similar.
Sometimes writers chafe at the idea of doing anything that has been done before. But in order to do something different, I think, you have to understand how it’s already been done.
Element #2: Pattern
What’s emphasized in this story through repetition?
When we’re reading, information flows past in a constant stream, so it can be easy to miss details. It can also be hard to tell what’s supposed to be important, especially in fiction, where (generally) we’re simply following a series of events as they unfold.
But when some element of the story is repeated or reinforced, it catches our attention. Aha! we say. This must be what the story is about.
Handled skillfully, those repetitions—be they turns of phrase, situations, details, a metaphor—coalesce into themes, and themes create the context by which the reader comes to understand the story you’re telling.
For instance, in my novel Hot Season, I knew I was writing a coming-of-age story early on. But it wasn’t until the second or third draft that I began to see the way an outlaw theme repeated in different ways throughout the story.
Another theme in the book is fire, both in a metaphorical sense (the heat of attraction) and in a literal one (wildfire). I was more aware of that theme at the outset, so whenever an opportunity arose to reinforce that theme, I took it.
When an element is repeated, the reader will interpret it as a deliberate pattern. So if you’re the author, I think it’s important to make sure that whatever you’re repeating really is intentional.
And for me, one of the richest things that can happen in fiction is when you discover those themes, which often arise of their own accord, and use them to lead you deeper into the work.
Element #3: Fetish
What is the aesthetic attraction here?
You might hear other authors, editors, and instructors talk about theme, and maybe even the form of a story. But in my experience, whether you’re at a creative writing conference or in a creative writing classroom, you are unlikely to hear anyone bring up the subject of aesthetics.
Which strikes me as weird. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “of or referring to art or beauty.” Isn’t art and beauty what fiction is all about?
Furthermore, it’s normal to hear readers say things like, “I like werewolf stories,” or “I like books set in the 1950s.” But it’s as if writers aren’t supposed to let aesthetic considerations play any part in what kind of stories they write.
In a post the author Kelly Link wrote for io9.com, called “The Weirdest Story Ideas Come from Your Own Obsessions,” she notes how, at one point, she made a list of the sorts of things she liked to find in her stories, which includes things like theme parks and cults and zombies.
Why theme parks and not National Parks? Why cults and not the United Methodist Church? Why zombie and not, say, vampires? It’s nearly impossible to say exactly why we like the things we do, and that, to me, is what’s so fascinating about them.
Personally, I don’t call the items on Link’s list—or mine, or yours—obsessions, because that would suggest we’re consciously aware of them. The word I’ve arrived at is fetish.
I use this word not in the sense of a sexual fetish—though I do like the sense of being irrationally attracted to something—but more in the sense of an ancient artifact dug up from an archeological site.
We don’t know what this thing did, exactly, and we’ll never really know. But the thing is beautiful and compelling and strange and important, and we’d perhaps like to pilfer it from the site where we found it and keep in our coat pocket for luck.
I think each one of us has his or her own fetishes, and that these fetishes form the foundation of our own personal aesthetic.
Last summer I followed Link’s lead and made a list of things that I like to find in my fiction. It includes things like “weird weather” and “mad scientists” and “magic books.” Many of them were things I’ve already written about. But I realized—in a way that was actually fairly surprising—that I could continue to write about these things forever; I would never get sick of writing about them, and I’d never quite get to the bottom of them.
Fetish may be the least obvious of the elements I’ve discussed here, and to me, it’s the most important. Because I’ve found that when I write stories centered around my fetishes, around my own aesthetics, those stories come quickly and easily.
That list I made became the basis of the thirty stories that I’m releasing to my Patreon subscribers over the next thirty months, to support the release of my first novel, Hot Season. You can learn more about that, my stories, and my creative process here.
Now it’s your turn. Readers—what do you like to find in your fiction? Writers—have you developed a particular process of your own? I’d love to hear from you via Twitter (@manzanitafire), Facebook, or Goodreads.
Copyright © 2016 Susan DeFreitas