How I write what I write
How I write what I write by Dell Sweet
I recently published a story in a magazine, and had a conversation with the editor about writing and how it works for me. I said that what I do is take a mental outline of what I want and go from there. I usually commit those same ideas to paper. I don’t usually publish short stories in magazines, but the process was interesting and made me put some real thought into the interview answers.
It is pretty simple to have an idea, or a story-line. We all get them, but that doesn’t write the story. You have to do that, and the first thing that you have to do is believe in what you are writing. If you do not believe in it no one else will, because you will not be able to convince them it is real or viable. For instance, if you want to write a zombie story, but you have no faith that you can, you more than likely will not ever write the story, because no matter what you do write, you will not feel it, believe in it, and so you will continue to reject it until you hit upon something you do believe in; or give up entirely.
I do not know how you write, but the writer friends that I have talked to have all been in that place where the words stopped, or the phrasing won’t come. The thing is, it does not matter. And the reason it does not matter is that you are allowing yourself to get caught up in all the trivial things of your proposed story, so much so that you have frozen your creativity. You have no story because you are not allowing yourself to write it. You have dammed up that stream. Stopped the flow of information. What you need to do is just write, and there are a few reasons for that.
First: Write it because writing moves you past that initial word on paper place. Just write. It doesn’t matter if it is misspelled, it doesn’t matter if the punctuation is incorrect, it doesn’t even matter if you have no idea where you are going with the story, even if it seems that it is not adhering to your outline. Just write it. Let it flow. You can fix all the other stuff later: And you wrote the idea down, so if this story coming to you is not the story you wanted, write it anyway. It is a gift. Take it. Write the other story some other day.
Second: Write it because the words will disappear if you don’t get them down on paper. I have heard many writers say, “I had better write this stuff in my head down on paper before I lose it.” or “I had this story in my head, I should have written it down, I did not and now it is gone.” I have never heard a writer say, “I guess I will write this story down that I have stored in my head from two days ago.” They don’t say that because it is gone, so write it down.
Yes a story idea can get in your head and be there for months. Drive you crazy, but that is the idea for a story, not the story itself. The idea without direction, and that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about sitting on the couch watching TV, or driving to work in your car, and suddenly an idea hits you and goes past that and starts to formulate into a story, and you know that it is ready to be written out…
So here is this guy, and one day the world as he knows it ends. The Earth stops being predictable, if it ever really was. The buildings, houses, and roads buckle and are consumed by the Earth in places. Earthquakes hit and destroy nearly everything he knows. And just like that his life is completely changed forever. I wonder what he would do?
It took me several tries and forty years to write that story out. Most of that was because I left for the streets at fourteen and spent the next two years living there. From there I went into the service. From there I became married, and then life took over; but the need to write that story never stopped. I wrote three books about it that no one ever saw, and then I lost those books for almost 30 years.
The notes above were written in 2009, me rethinking the earlier books I had lost. It made me write it out again, and it became another book. As I followed that need to write that story out of me it turned into dozens of composition notebooks full of other manuscripts, short stories, plays, lyrics, millions of words that I finally realized I could write out of me.
You see, writing is not about anyone but you. Sure, the popular authors will say things like “I wrote this one for the fans.” And in some ways that is true, but in all the ways that matter it Is not true at all. You wrote it because it was in you and it needed to be out of you so you opened up that doorway between your mind and your form of expression and you wrote it out of you. Gave it a life. It does not matter if ten thousand people hate it. If one likes it? That will make it all worthwhile. So it was for no one except you. It was because it was there and it was time for it to be birthed and you birthed it. The fans just gave you the ability to have an audience to read it.
That story I spoke of above became the original unpublished version of Earth’s Survivors. Not the story that became a series about the rise of the dead. This is a story about people struggling to survive. There was not one Zombie in that story. The dead, in fact, were not part of the story at all until far into the series, and even then they had only one book.
When I was in the process of publishing that book, it was the first thing I had published in more than thirty years, someone said, “You know, publishing has changed. This is a good book, but it probably will never sell a single copy, because it doesn’t have zombies or vampires or werewolves in it.” That bugged me. I slipped back into that anxiety mode most writers find themselves in when they first publish… The editors are cutting out this and that, changing this scene, deleting this character, it is not what I wrote any longer… That sort of stuff.
I should have known better, because I had already published years before and gone through all of that, and never published again because I hated the process so much. I saw this new self publishing as an opportunity to publish something my way: The way I wrote it.
All well and good, but the thing is that some editors, friends, people in your circle really do know better than you do. So I yanked that book, went back, wrote zombies into the plot line: Had a blast doing it, and then published the Zombie Plagues.
It took off, and I hated it. I felt like I had succumbed to the temptation to go for the cash, lost faith in myself that I had a written a good book that could have made it without zombies/vampires/werewolves and sold out. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed writing a zombie series, but the series of books I had written in all of those composition notebooks was not written as a zombie vehicle. It was written as a series about people picking up the pieces of their world and starting over.
It was my need to get that story out of me that made me finish the original story when there was no market for it: When The Zombie Plagues was a going series with the un-dead center stage.
Does that mean it will be liked the original way? Maybe. If you like good characters and a good story-line you may. It is up to you. I wrote it because it was in me and it needed it to be out of me. I wrote it because it was what was given to me to write by whatever Gods were up there passing out stories, all those years ago: And I will continue with that series publishing all the books that were written for it, and then never published. Yes, even if it is just for myself.
That is the kind of faith you need. Remember, this is really about you and what you can sustain.
So you have your idea written down; write it out now. See where it is going…
This is an exercise writing about a Zombie with very few facts, just letting the story build on itself. A zombie in a kitchen… Just a zombie scene…
The zombie shambled into the kitchen and looked around.
When I wrote it, I mean when I just let the words go, it went where it wanted to go which is where I wanted it to go in my head. The brain has a pretty good idea of what it wants to do. When I did this earlier today, this exercise with my friend, that is what I wrote: The zombie shambled into the kitchen and looked around.
“So what is that zombie doing in that kitchen?” my friend asked.
Good question. What is that zombie doing in that kitchen? Where is that kitchen? How did the zombie get there? Who did it used to be? Question upon question if you allow yourself to ask them.
The zombie lurched into the kitchen from it’s hiding place in the garage. It had heard something… Some noise that had drawn it.
If I ask a question my mind tends to want to answer it. (Notice I re-wrote that first sentence. That happened because the story began to flow. When that happens you sometimes end up on autopilot, along for the ride.) Now I know where the zombie came from, the garage. Why was it in the garage? Where did it come from before that? Does it even know? And I don’t stop to ask these questions, I just let the stream flow from me and I follow it as it flows: Because that is the other thing about this process. These stories come to you. I could not say where they come from either. Sometimes it feels like theft. They come so fast. So complete. So well formed. The characters all seem to be looking at me and asking, “Don’t you know me?” And I realize I do know them. I don’t know from where, or how, or why, but I know them. They came with the story and they are products of my imagination, but my imagination wants them to live, and so it creates them and I am only the vessel with opposable thumbs that writes them out. And that is writing too. Acknowledging that this miracle came through you and you don’t have a clue how it did that. Still, take that gift, write it out and follow it…
The zombie stared around at the disorder of the kitchen. It’s vision was not the vision it had once had. The crystal clear vision that the living enjoyed. This vision was more of a knowing, supplemented with shadows, blurred movements, and something else… Light, it decided, and it did not like the light… The light caused its head to ache… The light was… The light was bad, it decided. The noise came again causing the zombie to tilt its head and stare down at the movement it had felt from the floor. Something squirmed there, moving with a purpose that suggested life.
More is more. The vision sequence came because I asked myself, How do zombies see? The zombie was in the garage. Some noise made it come to the kitchen. The kitchen is a wreck. Why? What is in the kitchen? What was in the kitchen? Remember, it doesn’t matter if there are misspellings, if it is missing descriptive content, we are simply getting the story out. We can come back later and flesh it out.
The cat stared up at the woman where she stood, head cocked, stopped halfway through the garage doorway, as if listening. The woman was different. Her stance: The way she moved. Even her smell was different. And she had not fed the cat in the past two days. Why, the cat wondered, was there no food when there was always food?
She sniffed at the air. The smell was wrong. And something deeper than that was wrong, the cat decided. And just as the cat had made up its mind to spring away from the woman and leap for the front door that lay shattered and open to the elements, the woman bent quickly, snatched the cat up, and brought it to her face. The cat snarled and clawed, but the woman paid no mind. Her strange eyes locked with the cat’s own, and then the woman leaned forward and bit one of the cat’s paws off.
The cat yowled in pain, squirming desperately in the woman’s hands, trying to free itself as the woman turned, shuffled back into the garage and slammed the heavy door behind her. The door rattled in its frame and then the kitchen fell silent.
And there is my story. The zombie came, it was explained, and then it left.
A few last remarks: If you are capable of writing you already know it. It is something inside of you, some drive that will never let you be. Not a wish to make a lot of money, because I can tell you that rarely happens. Not a desire to be famous, another thing that happens to only a few and something some of us do not want at all. In fact I have always longed for a writing partner who likes that public attention and will handle all of that public face time so I can simply write, but we writers are all nuts, and so that is something that probably won’t happen because we would probably kill each other.
So it isn’t those things. It is another thing that eats away at you. It is the sometimes bizarre train of thoughts that parade through your head every hour of every day. Yes, you might think of something else for twenty five minutes, or even fifty, but it’s coming back. Somewhere in that hour your mind will turn back to…
If you are a writer, don’t let people scare you away from it. I have seen many writers who lived parts of their lives in misery because they truly believed they sucked at writing because some dipshit pencil pusher told them that. Hey, screw that guy or girl. Are they in your head? Do they see the ideas you see? No. They are the kind of people that like to judge people. Thank God that many of our writers went through that process and passed by it to become the writers we know and love or else the world would be a poorer place for not having them as writers we know and love. Three of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, Stephen King and Jean Auel, all received bad advice that told them they shouldn’t write. Some of that came after they wrote, some before. Some mild, some horrific, you suck, stop writing, etc.
The thing is that, that can not matter too deeply to you. Yes you hear it, but don’t let it own you, drive you, don’t invest in it. What has to matter deeply to you is writing. That sounds selfish and it is. Lovers will hate you. Kids will feel neglected. Life will pass by and you will wonder where the hell it went to. Other writers will feel jealous, even hate you, or love you or a million other things… Write the stuff that is in your head and demands to be written or else all the bad shit that could happen to you in your life will happen anyway and you will find yourself at the end of your life, a miserable person who never wrote those things and figured out what this world or that world that existed entirely in your head was about.
I have been many things in my life. A drug addict, a prisoner, a bad guy, a carpenter, a father, a husband, a friend, a lover, and through every one of those things that I was, I was also a writer, except it wasn’t always also: Sometimes it was everything. Because being a writer and having these things inside of you that need to be written out can be a curse too. It can cause you to neglect the things you shouldn’t neglect. It can cause you to need that drink to cap those thoughts, that drug, that distraction. It is a blessing and it is a curse. And many writers have handled it poorly in public. I don’t handle it in public anymore, but I did, what a mess I made too. Same as many other writers with the same predilections and addictions to sort through. The same obligations they ignored. All to chase that thought to its conclusion. So forewarned is forearmed, isn’t it? Don’t say you didn’t hear the truth from me. And yet, for me, I will still chase that story to wherever the hell it is leading. I’ll open that door, go into that room that I shouldn’t go into, I don’t care.
I was told in my career as a writer that I would not make it. Too much of my past would hurt me. I would not be able to control the bottle, the drugs, the world, the thoughts. And besides, you suck as a writer too. It all made me laugh. It used to make me mad, but eventually when I learned to look at it for what it was, it made me laugh. It made me laugh because there is not a choice here. It is what I do. I get up every day and do it. I know when I do it that there are people who will hate what I write, hate me, and I know there are those who will read it. That is life. It is the way the world has always worked and nothing that you and I can do will change it. Except you must ignore it if you want to write. Remember two things: One: Only you can say whether what you wrote is worth something. Two: Opinions really are like assholes, everyone has one and some people seem to have more than one.
I can assure you that I care what readers of my novels think. But I can also tell you that a few weeks back I pulled the plug on the most popular series I wrote. I have not looked back, and I wont. This is personal and public, heart wrenching and soul quenching. I write. It’s what I do: Until I die it is what I will do. That is the passion you need to have to write. If all of those things I just wrote are true about you to any degree? You should stop fighting it and write.
What follows is the balance of the exercise, the little story I wrote. I liked it. I did not ask anyone else…
Copyright 2014 Dell Sweet. All rights reserved.
THE HUNTINGTON RETIREMENT COMMUNITY
Day Three of the Zombie Apocalypse:
“Shush… Shut the hell up!” Danny hissed loudly.
“Don’t be telling me to Shush… Or to shut the hell up either,” Tamara said.
Danny turned around and stared at her bug eyed. “What? Are you frickin’ kidding me? A zombie frickin’ apocalypse happening, and you know those frickin’ zombies come right to the goddamn noise…”
“That’s true. They do come right to the noise,” Agnes agreed.
“Girl! What the hell?” Tamara said. She stared at Agnes hard.
“Well they do!” Agnes thrust her hands on her hips, jutted one hip out and tried to look older than her twelve years.
“Both of you all shut the hell up,” Danny said. “Shush” He placed one finger over his lips to illustrate. Just then a sliding, shuffling of feet came to them from the door that led into the garage.
“Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus,” Agnes said in a whisper moan. “That is a goddamn zombie right there… A goddamn zombie… Already ate grandma and now it is gonna open that…” Her words broke off suddenly as Tamara’s hand clamped across her mouth.
“Ain’t no zombie… It ain’t… It is grandma…. We came here to find her, right? Well she has just been waiting back in the garage for us… Only place safe,” Tamara whispered in a squeaky, scared voice. Agnes frightened eyes looked up to her own.
“Mooser?” Agnes asked in a muffled whisper.
“I’m sure,” Tamara agreed.
They had stolen a car in the city and drove themselves out to the Huntington Retirement Community where grandma still lived to make sure she was all right.
The apocalypse had started two days before. Slow at first, just a murmur of problems, but yesterday it had gone full tilt crazy. The zombies were everywhere, taking over the city, but most likely there had not been too many dead rising out this way yet, Tamara thought. The problem was that grandma’s front door had been splintered apart. Someones leg, hairy, so it wasn’t Grandma’s, probably, Tamara thought, had lain just inside the door.
“That’s a mans leg,” Danny had said.
“’Cause it is hairy,” Agnes asked?
“No, ’cause it has got half a…” Tamara had slapped him in the back of the head.
“Don’t you be saying things like that in front of this child,” Tamara said.
“I ain’t no child,” Agnes had said loudly. And that had been when something had crashed in the garage.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Danny had said, and jumped about a foot off the floor. Now the shuffling of feet came to them again, followed by a low growling sound.
“Oh, Jesus, Oh Jesus,” Agnes said before Tamara clamped her hand back across her mouth.
“Grandma never growled like that,” Tamara said.
“Yeah?” Danny turned and looked at her. “Well maybe that is Grandma’s cat… Probably been locked out there in the garage with nothing to eat for two days ’cause grandma done passed out in one of them dialectic comas, or whatever the hell you call them, so the cat is hungry… I would growl too if I was hungry… What we better do is open the goddamn door up before that cat decides to eat grandma!”
“Are you stupid?” Tamara hissed. “Grandma ain’t got no goddamn cat… Never had no goddamn cat… Hated cats… Idiot.”
“Thasafwukinzwombi,” Agnes said in her muffled voice.
“It’s not a frickin’ zombie,” Danny told her. “See what you done? Scared a little child.”
The garage door rattled in its frame.
“Gwamoo?” Agnes asked.
Danny cleared his throat. He was carrying a huge shovel with a pointed tip that he had found laying in grandma’s garden when they arrived. He tapped at the door with the shovel end. “Grandma?” he asked.
A low snarl came from behind the door, a rustling busy sort of sound and then a solid weight hit the door, rattling it in the frame.
“Stay behind me,” Tamara said as she released Agnes mouth and quickly looked around the kitchen. The door rattled a little harder; her eyes fell on the coffee carafe sitting on the counter. She snatched it up and turned back to the door. The door rattled once more and then stopped.
“I told you it was the frickin’ cat,” Danny said.
“It’s not a…” Tamara began, but just then the door slammed open, bounced off the wall and then closed once more on itself. It had been just long enough to show grandma standing in the doorway, eyes glowing red, something like foam dripping from her jaws, her hands clasping some unrecognizable thing tightly.
“That wasn’t no cat,” Danny said. “That was grandma… Dead… Shit comin’ out of her mouth an…”
The door slammed open once more and grandma lurched into the room. She dropped the stiffened cat she had been holding in her hands onto the floor, and lurched after Danny who stood still, mouth open in shock. His eyes fell to the cat and then flew back up to grandma.
“We came to save you grandma… we came to save you! What the hell you been into grandma…” She lurched forward and fixed him with her yellow-red eyes. “Wha… What the hell you been doing… Eatin’ that cat? What did you eat the cat for, grandma. What the…” Grandma lurched forward again and Danny finally realized that she was coming after him. He turned and jumped backwards as Tamara stepped forward and slammed the nearly full coffee carafe into the side of grandma’s head. The glass shattered, coffee sprayed across the kitchen and poured down grandma’s face in a brown river, shards of glass protruded from her temple. Her face began to twitch and shudder.
They all quickly sidestepped as grandma let loose a snarl and tried to claw Danny with one hand. Agnes began to scream, grandma’s rotting head swiveled toward her and she took a step in that direction. Tamara gripped the handle of the carafe tightly, looked at the sharp curve of glass still attached, and then stepped forward and drove it into grandma’s temple. Grandma collapsed in a heap, her head jerking and twitching, and then silence descended all at once.
Agnes sucked in a deep breath and started to sob in a muffled voice, her face pressed into the crook of her arm.
“I told you grandma had a cat,” Danny said. He stepped forward and toed the cat with one boot. The cat suddenly flopped around and fastened its teeth into Danny’s boot. “The frickin’ cat,” Danny screamed. “Grandma’s cat’s got me!” He remembered at the same second that he had the shovel clasped tightly in his hands and thrust it down, knocking the cat’s head away from his boot. A second after that he bought the shovel down hard, and the cat’s head rolled of into the corner where it snapped and snarled at grandma’s flowered wallpaper. Danny tried to backpedal, slipped and sat down hard.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Tamara growled. She stepped forward quickly and crushed the cat’s head with one booted foot. Danny looked up at her.
“I told you she had a cat,” Danny said.
“Oh, Jesus, Oh Jesus,” Agnes said. “This is worse than when Billy Parkin’s showed me his woo who.”
“What?” Danny asked. “Billy Parkin’s showed you his woo who? What the hell?”
Agnes peeked out from the crook of her arm and nodded.
“So what,” Tamara said. She fixed Danny with a hard look, reached down one hand and tugged him to his feet. “Showed me too. Don’t worry, they aren’t all that small.”
“Yeah. Showed me too,” Danny agreed as he dusted his hands against his jeans.
“You were looking at Billy’s Woo who?” Agnes asked.
“Well I wasn’t looking at it… It sort of,” Danny began. Grandma suddenly groaned from the floor and began to squirm around once more. Danny jumped forward and slammed the shovel down on her head over and over again until she stopped. The silence fell once more.
“We had better go,” Tamara said as she stared down at the smashed ruin of grandma’s head. “Find a safe place.”
Danny lifted his eyes up from the floor. Started to toss the shovel away and then decided to keep it. He nodded.
Agnes came forward and threaded one arm into Tamara’s own.
“Ready, punkin?” Tamara asked her. She nodded. The three turned and began to walk from the kitchen.
“What were you looking at Billy Parkin’s Woo who for?” Tamara asked Danny.
“I did not say I was looking at Billy Parkin’s Woo Who,” Danny started as they walked out onto the front walk. The day was fading fast, dark clouds moving in.
“We have to find a place, don’t we?” Agnes asked.
“We do,” Tamara agreed. She looked off down the street to a cluster of buildings that looked promising. Community Center, a sign hanging over the nearest buildings entrance said. She thought for a moment and then moved off toward the building, the others following.
“You did say it,” Tamara said as they walked.
“I didn’t say it,” Danny replied with a shake of his head. “I didn’t.”
The three moved off down the street toward the community center building, their voices a soft hum on the cooling air as they walked.
I hope you got something out of this. I read Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain (Samuel Clemons), it made me want to be a writer, I thought. Except that bug was in me already. I read The Stand (Stephen King) and I realized that people really did write things that mattered. I read Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel) and realized that the past was a real place, alive and breathing.
I mention those books because I want you to read the feedback if you check them out. I’d really wish for you to read those books if they are your speed. Some people didn’t like those books. In fact some hated them. You have to internalize that. Do you want to write? Then write something. Stephen king has a great book on the art of writing, but he loves to talk about writing in the introductions to nearly every book he has written. Samuel Clemons talked about it as well. Jean Auel has given insight several times on what it took to write her book series. Be encouraged. Write. I would love to read it. Dell Sweet
Dell Sweet on writing, Authors and writing, making it all up, how to write