As I travel, I meet people. Through casual conversation, some become curious when I tell them I am a writer. They want to understand my process. How do I find my stories? Well, I don’t find them, I create them. They usually come to me as I am reading something like a news story or maybe reading another novel or even watching a movie. They almost always start off as a little idea and that little idea chaffs my mind, like a grain of sand irritates an oyster until it becomes a pearl. That’s what happens to me. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can’t go back to sleep until I work out the story behind the idea. It almost always starts at 2 A.M. and by 6 A.M. I have the story’s basic structure. It always amazes me that I don’t really change my stories too much from that basic structure created in the early morning of a sleepless night.
Once I have a story structure written down, I can put it away until I need it. When I approach the end of whatever I am working on at the present time, I will start reviewing my pile of story structures in hopes of finding something that I want to write next. It’s really about what gets me excited at that moment in my life. I try to find something that I can’t not write. I recognize the beginning, middle and end of the story. I see the characters. I want the story to come to life, so I write it.
When I was first learning to write, I read books, attended lectures and took courses on different aspects of writing. Some were on story structure, others on developing characters and still others were on key components of a great story. I spend years in the quest of how to write the perfect story. After spending tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of study I have come to the conclusion that there is no magic formula to writing. I wish I had spent all that time just writing. That’s how you get good at writing, you write.
I remember buying different software programs designed to help me develop a better story or character. Most of the programs were based on the idea that all great stories come from plots that have already been written by the master storytellers. In other words, every original thought has already been written long ago and now days we’re just rearranging the pieces of those plots to create new stories. What a load of crap. It’s an excuse to be lazy. Let the computer figure it out. We don’t come up with original stories anymore, because we haven’t thought of them yet, not because all stories have already been told. Original writing is hard. It’s really hard.
The first time I read Hemingway, I admit, I didn’t like his writing much. I started with his early works and read my way forward. His stories just didn’t seem to have much punch to them. I was disappointed. He was supposed to be great. That’s what everyone said. I didn’t get it. Later in life I was on my way to France and I picked up “A Moveable Feast” which is an autobiography of Hemingway’s time as an expatriate living and writing in Paris. He talked about how he was always trying to find the truth in his characters. He didn’t want to make up a character, rather he just wanted to bring them to life by finding the words and actions that they would really say and do. Something clicked inside me. All of a sudden, I found myself on the path to understanding one of the world’s greatest writers. I had quit too soon. Some of Hemingway’s greatest works came toward the end of his life. I read “For whom the bell tolls” and loved it. Great characters and a strong story. Then I read what I think is one of the greatest stories ever written… “The Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway’s last published work before his tragic death. It was brilliant. And what made it brilliant was that it was such a simple story and yet it moved me in a profound way. I cried at the end. There was no character arc in The Old Man and The Sea. The old man was the same in the end as he was in the beginning. He didn’t go through a cathartic experience that changed him. He was just a great character, an honest character. Hemingway found the truth of the old man and he told it through a simple story. Many readers and critics found deep symbolism in the elements of the story. Hemingway said that he never wrote any symbolism into the book. “The old man was just an old man, the boy was just a boy, the fish was just a fish and the shark was just a shark.” All his characters were just doing what came naturally and that’s the way he told it. What courage Hemingway must have had to write such a simple story after such an illustrious career as a great writer. He must have thought… People are going to think me a fool or worse lazy. And yet, he wrote it anyway.
Just imagine if he had to pitch that story to a big 5 publisher or to a Hollywood studio executive. “Oh, well… it’s a story about a Cuban fisherman that catches a really big fish.” “… and?” “No and. That’s the story. That’s all of it.” “Get the hell out of my office.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for it.
I’ve learned that great stories can be simple. They don’t need character arcs or plot twists. They do need great characters that battle with problems. Look at the “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, one of my all-time favorite authors. No character arc for either of the main characters, the father and his son, and no discernable plot twists. Bad stuff happens and they are forced to just deal with it. There is no happy ending and it offers little hope and yet it is a fascinating story that draws you into to a painful, awful world and you can’t put it down.
So, what’s my process? It’s simple. An idea comes to me. It rolls around in my head. I write down a basic storyline, so I can get some sleep. Then I write and do my best to tell the truth. I have faith that I will find a good story and I keep writing and rewriting until my faith is rewarded. No big secret, just a lot of hard work.
I wrote his on a train from Bratislava, Slovakia to Krakow, Poland… in case you were wondering.