The Art of Coming From Nothing

I struck up a conversation with a fellow writer at the Caribou Coffee in Hopkins last night and we spoke about writing every day and the book she’s working on. She explained her writing process for this new book is different than anything she’s experienced before. Instead of hammering out details and then getting into the story, she has been, in a sense, making it up as she goes along. Characters and their story arcs are simply coming together in surprising ways, and she’s enjoying the sense of discovery. On one hand, it’s a scary way to approach a project, to not have a plan. Still, she must be doing something right – she has an agent or two interested in reading it.

Her story made me think of Elmore Leonard‘s approach to writing and how much I envy his process. Leonard starts with a setting or a character and simply writes. Eventually, an odd assortment of characters begin to populate the setting, or the first character’s story arc begins to crossover with a handful of other characters, until there’s a perfect web of storytelling. For example, Out of Sight begins with Jack Foley in prison, then flashes to federal marshal Karen Sisco driving to prison. They’re both established, as is the world of crime and the law, and then boom – they come together and the story goes from there. I envy Elmore Leonard’s process because he has such trust in his writing to just dive in and swim.

I’m an outliner. I’m a plotter. I’m a planner. I like to know what’s coming, both in life and on the page. The only place I let myself be comfortably immersed in complete surprise is on the stage when performing improv. As for writing, well, there’s a reason my scripts have treatments before I write the first word, and why my short stories have a brief list of bullet points to hit before I get too far. That reason, I fear, is a lack of trust in my own ability. Fear and a lack of self-trust will always hold back the artist – that and several other silly bits of nonsense, if you ask Steven Pressfield.

Flash fiction both intrigues me and scares me. I try to use flash for my Scrawlers stories, but when it comes to something longer, I tend to plan it out a little bit. That said, there’s nothing more satisfying than writing something and suddenly find a new twist or connection or surprise I didn’t see coming. Perhaps if I find a way to relish in those moments more, I won’t be so afraid to let the entire writing process mirror that feeling of welcomed surprise. Perhaps I need to be more like the writer I met last night and embrace a new approach. After all, agents are looking at her work right now, not mine…

Want to read some Elmore Leonard and do it on the cheap? One of my favorite online stores is – they have several Leonard titles in hardcover, paperback, and even audio cassette ranging from $1.49 to $7.99, my favorites in that bunch being Tishomingo Blues (Don Cheadle is supposedly starring in / directing the upcoming film version) and his latest (until its sequel, Up in Honey’s Room, comes out tomorrow) The Hot Kid.


[tags]fellow writer, elmore leonard, plot, improv, flash fiction[/tags]

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