The Making of Paperman – 3+1 Lessons from Finishing a Short Story

Short story writing lessons and support

Bullet points! Yaaay!

But first, here’s a little intro that nobody skips and jumps right to the points. Ever. I mean, who would do such a thing to an innocent intro? Nobody. Right?

I finished a short story, called Paperman, a couple of weeks ago. But you really don’t need to know the story to read this post.

Paperman is not a movie (yet). And I’m not a celebrated famous author (yet). But I still would like to share some of the lessons I learnt from finishing this short story, because I would like to learn from your examples too. That’s why I’m asking some questions related to the points below, and I would be over the moon if you shared your experience in the comments section.

So let’s make this post a discussion instead of me giving a lecture about writing (that I do not wish to do and I also can’t).

  • Lesson #1: Write what you like

I’m sure you already came across the “write what you know” directive. These four little words kept me from writing Paperman for weeks. And the reason for that was because the story is placed in upstate New York, Buffalo, and I’ve only been there once (because Waze stopped working and we took a wrong turn). But as we drove through the city, the image of rust eating away the industrial buildings made an impact on me. And when the first concept of Paperman struck me one evening, I instantly felt that the characters were from Buffalo. But morning came the next day and brought doubts on the rays of sunlight.

“Are you sure it’s in Buffalo?”

And as a non-native English speaker (an alien, in fact), I wasn’t. I was afraid to believe it. And I tried real hard to imagine the story elsewhere. It didn’t work out.

So I turned to Stephen King for advice. No, I didn’t call or text him (how cool that would’ve been), but reread his amazing memoir, On Writing. And in relation to the “write-what-you-know” dictum, he says that you should:

“…write anything you damn well want. Anything at all… as long as you tell the truth... I think you begin with interpreting ‘write what you know’ as broadly and inclusively as possible.” (p 181)

“Yes, I am sure it’s in Buffalo, NY,” – I told to my doubts.

It was liberating.

  • Lesson #2 Chat with your characters

Paper man figures for writing characetrs
Trust your characters
When I was doing my writing routine one morning and was hammering out fragments of Paperman, I naturally started to talk with my characters. Then the realisation came.

When in doubt, ask your characters! You will get surprisingly great answers. Ask them where they’re from (see Lesson #1), how old they are, what food they like…etc. Ask them anything! They will help you jotting down their stories, even if you don’t see it clearly yet. Trust them.

And have a platform where you can chat with your characters. I use 750words.com, because it’s awesome and it helped me transform my writing. You should try it! They have badges and everything. (No, they do not pay me for advertising them, this is a genuine recommendation.)

This way you’ll have a place where you can hold regular meetings with your characters to make sure everybody is on the same page. Now you only have to agree on the time.

  • Lesson #3 Change your perspective

I started writing Paperman in third person. But it kept growing and growing until the storyline escaped my grasp and left me wandering in a thick fog. I couldn’t see the way forward. I was desperate. So I figured the best I could do is to leave my desk and crouch down on the rug. Its long yarns needed some twisting and braiding anyway.

That’s when a lightning hit me. I suddenly realised that in order to finish the story, I should become a teenage boy. So I started over, but this time I was writing in first person. And it worked.

It seems that changing perspectives is as vital for a healthy story as it is for a healthy living.

  • Plus 1: Laugh at perfectionism

One of the reasons why I’m writing in English as a Hungarian is that I was a hostage to perfectionism. (Still am a little, but I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about.)

A lot of Hungarians say that our language is beautiful and I agree, obviously. We have a rich and expressive vocabulary. Still, for me (and this is a strictly personal experience) the Hungarian language also has a post-it note on its forehead that reads “authority”. Instead of positive encouragement, it points a finger right to your imperfections and makes sure that you are ashamed of your mistakes. As a kid (and even as a young woman) I was completely unaware of the existence of the learning curve. And I’m saying this as a former speechwriter for Hungarian politicians. There was a constant feeling of not being good enough in my gut.

And when we moved to Cambridge, UK, the wonderful practicality and the active voice of the English language freed me. I know it’s embarrassing, but I only learnt about writing first and second and third (and so on) drafts in my late twenties. I learnt that finishing a story first is more important than anything. Editing only comes after you wrote “the end”.

Now I know that stories are organic, living things meant to be imperfect. That is what helps their beauty shine through.

Therefore, kicking out perfectionism and letting go of the comfort of being in control was like a breath of fresh air for my Hungarian soul.

And now my questions to you are:

  • How do you feel about the places in the stories you read/write? Do you like to read/write about places with accurate description, or do you prefer something out of this world?
  • What do you do when you get stuck in your writing?
  • Which point-of-view do you like the most (both in writing and reading)? How do you feel about switching point-of-views in a story?
  • How do you defeat perfectionism?
  • You also write in a language other than your mother tongue? I want to hear from you! What is your experience with that? Why did you choose another language?

Lot of questions, I know. But only because I’m eager to hear your answers! Feel free to cherry-pick from the questions as much as you like or write something completely different.

Now let’s head over to the comments section folks!

2 thoughts on “The Making of Paperman – 3+1 Lessons from Finishing a Short Story

  1. I’m glad I found your blog. God bless the Community Pool. As somebody who has been a professional writer for 20+ years now, I love to read people who enjoy writing talk about it.
    To answer your questions:
    1) I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t read very much fiction at all. The real world is weird enough.
    2) When I get stuck, I either just keep writing and know I can edit later or I switch projects. I try to have multiple professional and personal projects going at one time so I can figure out which one to work on based on my mood.
    3) I like first person. I do. Me. Not him. Not you. Me. I. First Person.
    4) I stopped trying to be perfect a long time ago, and then I stopped trying to convince everyone I was perfect a few years ago. Life got much easier.
    5) No, I can’t write in any other languages, although I can read both French and Spanish.
    Looking forward to see what you come up with in the future….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. God bless Community pool indeed.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here. I know it takes some effort to put together a decent comment, so I really appreciate it. And I’m also glad you like reading posts about writing. You’re writing experience is definitely inspiring!
      I also had a period when I read nonfiction only, because life provided more than enough absurdity, especially when I worked in politics. But now I can’t stop reading fiction, I’m learning so much (as a wannabe writer).
      I also like how you handle perfectionism too. You’re right, we should throw expectations out the window.
      Thanks again for your reply and good luck with your book!

      Liked by 1 person

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