Hey! Yes, it’s nice to be back in D.C. Even though it’s 100 degrees out and I have to do ordinary things again like work and buy food.
Let’s each write a ten-step story as an experiment. Below, I will post A.N.’s ten-step process. Also, the Ikea chair is working out great. It’s best for reading on my deck in the mornings, when it’s still cool, with coffee nearby.
To follow up on A.N.’s craft lecture, though, yes, the thing about storywriting craft lectures is that they leave you feeling that you’ve just learned the secret to writing a good story when, of course, you haven’t. What no craft lecture can help you do is think of a really great idea that moves a story from one place along to the next, and I’m beginning to think that that is really the trick to telling a good story. I also sort of think that a good story of around 4,000 words requires about ten really great ideas. Or maybe it’s more like one really great idea every 500 words or so. I mean, the thing will be laced with ideas — every detail will be an idea — but it takes about ten really great “how-did-she-ever-think-of-that” ideas per story, I think, to really make a story work. How do you teach someone to come up with ten really great ideas that all cohere into a creative narrative that tells the secrets of the heart? I’m not sure you really can.
But, in fairness to A.N., she wasn’t presenting her lecture as “Write A Best American Short Story in Ten Easy Steps!”, although I probably made it sound that way. Rather, she was describing a class she taught, in which she had her students revise their stories 9 times, each time adding in a new element. The most she said was that it produced better work among her students. Also, she had them start with an anecdote from their experience, which seems like the best advice. This is why I write coming-of-age stories about pirates and men trying to break the land-speed record in rocket cars. Perhaps this has something to do with why none of them have been published (yet!).
There’s a wonderful George Saunders quote from an interview he did with the Believer, in which he talks about the way the unconscious and the conscious mind work together (or don’t work together) to create his stories. I’ll see if I can find it and post it here. It really captures the process perfectly.
Here are the ten steps. If you have a great idea for a story, here’s a process that might help:
1. Write a 500-word draft of an autobiographical event.
2. Revise to put it in the third-person past. Can be close or omniscient third.
3. Put some sort of clock on the story.
4. Identify props and objects useful to the story and include them.
5. Know the ages of your characters, and write a timeline.
6. Introduce a world event.
7. Divide elements of the story into opposing forces. Don’t think of conflict, think of the oppositional forces at play in the narrative.
8. Conform the events to a traditional story arc (what karen russell called “The Witch’s Hat”).
9. Try something crazy, just for fun, just to see if it shakes anything loose.
10. Revise it one more time.