jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

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How I Write a Short Story

My Creative Writing class has moved into the short story unit, so today I talked to them a little about how I write short stories, and how writing fiction happens in general.  Whenever I do this lecture, I realize that my process for writing is just one of a gazillion processes, and my job as a teacher is to help students find a process that produces a story that is as close as possible to the one they invisioned they could write.

Still, my own process is my starting place with them.

To me, all descriptions of the writing process (and plotting too!) are metaphors or theoretical ideals.  They are imperfect descriptors of an impossible to nail down series of decisions and performances that go into the writing of a story.  Here are some of the metaphors and ideals I've used to describe my process:
  • I trust the headlights will show me the way.  (This is E.L. Doctorow's influence)
  • Writing is generative, so I can write my way to the next decision.
  • If the heart leads, the brain will follow.  (This is Ray Bradubury's influence)
  • Create fully realized scenes and there will be no need for exposition.  In the process of writing fully realized scenes, I'll invent the exposition I need to know but don't need to tell to the reader since I already showed it.
  • A story teller knows the end of the story when she speaks the first words, but a story writer knows comparatively little when she writes the first words.  Write the first words in ignorance, the last words in knowledge, and then revise the first words with knowledge of the last ones.  The process of writing a story is moving from being a story writer to becoming the story teller.

I am a non-outliner, a shoot-from-the-hip, know-I'm-going-to-go-the-wrong-way (but that's okay), trust-my-instincts kind of writer.  Revision is everything.  When I start a story, I seldom know exactly where I'm going or even why the idea is worth pursuing.  During the writing, though, all kinds of decisions filter through.  There's an order to them:

  • First, and fairly early, I have to be able to tell myself what the conflict in the story is.  That involves answering the three questions: what does my character want? what stands in the way? and what of value is at stake?  Until I answer those questions, the story will bog down.  The answers need to be clear in my head.
  • Second, once I've decided on the conflict, I ask myself what would the character do next.  The key word is "do."  Plot, for me is the character doing something to achieve a goal, and then responding to the changed world that is the result of the action.  I've seen this thinking described as "action/reaction" plotting.  I have a phobia of my characters being "pluckless," so I'm keenly aware of them being the center of actions.
  • Third, I start thinking about why the material in the story motivated me to write in the first place.  This thinking seems to start when I'm about half way through the first draft.  Why is this story worth telling?  What within it is psychologically/socially/intellectually/culturally/etc. intriguing?  In other words, what are the themes?  What does this story say about who we are, where we are going, and/or how we should behave?  Compositionally, I slow down when I consider the implications of my story.  I need to answer the theme question because that shapes the ending, not so much whether the character wins or loses (or falls into an interesting alternative that is neither a win or loss), but how the character is going to react to the end, and/or what is the story's final note.
  • All along the way, I think about what is interesting?  The "what is interesting" question dominates all the writing.  What is an interesting thing for the character to say?  What is an interesting description?  What is an interesting word choice?  What is an interesting action?  You get the picture.  If I'm not being interesting, the writing is just about what happens next, and that bores me.  What this means is that I'm often going through a hierarchy of choices when I make decisions.  The first choice is almost always the most obvious, and, ultimately, the least interesting.  Second choices can also be obvious to an experienced reader, so I try for the surprising choices, my third, fourth or fifth choice.  Often times I think of writing as just a game of fulfilling or denying expectations.  If my reader expects me to go a certain way (fulfilling the expectation), can I get there in an unexpected or interesting way?  If I take my reader in an unexpected direction (denying expectations), can I make the surprise satisfying?
  • I trust revision to save me.  The story the reader sees is the tip of a writing iceberg.  The reader doesn't see the false starts, dead ends and missteps I took.  I get to reorganize, reword, insert, delete and polish.  One of the features of writing I love most is that I have a chance to appear brighter and more creative than I am.  The writer Anne Lamott has a chapter in her book, Bird by Bird, that she called "Shitty First Drafts."  Oh, yeah!  You go girl!

So, that is kind of, sort of, in the neighborhood of or approximately how I write a story.  I hope I've made myself clear.

Also, I like to type with my eyes closed.  It gets me into the world of the story better.

Tags: writing

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