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A student talked to me about her frustrations with her rough draft.  She has a good beginning, and she knows the end, but she doesn't know how to get from one to the other.  It reminded me of a Sidney Harris cartoon.  In it, a professor is talking to a math student at the blackboard.  The student has an equation covering the board, except in one spot, where he has written, "Then a miracle occurs."  The professor says, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."

That cartoon has always cracked me up.

The only advice I could give the student was to relook at the conflict.  What does the character want?  What stands in the way?  What of value is to be gained or lost.  If she knows that, she just ("just" is such an easy and casual word in advice) needs to have her character take an action in her own behalf, and then tell the reader what happens.  Her job as a writer is to move the story in the direction of her ending, although it ought to feel like the character is in retreat all the time and not getting closer, until she is there and whatever is going to happen happens.  And, of course, the writer has to be prepared for the inevitable adjustment of what she thinks the story is about and how it should end.  There are many possibilities.

Or, she could write, "Then a miracle occurs."

That reminds me of another cartoon.  In it, a short stop is running all the possibilities of the next play in his head.  He has a little angel on one shoulder who says things like, "If the ball is to your left, make the play at second yourself.  Throw to first."  Then he says, "If the ball is to the right, hold the runner at third, make the play at first."  He finishes with, "Smother a rolling bunt, fake the throw home, catch the runner coming off second."  The devil on the other shoulder says, "Drop it."

I like that one too.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
I like the "Then a miracle occurs" line. I think I shall put it in my reports at work to get out of having to explain to people how I do my job.

As a side note, if she did put in "then a miracle occurs", would you still give her short story a passing grade?
Nov. 12th, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
LOL! No, I'd have to say, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."
Nov. 13th, 2007 12:20 am (UTC)

what if it's a story about a miracle occurring?
Nov. 12th, 2007 08:46 pm (UTC)
I think I would be in deep trouble if I ever knew beyond the first word or three. I want to see where the idea goes of itself, what its destiny becomes; I don't want to force it to go where it can't really live.

Life and writing are more adventurous that way. More fun.
As you might surmise, I only used a writing outline once in all the years, and a living outline never.
Nov. 12th, 2007 09:34 pm (UTC)
Well, this is an example of why I haven't written as much over time as I have. I have to wait for the story to form before I can put it down. Ihave to wait for the resolution to form,and the beginning is easy. But the middle - I do best when the middle is hazy. That is my subconscious's playground, and I find that it likes little twists that wind down with the conclusion.

I am good with that.

So, tell her to trust her gut. It sometimes sees what the eyes miss.
Nov. 12th, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)
I think what she and a bunch of her classmates are doing is waiting for the pressure of the deadline to force their hands.

It's a traditional, venerable technique for finishing work. It's also a recipe for underconsidered, poorly proofread, least well thought stories.

Nov. 12th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)
I love that cartoon, but of course, I've taught Calculus, which is just an educated guess...the end of every problem is a miracle of sorts. ;o)
Nov. 12th, 2007 11:21 pm (UTC)
That cartoon is a venerable class here in math grad school. I was talking to a grad student in another discipline about the amount of creativity we each use on grad school, and I said all my creativity went into making up proofs... :)
Nov. 13th, 2007 12:27 am (UTC)

I've seen that cartoon, and I've also seen an alternate version of that, substituting "then a miracle occurs" with "by induction," and of course, sans the professorial criticism.
Nov. 13th, 2007 12:46 pm (UTC)
"Then a miracle occurs!"

I'm having almost the same problem with the story I'm working on. So I'll be referring back to this post. Thank you!
Nov. 13th, 2007 01:37 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! I hope it helped the student. Their rough drafts are due today.
Nov. 13th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)
Let us know how that went?
Nov. 13th, 2007 07:53 pm (UTC)
For the student who started the post with her question about how to handle the middle, she did have a complete draft today. She said she wrote from 5:00 to 11:00.

Despite the five-week lead time on this assignment, I know that several kids wrote the bulk of their stories last night. Nothing like a looming deadline to spark the motivation machine.
Nov. 13th, 2007 07:55 pm (UTC)
But you did say very aptly and correctly about it's also a recipe for underconsidered, poorly proofread, least well thought stories. I gave myself a deadline, but I hope I won't have to crunch so hard on it. I can't write from 5 to 11 without alienating the family!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )