Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar—This Year's Winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award

In addition to naming three finalists each January, we also award The Story Prize Spotlight Award to a short story collection of exceptional merit. Winners of The Story Prize Spotlight Award can be promising works by first-time authors, collections in alternative formats, or works that demonstrate an unusual perspective on the writer's craft. The winner receives a prize of $1,000.

This year's winner is Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar (Sarabande Books), a collection of thirteen bold and varied stories that utilize an array of narrative strategies and present characters who often are or feel like outsiders. No matter the setting Jarrar chooses or the form she employs, her storytelling skills and empathy for her characters—who are often Arab Americans—shine through.

Past winners of The Story Prize Spotlight Award have been Krys Lee's Drifitng House, Ben Stroud's Byzantium, Kyle Minor's Praying Drunk, and Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying

Author Rand Jarrar, winner of
The Story Prize Spotlight Award
This is not the first book published by Sarabande Books to win The Story Prize Spotlight Award. It also published the winner two years ago, Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. In recent years, Sarabande has moved from being a regionally focused small press to one that now publishes an array of interesting and innovative books, a substantial number of which are short story collections.

Congratulations to Randa Jarrar and Sarabande Books for winning The Story Prize Spotlight Award for short story collections published in 2016.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Story Prize Finalists: Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman

We're pleased to honor as finalists for The Story Prize three outstanding books published in 2016, chosen from 106 entries representing 72 different publishers or imprints. The finalists are:

For a Little While by Rick Bass collects seven new stories and eighteen selected from previous collections, that together represent the work of one of the most skillful contemporary practitioners of the short story form. The eleven stories in Anna Noyes's Goodnight, Beautiful Women, set in coastal Maine, span the lives of people struggling to get by and those from more privileged circumstances, who nonetheless face obstacles of their own. Helen Maryles Shankman's collection, They Were Like Family to Meadds layers of magical realism to eight stories that focus on Włodowa, an occupied town in Poland during World War II, offering the points of view of German officers, Jews, Poles, and modern day descendants of some of these characters.

This year's judges—former National Book Awards Executive Director Harold Augenbraum, author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Milwaukee bookseller Daniel Goldin—will decide the outcome.

The annual award event will take place at the New School’s Auditorium at 66 West 12 Street in New York City at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., March 8. Tickets cost $14. That night, Bass, Noyes, and Shankman will read from and discuss their work on-stage. At the end of the event, Julie Lindsey will announce the winner and present that author with $20,000 along with an engraved silver bowl. The two runners-up will each receive $5,000.

In the weeks ahead, we'll announce this year's winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award. We'll also publish an index of guest posts from 2016 authors and a long list of other exceptional collections we read last year.


* They Were Like Family to Me is the title of the paperback edition. The book was published in hardcover as In the Land of Armadillos.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Patrick Ryan on How to Begin

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Ryan, author of The Dream Life of Astronauts (Dial Press), discusses his approach to writing the opening of a story.

How I wish I’d written “Chef’s House” by Raymond Carver. Actually, that’s too greedy and grandiose. All I really want is to live one day of my life as the person who, that morning, wrote the opening to “Chef’s House.” That first paragraph!* We get it all in just a few lines: the present of those two characters, their history, their heartbreak, their hope. We get the urgency, the hesitation, the tone, the sound of their voices. We even get in microcosm the entire arc of the story that’s to come—though we aren’t sure that’s the case until we’ve finished reading.

I don’t find beginnings any harder to write than endings. Or middles, for that matter. But I have settled into a few guidelines for myself when it comes to beginnings. I try to start with a sentence you can’t really argue with. Meaning, a sentence that states a fact within the world of the story. And I endeavor to make that sentence involve an action—though that’s not always possible. It’s very helpful for the writer and the reader to get to a verb that has to do with the present action of the story as soon as possible.

Revising the first page is an ongoing process. If I write four sentences, chances are I’ve already revised each one of them a few times before I get up from my chair. I read out loud to myself all the time, listening to the way the words line up. I do that for a couple of reasons: I want the rhythm to work from one sentence to the next, and I want to clear away any confusion. Nothing that can be read two different ways is allowed to stand. (The only exception to that, of course, is dialogue. Miscommunication between characters often serves as the gasoline in a scene’s engine.) Anytime a writer sets out to be obscure—even for a line or two—I think it’s a misstep. Anything that causes the reader to pause, back up, and reread for clarity is a misstep. Writers should only count on getting one read out a reader.

A strong sense of character has to be in place for me before I can get going. I know there are plenty of great writers who start with a few words, add a few more, and before they know it, characters and situations emerge on the page. For me, nothing emerges without a grasp on the characters I’m writing about before I begin. I don’t take a lot of notes on them or sketch out their bios as a rule, but I think about them. I picture them. I don’t need an exact face; I need an exact sense.

All of that is there in the opening of “Chef’s House.” I’m in awe every time I read it. I’ll never knock an opening out of the park like that, but a person can dream, right?


* The opening to "Chef's House" by Raymond Carver: 
That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Matt Bell's Aimee Bender Fan Fiction

In the 67th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Matt Bell, author of A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho Press), explains why he left a story out of his collection.

There are thirteen stories in How They Were Found, my first story collection, but only nine of them made it to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, my latest, which includes most of that out-of-print book as well as a previously published novella and a number of new stories. Of the four stories left out, three were easy and obvious exclusions. Two very short stories would have been swallowed up in the nearly four hundred pages of A Tree or a Person or a Wall. Another was among the earliest stories I wrote for How They Were Found, and it no longer seemed strong enough to stand beside the stories that followed.

The fourth was titled "The Leftover," and it was one of my favorites.

A breakup story, "The Leftover" concerned a young woman whose boyfriend moved out—but who somehow left behind a smaller, childlike version of himself who the woman now had to care for. There was a sweetness to the story that I always liked, a tenderness often absent from other stories of mine, and I think it was funny in its absurdity in a way that made it a valuable addition to How They Were Found, an often grim collection. But by the time I was putting together A Tree or a Person or a Wall, I knew I couldn't include it again.

The problem? Rereading the "The Leftover" meant admitting it didn't really feel like it was mine but Aimee Bender's.

Or rather: what it felt like was a piece of Aimee Bender fan fiction. The events of the story could have come right out of one of her books—which isn't to say I'd rendered them as well as she would have. (Another hallmark of fan fiction: The writing and the invention are rarely as good as the original.) It had enough markers of what I think of as "my style" to stand alone if I never said anything, but obviously it owed an enormous debt to Bender, her worlds, her style. Reading my story again with fresh eyes, it was hard for me to feel that I'd added enough to what I'd taken to really call it mine.

So I decided "The Leftover" was fan fiction—but was that necessarily a bad thing? "Fan fiction" can be a term of derision: The form isn't exactly beloved by most literary writers, and certainly most creative writing teachers see it as part of their job to encourage students away from it, even though many beginning students are in writing classes because of their love for fan fiction—writing inside the worlds of their heroes is not infrequently the only kind of fiction they've written so far. And why not? In her book On Beauty, Elaine Scarry says that "Beauty brings copies of itself into being… Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable."

Around the time I wrote "The Leftover," there were few writers whose work I loved as much as I loved Aimee Bender's stories. They were smart and funny and weird, and though I didn't yet have the technical language to describe all of their effects, there were techniques she used that rang deeply true to my own felt experience of the world. For instance, there's often a "flatness" to her depictions of action that (thanks to Kate Bernheimer's writing) I've learned to recognize in other kinds of non-realist writing like fairy tales, and I loved how concrete the magic in Bender's stories was, how she never winked at the reader or flinched from the consequences of introducing some unlikely new reality into the world we know. But as much I liked these elements of Bender's writing, I hadn't yet taken what I learned and made it fully my own, at least not in "The Leftover," where what I'd taken from Bender is now so much more apparent to me than it is in other stories of mine, which surely also bear her influence in less obvious ways.

(A side note: Could there be any more obvious title for a story of fan fiction than "The Leftover"? A story literally made as if from the scraps of a better story, "reheated" by the imagination of a writer who had fond memories of some fresher original?)

Part of the problem of "The Leftover" and Bender's total influence on it is easy for me to diagnose now: I just hadn't read enough other books like hers yet, books working in the same traditions that would expand and complicate my fandom until I could see more of the possibilities of this kind of fabulist writing. I needed Karen Russell, I needed Kelly Link, I needed Karin Tidbeck, I needed Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Marquez and dozens of other fabulists, magical realists, writers of contemporary fairy tales and myths.

To more fully become my own writer, I needed as many of these kinds of writers as I could find, and however many I read it will never be enough.

One of the truest things I've learned about writing fiction is that the writers who seem the most original are often paradoxically the ones with the most influences. They read from the most eras, from the most traditions. They love writers not just from America but from around the world. They read diversely, in every sense of the word. And all their fandoms combine into something seemingly new, some composite "imagination" not yet seen, which makes them seem utterly unique. But perhaps that's not really it: Perhaps these most original writers are simply better fan fiction writers than the rest of us, because the beauty they're imitating comes from more sources, because they have learned to drawn upon the example of not just one way of seeing the world but many.

I know now that every sentence I write is, in one way or another, a love letter to a sentence I've read, a fan fiction in miniature. Still, I removed "The Leftover" from my newest book because it was too obviously an overt love letter to only Aimee Bender—to what I understood about Bender's sentences, her techniques, her preferred story shapes. It was too simple an affection, too obviously a mimicry. Since then, a lot of other writers have come into my life through their books, each unique in his or her own way, each offering some slightly skewed way of looking at this world we share. I fall in love with a new writer, and each new love leaves its mark, hopefully joining all the others that have come before to share what's best of their art with whatever is most mine in me, their stories making new tales through me, as best as we all can.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Tobias Carroll on Broken Structures and Unfinished Stories

In the 66th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Tobias Carroll, author of Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms), talks about trying to make use of an admired and complex story structure.

When I was young, I subscribed to OMNI magazine mostly for the science fiction stories that accompanied articles about technology and the future in each issue. And while I don’t remember every story that I read in my high school years, a few have stayed seared into my mind: Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon,” with its reimagining of a familiar story in an entirely fresh form; Jonathan Lethem’s “The Happy Man,” for its jarring blend of a surreal cosmology and quotidian realism; and Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” for a number of reasons related to both its structure and the narrative that slowly unfolds.

What struck me about it then, and still does, is the way in which it establishes a very rigid structure, and then thoroughly dynamites it. Several stories are nestled within this story. Each paragraph begins with a sentence with the same structure: “On [day of the week] the [date] of [month].” In each, the protagonist, a man known as Levendis, carries out a particular action—some of them innocuous, some heroic, some horrific. It quickly establishes Levendis as someone with miraculous abilities: he can easily traverse time and space, and each day’s events are unique: a story within the stories that make up the larger story.

By the end of “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” Ellison defies the structure he established earlier, however. It begins with events taking place on the first of October; given its structure, one might expect the story to end on the 31st. It does not; it goes beyond that, treating the framework as one more boundary to transcend—all of which makes for a neat evocation of Levandis’ own ability to leap around the corridors of space and time, as well as an echo of the playful way in which he does so. It’s a hypnotic feat: Ellison established a particular rhythm, and then dismantled it, propelling the reader into the full-on unknown along the way.


Clearly, I wanted to try my hand at something that took a similar approach. So far, I haven’t been able to accomplish this. I have a story in progress that would follow a character as they carried out a series of tasks at the rest areas on the Garden State Parkway–partially because, as someone who grew up in New Jersey, rest areas are inexorably wrapped up in my memories of long car trips, and partially because, as spaces go, they fascinate me.

But I haven’t quite found the right way to pull this off yet. There’s a confidence and bravado in Ellison’s story that makes the risks in his structure pay off. And there’s the fact that he uses the repetitive aspects of his structure to counterbalance the more sprawling aspects of it. A narrative that covered similar ground—which could literally be set in an infinite number of locations and an infinite number of points in time—is ultimately given a kind of unity through this device. Remove that scaffolding and the disparate elements might become discordant. Leave it in and there’s a sense of comfort: the reader’s anticipation of what Levandis might do on the next day, and on the day after that.

What makes Ellison’s story work so well is its juxtaposition of rigidity and playfulness—which eventually folds back in on itself as it reaches its conclusion. It’s a work of fiction from which I’m still drawing lessons, and one to which I hope to eventually find the right way to pay homage. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” is a fascinating story to revisit and study, though its balance of formality and irreverence seems unique. Still, it’s a short story that contains worlds within it, and closes with a gleeful wink. It’s hard to avoid being impressed, and I’ll most likely be chasing aspects of its structure for years to come.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Theodore Wheeler on Writing Stories from Inside Trump's America (Before It Was)

In the 65th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Theodore Wheeler, author of Bad Faith (Queen's Ferry Press), reexamines his story collection in light of recent events.

As part of my literary citizenship here in Omaha, I co-host a literature-themed pub quiz at a Midtown nightspot called Pageturners Lounge. It’s a good chance to come together with friends and hear various folks from the community who we invite to talk about their books or small press or the local library. Our event in November fell the day after the election, something that seemed fortuitous at first. Who wouldn’t want to put all that nastiness behind them and tilt a few pints in honor of the nation (hopefully) going on about its business in a quiet and dignified manner? Or not. 

Being good citizens, we showed up ready to give our best to the event, though the proceedings were decidedly low-energy. Only about a fifth of our typical crowd showed, and half the teams featured the word “sad” in their usually-cheeky team names. (For example, Big Trouble in Little Vagina was a crowd favorite the previous month). Safe to say, it wasn’t our best night. However, given the small crowd, the occasion did allow for reflection and conversation. 

As it happened, that particular Wednesday turned out to be much more roiling than many of us expected. Only about a fifth of our typical crowd showed, and half the teams featured the word “sad” in their usually-cheeky team names. (For example, Big Trouble in Little Vagina was a crowd favorite the previous month). Safe to say, it wasn’t our best night. However, the occasion did allow for reflection and conversation. 

At some point in the night, one of my compatriots noted that Bad Faith, my short story collection, could be billed as an exploration of “Trump’s America.” To many, the phrase must provoke an image of unemployed white men whose political views center on xenophobia. That’s definitely not how I see myself—I’m employed! I don’t shout hate speech!—but now that Trump had won, would it mean that all the U.S. was Trump’s America? And, in a more personal way, have I always been writing from this place and about these people, however you want to label them? Would that also change now that the presidency might go in unprecedented directions?
Omaha's Pageturners Lounge: A sad crowd gathers

In some ways I could see where my friend was coming from. Many of my stories feature rural, rough-edged types who fill the outline of a Trump voter that’s been iterated in the media. My fiction has fit under other labels in the past—rural noir, prairie gothic, dirty realism, etc.—all both dissatisfying and appropriate. Given that I spent years with these characters, digging deep to reveal and refine their natures to the core, I tend to resist thinking about them in demographic terms. On the other hand, with all the talk of recounts and Electoral College shenanigans, maybe it’s worthwhile to think about my characters in this way too, even with the book out. Times change, so why shouldn’t the way I see my book change, too?

Going off my friend’s suggestion, I began to think about who fit into what electoral bucket. Certainly the crotchety Harry Kleinhardt of my opening story, a man who’s forced to face his disappointment of a son while dying from cancer, who spends his afternoons sunning himself in the mudroom listening to Limbaugh and reminisces about how bright life once was, at least before it all went to shit. There’s one vanguard of Trump’s America. Then there’s Anna from “Impertinent, Triumphant,” who met her politician husband while both were congressional interns for Kit Bond, the former Republican Senator from Missouri. It’s easy to see how Anna would coalesce behind the Trump campaign. While not a “build that wall” kind of gal, she wouldn’t be opposed to chanting “lock her up” if others were doing so, say, on the floor of the Republican National Convention, exchanging a loftier political ideal or two in order to take a pantsuit-wearing liberal down a peg.

But there’s some noise in the populous of Bad Faith—as with anywhere, the distance between perception and reality isn’t so clear. Sam and Jacq, also from “Impertinent,” a former travel entrepreneur and an experimental landscape artist, leave Manhattan to settle on a ranch near the Sandhills. And what about the biracial man from Omaha who has to face his fear of being an outsider in a small town (and being exposed to small town police) to attend the funeral of his estranged white mother?

Tallying my characters’ likely votes, I found the Bad Faith results to be remarkably similar to those from November 8. Trump won by a margin of 50%-38% among my characters, compared to his 60%-34% margin in Nebraska this year. About 30% of my characters wouldn’t vote at all, which nearly exactly hits the 29% of Nebraskans who didn’t vote. If the statistics are to be believed, I was writing from inside Trump’s America all along— the only slight error being a 10% underestimate of the president-elect’s support here.

The numbers themselves don’t matter so much, of course. The calculus is too complex for either statistical example to hold much worth beyond the referential. In the end, it’s Nate Silver’s job to make sense of the macro; it’s the fiction writer’s job, in particular an author of short stories, to dissect the micro. While some characters in Bad Faith fit the stereotypical Trump voter, nearly as many in the aggregate flee from deep-red counties or are unaffiliated misfits who live in ways that are beyond a pollster’s imagination. I don’t know if that makes me a chronicler of Trump’s America. But maybe it offers some evidence that the culmination of microscopic details do in the end form a clearer portrait of a certain place in a certain time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Benjamin Hale's Four Essential Fiction Writing Rules

In the 64th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Benjamin Hale, author of The Fat Artist (Simon & Schuster), focuses on some basic approaches to making stories.

I set out to write a ten-rules-of-writing-fiction essay á la Elmore Leonard, but I only came up with four essential ones. (I have quite a few more after these, but that’s under the “advanced” menu.) These are four basic rules that I give myself when I write fiction, and they work for me.

1. Don’t write disingenuously.

I have many opinions on the art and science of writing fiction, but the foundation they all rest upon is this commandment: Write what would give you, as a reader, pleasure to read.

Questions arise. What gives me, as a reader, pleasure? What is literary pleasure? There are simple pleasures and there are complex pleasures. There are immediate pleasures and there are pleasures a reader must work for, and oftentimes are more pleasurable in the end because of the work done. There are pleasures I know, and I revisit them again and again: the stories of John Cheever, Patricia Highsmith, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few examples. The only way I have of discovering new varieties of pleasure is to keep on reading, as widely as I can, and in the spirit of exploration: contemporary literature, ancient literature, “high” and “low” literature, literature from as many languages and cultures and times as have left stories behind. The more new pleasures a reader finds, the more techniques of producing literary pleasure that reader as a writer can incorporate into his or her own work.

Do not ever write for someone else’s idea of pleasure. This pitfall is harder to avoid than it seems at first. One might think, Well, The New Yorker seems to like stories that do so-and-so, so I will try to write a story that does that. Or, x writer won x prize, or y writer got an advance for infuriating sum of money z for her book, so I will try to write a book like that. If one drop of this horrible substance falls onto your page, it will contaminate it. If it does, then you are now writing disingenuously; you are writing (as Sinclair Lewis put it in his letter rejecting the Pulitzer in 1926) “not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards.” Don’t write for extrinsic praise. Don’t write for critics. Don’t write for scholars. Don’t write for writers. Don’t write for a “readership,” or an “ideal reader.” Simply try to write what you, as a reader, would honestly find pleasure in.

2. When experience and imagination fail you, research.

There are, as far as I can discern, three sources of inspiration for any maker of stories: (1) experience, (2) research, and (3) imagination.

Experience is everything that you as a human being have learned, thought, seen, touched, smelled, tasted, heard, felt, observed, and remember. I happen to know what an unseasonably early snowfall on an aspen grove on a mountainside in Colorado looks like, what it feels like to be held at gunpoint by robbers, the curiously bizarre smell of the penguin enclosure at the Denver Zoo, moral shame, romantic obsession, and heartbreak so brutal it feels life-threatening (at first)—among other things. These are things I can use in my writing because I have experienced them firsthand.

When a story forces me to write about things I have not experienced firsthand is where research comes in. What it feels like to be a chimpanzee. What it smells like on a fishing boat. What it feels like to have a brain tumor. What it feels like to breastfeed a baby. What a drag queen might have observed at a rooftop cocktail party in New York City in May of 1981. Research can involve reading lots of books about chimpanzees, reading memoirs written by people who have survived brain tumors, asking someone who has breastfed a baby to describe it, interviewing a retired drag queen, calling up a commercial fishing company and asking if they mind if I stand on their boat and try to stay out of the way while they work, so that I can take mental notes on what I see, smell, and hear as they haul in their first catch of the morning. Almost anyone—mothers, drag queens, fishermen—will be enthusiastically receptive to a phone call from a fiction writer politely asking what it feels like to do what they do, or have done. The world is pretty big, and the work of writing fiction does not have to be confined to the surface of your desk, or the walls of whatever room you write in. If a story steers you toward the task of rendering something in words that you have not personally experienced, find someone who has experienced that thing, and ask him or her about it.  Most people will be delighted to tell you.
Old salt: Imagination setting sail

Then, take (1) experience, and (2) research, and mix these with (3) imagination. No one on earth will be able to tell you what it feels like to be a chimpanzee in a zoo, so if that’s what you’re writing about, after reading lots of books about chimpanzees, at some point you’re just going to have to plunge into dark territory and imagine it. You can read a lot of books—histories, journals, diaries, and so on—trying to get a sense of what it felt like to be a Scottish sailor in the Royal Navy onboard a ship in the Atlantic on a sunny day in the eighteenth century (I have not finished that particular story yet), but at some point you’ll have to put your imagination in the driver’s seat. If imagination fails you, return to experience or research, and begin again.

3. Structure is crucial.

The single most useful tool anyone has ever given me to go about the craft of storytelling is a technique the writer William Melvin Kelly taught me sixteen years ago. Here it is:

First, tell your story in three sentences.  Beginning, middle, and end.  Then, break those three sentences into nine:

1.) The beginning of the beginning.
2.) The middle of the beginning.
3.) The end of the beginning.

4.) The beginning of the middle.
5.) The middle of the middle.
6.) The end of the middle.

7.) The beginning of the end.
8.) The middle of the end.
9.) The end of the end.

Once you’ve got that down, you now have an outline. The novelist Edward Carey told me (and I think he’s right): “Very few stories that get finished haven’t been outlined at some point.”

In the years after he taught it to me, I have tweaked Willy Kelly’s nine-sentence method somewhat to suit my purposes. I make a nine-box visual outline for every story I write (that actually gets finished*). It’s similar to the storyboarding method screenwriters often use. I go through four or five drafts, and when I’m done it looks like this:

All those letters represent little notes—plot points or bits of information the reader needs to go on into the next box. With this outline, I’ve got the story blocked out into nine “boxes”—or “chapters,” or chunks of narrative; then I’m ready to begin the sentence-by-sentence composition of the story. If I start with box #1, I’ll sit down to write, and tell myself, “You can shoot off into whatever tangents or spandrels you want, describe all the bathtubs and bird feeders and so on that come to you at the moment of putting words on the page (knowing that much of that will get cut later), but whatever you write, you must make happen or convey a, b, and c plot points or data points before moving on to box #2.” And then, when all the actions or bits of information necessary to the story have happened or have been revealed, it’s time to move on to the next box. I follow the boxes until I’ve come to the end of my first draft. Then it’s time for the fun part—revision.

This method builds a three-act structure into a story, and it helps me construct a story horizontally, rather than vertically. It allows a story to expand from inside-out, reaching outward from its center like the branches of a tree. Most importantly, it builds structure into a story. If you don’t think structure is important in storytelling, just listen to someone tell a joke badly: A bad joke-teller forgets to plant information at the right time, and has to backtrack—“No, no, wait, I forgot to tell you…”—and by then, the timing is ruined; the moment is lost, unrecoverable.

Sometimes, of course, it happens that in the process of writing the sentences, I think of something I like better than what I had planned in the outline. That just means I have to go back to the outline and fiddle around with things. The carpenter, in nailing the planks and boards together, has noticed something that did not occur to the architect, so he informs the architect, and the architect tweaks the design. Another metaphor I find useful is that of the composer and the musician. Not so much a classical composer, but a jazz composer, who allows his musicians more leeway for improvisation. There is a vital interplay between the two. The composer needs the musician to play the notes, but the musician who thinks he doesn’t need the composer is just noodling.

4. Write your first drafts by hand.

Again, I’m not saying these “rules” are anything but what I have found works for me. When I write by hand, I don’t get stalled trying to think of exactly the right word—I just leave a blank there, promise myself to reencounter that little problem in the future, and move on with the story. Later, when I’m typing up what I’ve written by hand, I stop and think of what that missing word should be, I experiment with restructuring the grammar of my sentences, I take things out and put things in, and so on: In typing it up, I create my second draft. Some writer, I can’t remember who, said about the subject of what to do on those doldrums days when one doesn’t feel much like writing: “When the fish aren’t biting, I mend the nets.” While writing a first draft, if I am able to stay significantly ahead of myself with the handwritten manuscript, then I’ll always have nets to mend on those days when the fish aren’t biting. Also, writing by hand will keep you away from the Internet, which is absolutely crucial in writing a first draft.


*A few months ago, I was talking on a panel about short stories at a writers’ conference. I told them about my rule of nines, and someone in the audience asked me, “Do you always use this method to outline stories?” I thought about it, and said, “No. I use this method to outline all the stories that get finished. The stories that dribble and drool and eventually dither out into nothing after meandering for a hundred pages—those are invariably the ones that haven’t been outlined in this way, and they never actually get finished.”