My Emory kids are so smart. They are going to start turning in their stories soon (first batch up is next week), so in honor of that I wrote out my thoughts around what makes a successful story. If this sounds like a list of rules, well, don’t take it that way. This is more a list of discoveries:
10 Things I’ve Learned About Writing:
1) Concrete details are always better than abstractions.
2) The first draft is the spill draft—focus on an image, or a character, or a setting, and see what you end up putting down on the page. The second, third, fourth, fifth drafts are where you revise: add details, take away unnecessary words that bog down the prose, organize your thoughts, switch around paragraphs. In the first draft you “spill” ideas about what you are going to write about. In the following drafts, you look at those ideas, and then figure out what it is you are really trying to say. Then you arrange and re-arrange the words until they articulate your thoughts in an interesting and compelling way.
3) When writing a story, you—the writer—should be surprised by the ending. And yet, if the story is successful, the ending will also feel inevitable. (Flannery O’Connor articulates this idea of the surprising but inevitable ending in her book of essays, Mystery and Manners.)
4) The best writers are those who are willing to work and re-work on their prose. It’s really as simple as that. Sure, some people start off with an extra slice of talent, but talent doesn’t go very far if you aren’t willing to revise, revise, revise.
5) In order for a story to be successful, you (the writer) need to be interested in the story you are telling. If it bores you, it’s going to bore the reader.
6) The characters in your story need to have lives that began before they entered onto the pages of your story, and that continue after the story ends. This is to say that we the reader should feel as if we are peeking into a life that is in motion, rather than feel as if the characters have been brought onto stage only for the purpose of a scene in the book. We want to feel as if the characters go on living after we turn the page.
7) Writer Tony Earley says a story must be about “the thing and the other thing.” This is to say that nothing in fiction is one-dimensional. For example, dialogue between two people might convey specific information that a reader needs to know, but it can’t only convey that information. There is a subtext below every text: for a crude example, think of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are talking on her balcony. They have just met each other, and they are discussing the art of photography, but Allen provides the viewer with subtitles below their conversation, showing us their real thoughts. “Do I sound stupid?” she thinks. “God, I’d like to go to bed with her,” he thinks. Meanwhile, they discuss Diane Arbus. This is an exaggerated version of “the thing and the other thing,” but the point is: there needs to be something else going on beneath the conversation.
8) Implicate your characters, implicate your reader: This is a terrible thing to have to do, but it gets right to the heart of “cutting the strings” from your fictitious characters and letting them be people, not puppets. We are fallen creatures, and at least a third of our brain is lizard. Much as we try to be good, try to do right, our lizard brain often gets the best of us, and we end up hurting other people. This is the crux of fiction. We have noble desires, but our lizard brain gets in the way. You must allow your characters to be flawed, to be self-delusional, to hurt others, and to get hurt. You cannot protect them from life.
9) Often the thing that has best helped your hero navigate his life will be the thing that brings him to his knees at the end of the story. He will have to “shed” that old skin and become someone new in order to make it through life. Think of the alcoholic. Alcohol has helped her, for years, to deal with her parents’ divorce, to deal with her awkwardness in social situations, to deal with her insecurities about her looks. But at a certain point, alcohol becomes the problem, not the solution, and it is making her black out, making her have devastating hangovers, making her lose friends, making her endanger herself. She has to find a new way to cope in the world, after shedding her dependence on alcohol. What was once a friend—alcohol—is now a foe. This is true of so many inherent qualities about people. In fiction, characters must face those parts of themselves that have always helped them navigate their world, but are now getting them stuck and in trouble. Characters must grow, and usually that is by shedding some skin that no longer fits.
10) A story is an organic thing that grows as you write it. What I have found is that the best fiction is controlled by the story, not the writer. You are figuring out what happens to these characters as you write the story. As best you can, let go of what you think should happen, what you think the ending should be, and discover what your characters’ story is through the process of writing. A novel takes you from point A to point Z, but you can’t discover the map until you actually start writing.