June 28, 2013

How To Write a Short Story, Apparently

1. Despair that you'll ever be able to write a short story. This phase can last anywhere from a few hours to half a lifetime.

2. Think up a first line you really like the sound of.

3. Let the first line rattle around in your brain looking for a story to attach itself to.

4. After some weeks of this, decide to take a scientific approach. Figure out the last line that logically pairs with your first line.

5. Try to solve the puzzle of how to get from the first line to the last line. Swim a lot of laps during this stage, because ideas grow in water.

6. Gradually, over the course of a month or two, develop the idea of a path between the lines that's shaped kind of like a story, but without any driving motivation.

7. Keep searching for the missing elements of your story. They're there in the water somewhere if you just keep swimming long enough.

8. Come up with an actual plot that makes sense, more or less. Hooray, the hard part is over! All you have to do now is write it.

9. Realize you still have to write it. Despair anew. Procrastinate for a while.

10. Start writing the first draft. Discover that you're out of practice in putting any old words down because you've spent the past years in revision, obsessing over selecting the perfect words.

11. Take pleasure in the fact that short stories are a whole lot shorter than novels. Look at that, you're already halfway done.

12. Complete the first draft. Congratulations, you wrote a short story! Now you can revise forever.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Page-Turner, Thomas Beller considers the relationship between writers and Twitter: "I had always thought of Twitter as being a good place to work out ideas: a place to mull things over in public, and a way of documenting a thought to make it more likely that I would remember it. But is it like a conversation or is it 'talking it out?' Is it a note to oneself that everyone can see, or is it, like iPhone photos, an attempt to offload the responsibilities of memory onto an apparatus that feels like an extension of ourselves because it is always in our hands? I sometimes wonder if I might ever be accused of stealing my own idea."

June 20, 2013

Pondering the Passage of Time

My novel takes place over generations, with storylines spaced thirty years apart. If you've been following my revision adventures for a while, you'll know that I wrote the first two drafts in the order the chapters appear, with the stories interlocked, but for the last big rewrite, I took it one storyline at a time. For various reasons, I worked on the chronologically last story first, then moved backwards through the generations.

Now that I'm making another pass through the manuscript, I'm considering the stories in the more logical direction of earliest to latest. One of the most important things I'm doing is fixing up places where the text of later storylines is inconsistent with what now occurs in the characters' past. There aren't a huge number of these issues because I did have so much planned out in advance and made a million notes to handle the complex structure, but some errors did get introduced. For the most part, these problems are simple to fix with minor edits.

Something I did not anticipate, though, was that I was going to make some pretty major personality changes, even beyond what I planned, to the earliest narrator and his wife. These are great changes and strengthen that storyline (and therefore the whole novel) in a big way. But now I'm looking at the second storyline, which I wrote with a very clear idea of those characters as the sixty-something parents of the middle narrator, and it doesn't quite match up.

It's subtle, though. I'm not finding it unbelievable that these are the same people thirty years on. For one thing, their portrayals are colored by the perspective of their adult son, who has strong feelings about his mother and father and the way he was raised. And their roles in the middle storyline are limited to their interactions with the narrator, which are very different from the interactions they have with each other in the earliest story. So it makes sense that they don't come off quite the same way, and I'm trying to keep that in mind as I tweak the things they do and say for more consistency with their earlier selves.

But the question I keep running into, which is becoming more of a philosophical issue than a writing problem, is just how much the passage of thirty years of adulthood changes a person. I'm sure the answer is that it varies by individual and circumstance, and also that some aspects of anyone's personality are more fixed than other parts. My experience of people (both observing and being one) is that we mostly don't think of ourselves as changing very much past a certain age, though the people we know may not always agree with that self-assessment.

To bring this back to my revision: As I go along, I'm getting more confident about reconciling the different-age versions of my characters, but this has been a tricky thing to deal with. Fortunately, some of the age transitions are from babies or young children to adults, and with these I have less concern about keeping the personalities consistent. In fact, with the kids it's almost the opposite: I worry that some of the childhood behavior lines up too neatly with the adult lives and may be corny.

Add this all to the long list of reasons this is a ridiculously complicated novel to be writing. I can only hope that in thirty years I'm going to look back and laugh about it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley of Beyond the Margins shares what she learned in a writing class about Secrets and Lies: "For each piece of the secret, a different version of things can be imagined. And having these pieces spread among characters allows them to figure out different things at different times, making it easier for the writer to maintain tension throughout."

June 17, 2013

Life After Life

In LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson, a woman lives her life over and over, trying to evade an untimely death. It's an intriguing premise, and I adored the execution.

The novel opens as a baby is born during a snowstorm in 1910 England. The umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck, and she dies. The story begins again. This time, the doctor has made it through the storm to attend the delivery, and he cuts the cord, saving the baby's life. The little girl, Ursula, goes on to have a childhood, but then she dies in an accident. The story begins again.

As Ursula's lives continue, she acquires some awareness of the paths previously taken, and she tries to change circumstances to prevent her own death. She isn't always successful, and the book develops a darkly humorous attitude toward her predicament. Despite the often grim subject matter, this is a very funny novel. Ursula's array of relatives and friends include some amusingly infuriating characters, and the narration is full of biting commentary on their antics.

The book's historical content is fascinating and detailed. Ursula witnesses and falls victim to several major historical events of the first half of the twentieth century. Atkinson has clearly done her research on the Spanish influenza epidemic, World War II, and especially the London Blitz. I recommend LIFE AFTER LIFE to fans of historical fiction, those who like non-standard narratives, and really any interested reader.

(Note that another novel with the same title was also released this spring, so if you decide to pick up this book, make sure you get the right one.)

June 11, 2013


I was on vacation last week. I had lots of wonderful time with my family, especially my adorable nephew. (For photos of my adorable nephew, plus descriptions of two unusual dramatic events that I was witness to, read my brother's post about our family getaway.) I accomplished none of the writing-related tasks I thought I might have time for, didn't solve the plot problems I intended to mull over, and only got reading done on the airplane. It was truly a vacation from my regular life, and it was great.

Now I'm back and trying to wrap my brain around my novel again. Yesterday was slow going. First I put off facing my manuscript as long as possible by deciding that I had to take care of housework. Then I spent too long organizing some notes, fretted at length over one of those plot problems and finally decided it wasn't as big a deal as I thought, and eventually wrangled a small amount of text into shape.

Today is better. I'm rediscovering my enthusiasm for my story, and I'm excited about the improvements I'm making to this particularly troublesome section. I feel confident that I'll continue progressing at a pace I feel good about, and this draft is going to get done.

It was nice to get a break. It was nice to return. I can't ask for more than that!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer Weiner weighs in on the debate over likable characters: "Currently, the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write a protagonist who is--oh, the horror--likable. Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?"