A few years ago, I outlined my no-nonsense, foolproof, sure-fire method for writing a short story. For the past month, I've been working on a new story, and at first I thought I was doing really well, since I breezed past many of the early steps and quickly arrived at the stage of beginning a first draft.
It turns out I probably should have followed the procedure more closely, because I got stuck somewhere in the process. As far as I can see, deviating from the original instructions is the only reason I'm not finished drafting by now, but in case something else went wrong, I decided to record the steps I took this time.
1. Sign up for a class to give yourself both a reason to write a short story and an opportunity to receive feedback and guidance on the story.
2. Clean the entire contents of your house. Consider the course information email that advised you to prepare for class by beginning work on a story, "or at least formulating a rough idea". Recognize that your brain might generate ideas if left unstimulated during the tedium of cleaning. Instead, catch up on dozens of hours of podcasts.
3. Decide on a extremely general topic for your story. Decide that constitutes a "rough idea", so you're all set for now.
4. Spend a long, tiring day fulfilling civic obligations. When it's over, attempt to nap. Find that your brain won't turn off, but that it now contains a fully formed and detailed idea for the story. You're ahead of the game!
5. Record all your thoughts about the story. Create an outline. Reason that you can't possibly start drafting yet because the class hasn't begun, so you don't know what the word count restrictions will be.
6. When the class begins, receive the word count guidelines, plus your personal date to present your story for critique. Rejoice and despair, for your deadline is approximately one thousand weeks in the future.
7. Continue rearranging the contents of your house. Participate eagerly in the many components of the class unrelated to working on your story. After all, you signed up for this class to reap the benefits of the entire experience, and your due date is infinitely far away.
8. Take the essential but time-consuming step of assigning names to characters you've been referring to with descriptors like "Younger". Write several opening sentences and nearly three paragraphs. You're really making progress now!
9. Assemble furniture, bake cookies, spend a lot of time traveling from place to place for frustrating purposes outside your control. Devote all your remaining time to writing thoughtful feedback on the work of your classmates. Reason that since critiquing others improves your skills at spotting problems in your own work, you're essentially also working on your story during this time.
10. Realize your class deadline is in three and a half weeks and the rough draft deadline you set for yourself is in three days. Struggle to write for about an hour. Recognize that the best sentence you produce during the session is this tweet: "I find it increasingly inconvenient that it's necessary to write a first draft in order to embark on the glorious process of revision." Also recognize that this feeling is an integral component of step 10 of your original 12-step story process.
11. Spend the rest of the week on tasks that circumstances render more time-sensitive and important than your story. It's important to deal with car maintenance, because that's what responsible adults do. It's important to take care of all your classwork early, because visitors are arriving. It's important to research recipes, buy ingredients, and do more baking, because yum. It's important to jot down notes for a blog post, because it's certainly a more promising piece of writing than the story you aren't working on.
12. Have a wonderful extra-long weekend with visiting family members. Relax. Don't worry about your story. Remember that after the visitors leave, you'll still have two weeks left until the due date, and there won't be so many non-writing demands on your time.
13. Look at the partial scene you've written so far. Look away in horror. Clean your house. Take care of your classwork, some of which involves rewriting a small section of the partial scene. Contemplate more baking. Read the book you've been neglecting. Remember you made notes for that blog post you should definitely finish writing now, so it'll be out of the way and you can focus on your story.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Emily St. John Mandel reflects on her lengthy book tour in The Year of Numbered Rooms: "I was declining most event offers by that point, because it was clear by then that what had started as five cities in six or seven days was going to be something closer to 50 cities in 14 months. I am aware at all times of how lucky I was with Station Eleven, having published three previous novels that came and went without a trace, but it is possible to exist in a state of profound gratitude for extraordinary circumstances and simultaneously long to go home."