Harlan Ellison is my favorite author, and he has famously stated, on myriad occasions, that there is no magic to writing, no muse one must seek out in order to get the words down on the paper. It is a job—like a plumber or a teacher or a banker—requiring a knowledge of, and dedication to, the craft, coupled with an imagination and a keen observation of humanity, in order to succeed. (Of course, this does not guarantee success, but it builds a solid foundation) To that end, Ellison has created roughly two dozen stories extemporaneously, sitting in the windows of bookshops across the globe, allowing patrons and passersby the opportunity to watch him work. When people suspected he may have plotted these stories out beforehand, Ellison solicited ideas from friends, like Chris Carter and Robin Williams, having them offer the starting point at the beginning of his performances. Start to finish, a new story written in one or a handful of days, with no forethought. Impressive.
That’s now how I work.
At heart, I am a planner. I like to know where I’m going, the exact route to get me there, and the itinerary for once I arrive. I like that safety net, whether it’s a physical trip or one across the pages of a new story. As regards writing, I have needed to learn to back off the outlining—or, more to the point, to become more trusting of myself and allow for some gaps in my story’s plan. A strict outline can stifle creativity, and if you already know what’s going to happen, the writing can be boring, and you may not reach the end.
For me, when an idea hits, it’s like being flooded with information from varying aspects of the story—scenes, bits of dialogue, characters, all fight for dominance in my brain (and this often happens while I’m driving somewhere or laying in bed, away from a computer or pen & paper). This is how I know I’ve got something I should pursue, as a story. But, even with all these ideas sparking in my brain, many of the details, including details of character or setting, can be missing.
This is why I tend to write my short stories over the course of days, or even a few weeks. I slowly discover what the story is about and where it should go next. Currently, I’m almost 4000 words into my latest story, which involves a man in the present, using his cell phone to speak with the past, to a boy trapped in the cellar of the home he now owns. It’s been slow going, each scene teased out of me over the course of the past two weeks, and I’ve found myself questioning where the story was going on many occasions, and considered just scrapping it a few days ago, the writing was going so poorly—like pulling teeth without any anesthetic would be an apt metaphor. The biggest problem, I felt, was that I didn’t know my characters well enough and, more importantly, didn’t understand why this old man, in the past, was keeping this young boy locked up in his basement. The old man was evil, sure, but to what end?
Then it hit me. The old man wanted the boy for a sacrifice. He was scared of the future he perceived in 1920s America, a world where other races were gaining power, meaning he, as an old white man, would be losing power, in his warped mind. Once I understood this, all the rest fell into place, and the next scene I had to write flowed more quickly and smoothly than any other part of the story had, to date.
It’s not a conscious effort, on my part, to allow these stories to unfurl over the course of weeks, in order to discover what they are about. It is more a result of me not knowing, fully, what is to come next. I have to work hard to figure out how a scene should be written, with many false starts. It is a subconscious manifestation of my own ignorance of the narrative, pushing back at that day’s writing, slowing me down, saturating me with doubt, causing me to rework scenes or just scrap them. It’s frustrating. But, eventually, by working at the story and writing scenes that may get cut and fleshing out these characters without fully knowing how they work and think, that allows me to push through that murkiness to find the nugget buried in that initial idea and get to the heart of the story.
Was it there, when I first envisioned the story? No. But I never would have discovered the reason behind the initial concept if I’d merely jotted down some notes and then pondered it for a couple of weeks. There would have been no spine, however frail, to work from. As the story slowly grew, it morphed into something else, for me, something more concrete and better realized. Until I reached the tipping point, and my subconscious finally broke through to tell me why something, within this specific story-world, was initiated. From there, it’s a matter of finishing up the first draft, at which point, I can let it rest, knowing that I can make it eminently better upon revising.