Thursday, July 21, 2016

Chris McCormick's Sixteen Steps to Writing a Story

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys (Picador), lays out his method.

Sixteen Steps to Writing a Story:

  1. Figure out what you know. Maybe it’s a place, or a place within a place, or a job, or a task within a job, or a certain kind of dynamic in a certain kind of relationship. Be so daringly specific that you fear no one will relate. That’s how you get people to relate.
  2. Figure out what you don’t know about what you know. This way—Grace Paley used to tell her students—you’ll be writing with a question in mind instead of an explanation. Readers, like actual human people, hate being explained to. They’d much rather join an investigation.
  3. Now that you have a question in mind, imagine a character who’s relevant to that question in an interesting way.
  4. Imagine a second character who’s relevant to the same question in a different but also interesting way.
  5. Write a scene in which the first character relies on or disappoints the other.
  6. Write exposition that uncovers how the two characters have come to this point.
  7. With all this new information in mind, start over.
  8. Write from inside the story, not above it.
  9. Write until you arrive at some deeper understanding of your original question. Avoid pat answers.
  10. Now that you know what your story is about, start over.
  11. After many drafts and revisions, and only when you’ve done all you can on your own, send the story to one or two (but, like, never three) trusted readers.
  12. Thank them for their time and friendship, even if their opinions are untimely and unfriendly.
  13. Revise endlessly-ish. You could go on tinkering forever, but there’s quitting and there’s finishing. Trust yourself to know the difference.
  14. People, like readers, hate being explained to. That’s why lists like these invariably fail. Call bullshit on this one and the millions of others like it. 
  15. What isn’t bullshit is that you should read greedily and diversely and slowly. If any of these feels like a chore to you, your own stories will be chores to read, too.
  16. All that matters is energy and compassion. Stories that move forward while moving us can get away with absolutely anything.