Saturday, October 13, 2018

Niles Reddick on the Business Side of Writing

In the 22nd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Niles Reddick, author of Reading the Coffee Grounds (Aakenbaaken & Kent), discusses the nonwriting part of the job.

Many years ago, Inman Majors (author of several novels including his newest, Penelope Lemon), a good friend and former co-editor with me of “The Distillery” (now defunct), jokingly said to colleagues and students, “Don’t give up your day job,” referring to writing and working. As the years have passed, nothing could be truer. While I often joke that I couldn’t make one month’s mortgage payment with what I’ve earned in royalties from my fiction, I have been fortunate to work in higher education and write “on the side.”

Writers love ideas and are inspired by all sorts of things. For me, it’s family like my aunt who collected road kill and made what she called art with it, or her pouring peroxide in tea because she believed it gave her more oxygen; friends like Poet Laureate of Tennessee Maggie Vaughn and her eccentric behavior, like writing a poem about a moon pie; or just the random person in a drive-thru with a tattoo of a heart on an arm that has grown flabby and stretched over time and now looks like Mick Jagger’s lips. The creative writing is the best part of the process.

The toughest part of the process is finding the time to take care of the business of writing: submitting, tracking submissions, getting rejections and resubmitting, promoting and marketing, networking, and keeping up with the business of it all when one has a full-time job, family, community obligations, and much more.

I don’t require a lot of sleep, so I am an early riser at 4:00 a.m., even on weekends and without an alarm clock, and I was like this as a child. Imagine what a nuisance I was to my parents and siblings. I enjoy some strong coffee, read, and edit, and then go to my university office two hours before the workday actually begins to write and do many of the ancillary tasks required of the postmodern writer. It has become a complicated process, a process that takes a substantial amount of time, and the older I get, the more I realize how valuable that time is.

Twenty or so years ago, writers sent submissions in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope and waited some time before finally receiving a rejection and beginning the process over again. In fact, one didn’t need a spreadsheet to track all of the submissions. Now, while there are a few publications out there that still take snail mail submissions, most don’t and a writer can send several submissions per email, even simultaneous submissions to several editors and publications, and responses from editors don’t seem to take as long as they once did. It some ways, the business of writing is much easier and increases a writer’s chances of becoming published.

Currently, I’m juggling seventeen unpublished stories that are each submitted to approximately five literary magazines and journals all over the world. There are several stories in progress, several stories that were never published that I go back to from time to time to revise, and several pieces that were never finished and probably shouldn’t be. I recently discovered a box of writing from my undergraduate days, and it’s a miracle I was ever published given how bad that writing was. In addition, I am pushing information out to an unknown audience on Twitter, pushing information out to multiple Facebook groups, and updating a website I pay for from my main job’s salary. Even though there are tax deduction advantages from website costs, free review copies, speaking engagements for which I do not charge, and advice I offer to others who contact me, the business side of the creative process can be taxing.

When I leave this world, I hope to leave something behind. Sure, I’ll appear among the weekly birthday lists on Facebook, and I imagine there will be “friends” who will wish me a happy birthday, not knowing I’m gone, until my Facebook account is turned off. At some point, my Twitter account may be gobbled up by a hacker who sends out porn or political messages even though it’s tough to tell the difference sometimes. Once my family forgets to pay the hosting service for my website, it will be quickly removed within twenty-four hours. The business side of the creative writing process won’t survive without me working it, but I hope some of my writing will.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Kimberly Lojewski Writes A Letter to Her Young Self: On the Dangers of Magic Portals, Nyquil, and Renaissance Faire Carnies

In the 21st in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kimberly Lojewski, author of Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart (Burrow Press), learns from her own experience.

Dear Young Aspiring Writer Kimberly,

I’m writing to let you know that we’ve finally published our first book! You always believed that it would happen. You persevered and it did. Your very first story collection.

You are not twenty-three like you planned. But forty years is not so old. You’re still in the game. You are only, like, twenty-two years behind Mary Shelley.

Things to keep in mind over the next few decades… no, whiskey does not make you write better. No, obsessively visiting the haunts of dead writers will not imbue you with some magical writing powers. Nope. Crystals won’t work either. Nor will spiritual pilgrimages, or hot air balloons, or playing guitar in the moonlight. You’re going to have to actually write. I know, I know. It’s not what you were imagining.

You will have to make your peace with the editing process, young buck. There is literally no way around that part. Believe me, you’ve tried. They just won’t publish your stuff without it.

MFAs are a good time, full of well-learned folk and lots of talking about writing, but you will have to pay back all of those student loans one day. You really will. I’m serious. Can you please find an adult to explain the risk v. reward system to you? And maybe not buy that eleventh pair of boots, like you’re just spending monopoly money?

On the subject of every boyfriend you’re going to have, they will never “love you the way dry roots love rain.” Stop. Just stop reading so much Carl Sandburg and ee cummings. Put the Wuthering Heights down. And when you get to college, don’t start reading Bukowski. He’ll only give you a predilection for snarky drunks who cheat on you.

Eesh. And the bad news is that even though I’ve kept pretty much all of your juvenile writings and journals… they aren’t quite as deep or probing as we once believed. Just a lot of obsessing over boys really. I hate to break it to you, but they will probably never be published posthumously.

Things that are not going to work:

Medieval fare: Crossing swords: 
Your novel about a girl named Dew Rain who runs away to join the medieval festival. You will never finish it, but you will run away to join the medieval festival and be rudely awakened to the fact that those people are carnies with fake British accents.

You’re thinly veiled copycat series of Sweet Valley High called Sweetwater Valley featuring brunette twins named April and Delilah. I know it seems like a foolproof plan, but the original wasn’t very good to begin with. Besides, Sweet Valley High fizzles out sometime in the nineties.

Also, the one about the teenager who falls through a portal into Ireland? That never takes off either. Yah, I know you really want to write some leprechaun dialogue, but it turns out magic portals aren’t considered a legitimate plot device. I know. I can hardly believe it either.

Lastly, there may come a time when you have a psychotic reaction to Nyquil and decide to write your entire memoirs in a three-day stretch and then send them out to everyone you know. Scrap that idea. Totally scrap it. Stay away from the Nyquil completely. If you get bronchitis, go straight to the hospital. And throw your laptop out the window.

Aside from that, buckle up and love and hate the next twenty odd years. You’ve got lots of living to do. For now, just know that you’ll get around to the writing one day.


Mature (you’ll definitely come to dislike that word though)
Published Author Kimberly

Saturday, September 15, 2018

All Wendell Mayo's Lonely Ones

In the 20th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Wendell Mayo, author of Survival House (Stephen F. Austin University Press), writes about a common thread running through his stories.

Most of what I know about how I ought to write short stories I discover after I’ve written them, sometimes years later. One such discovery is loneliness. I started writing in the early 1980s in San Francisco on BART trains going from Contra Costa County into the city to work. It was a long, lonely ride; rails clicked softly; most people slept; a few spoke in murmurs to a singular companion. A journey. Darkness to light. By the time the sun rose, lavender hills revealed themselves in sharp maroon shadows. It was there my lonely ones first came to me, unmediated, not muzzled by the ilk of CNN and Silicon Valley: the dawn of personal computers, email, and later the Internet.

I didn’t discover Frank O’Connor’s landmark book, The Lonely Voice, until the 1990s, his contention that story writers have “all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’” with “an intense awareness of human loneliness” and “an attitude of mind that is attracted to submerged population groups." I told myself, “Hey, I’ve been doing that, too!”
Waiting for BART

One of my first lonely ones is a young man, let’s call him “Wendell the Younger,” who discovers that his mother, after the passing of her husband, is bouncing bank checks because she signs them with a different name, inserting the word “Soledad” in the signature. He tells her to quit it, but she refuses and laughs one of those solitary laughs that rises briefly from a secret well of wisdom. He knows her Mexican-American roots, his roots, are in Eagle Pass, Texas, by way of Piedras Negras and Veracruz, Mexico, and that Soledad’s moved to—and lived over a decade—in mainly Anglo suburban Cleveland.

Another lonely one I meet in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I teach at Indiana-Purdue University. One afternoon, a poet, a friend comes to my office to say he’s troubled by a student’s poem implying she’s being physically abused by her husband. We agree he’ll email the student for a meeting. A few days later, my friend tells me that, before she can reply to his email, she’s been beaten to death by her husband. I’ll never forget the horror and helplessness that surfaced in my friend’s eyes. A few months later, I create my lonely teenage boy who dresses as a scream queen of 1950s horror films to perform at upper-crust social gatherings—only to see the domestic violence he finds there far more terrifying.

By the early 1990s, the Berlin Wall is down and I find myself teaching collaborative methods to teachers in former-Soviet Lithuania. Jet-lagged, I arrive early to my classroom. I circle desks into small groups (Americans know the drill, right?) and this little hunched man in a brown shirt and gray slacks comes in and drags desks back into Cartesian rows and columns. I can’t communicate with him and learn later from my interpreter that he is a former-Communist holdover assigned to spy on me for the Administration. He smiles all commie-spy-like and says, “You will need permission from the Director to move these desks. Good luck with that.” When later my spy reads the letter from the Director giving me permission, I expect him to get hopping mad and go all Rumpelstiltskin on me. But to my surprise, quite another thing emerges from fifty years of Soviet occupation and ideology—a man looking abandoned, alone, profoundly confused.

So, these are a few of my lonely ones. Times I wonder where I am among them. In a sense, I am the child of Soledad, of loneliness. I am the scream queen of Fort Wayne. I am the lost and lonely Communist classroom spy. I am the writer, hoping that one of my lonely characters will cry out from my silent page. So, my advice to story writers: Listen to your lonely ones. Talk to them nights late, preferably in whispers so no one else on Earth can hear. Find out who they are and what churns beneath their façades of everyday pleasantries. Listen… believe…work hard…find their stories. You may even come to love them as only writers can love their characters.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Chad V. Broughman on Being a Writer and a Parent

In the 19th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Chad V. Broughman, author of The Forsaken... (Etchings Press), takes on work-life balance.

My first inclination was to write about the dangers of purple prose, be pithy, throw in a couple of puns and a clever metaphor. But then, my youngest son opened the door to my office as he usually does when I tell him I need some private writing time. He said, “Hey, Dad!” in his soft, child voice and began rubbing his tiny hands together then vigorously brushing them on his pants. See, Hudson is extraordinarily excitable but doesn’t have the vocabulary to express his enthusiasm. So he performs this strange, one-of-a-kind samba, thrashing his limbs about like he’s two-parts duck, one-part piston.

Turns out, he simply wanted to tell me he’d gone potty. Again. Though both of my children interrupt Dad’s “special writing time” on a regular basis, it’s the runt of my brood who does so with flair and urgency. Each message is delivered with great passion as if our lots in life could be altered forevermore. But little does Hudson know that because of his most recent declaration about his triumph on the commode, I changed topics.

It struck me that neither of my children are aware that they complicate my writing process, nor do they understand how profoundly they shape what I write about as well as the manner in which I write it.

You see, I started a family and a writing career much later in life. No regrets. I would have it no other way. Yet, I struggle with the guilt of eking out pen time in our already hectic lives. The balance was tricky enough as my wife and I teach full time (a combined 40 years in the public education system). However, not long ago, I was working on a manuscript for a bucket list contest. I hadn’t made enough progress to submit the piece on time and missed our family beach day. When my beloved tribe returned home, the boys prattled on about sandcastles and seagulls, and I expressed the shame I felt for not being there. My wife’s response was a game changer (and I paraphrase):

“We owe it to our children to go after our dreams. That’s the legacy we want to leave.”

Her words are a primary source of strength as I strive to become a better writer and, more importantly, a father.

Would we be more prolific if we weren’t parents? Perhaps. But our families are our hearts and souls, right? They’re the reason we get up in the morning. Our human ports in turbulent waters. My point is this: As mothers and fathers, we have an obligation to wholly chase our ambitions so that future generations can see endurance and devotion first hand.

Sure, the constant burden of explaining why my door is sometimes closed can get old, but the truth is, I couldn’t persist without the intrusions. Believe it or not, an imperative announcement about my son’s bathroom feats is grounding, reminds me why I’m creating stories in the first place. If I must pause in the midst of an artistic breakthrough to deter an argument over a random Lego piece, a coveted Star Wars figure, or a wad of lint (yes, that was a real altercation), perhaps the authorial path that follows will prove more bounteous.

I say, whenever your kids ask, take that break. Regard it as an opportunity, though. Go ahead, help them build a trail of towels and blankets through the hot lava pooling on your living room floor then, after they’re tucked in tight, draw from their giggles and fervor to enrich your work. Children are not a hindrance to an author’s success but a most beautiful distraction.

Hopefully, my familial tale doesn’t exclude those without wee ones but entreats all pen flickers to shift their mindsets if there are perceived obstacles in the path. You don’t have to be someone’s guardian to gambol in an imagined world of crocheted quilts and molten magma. Simply calling up your childhood flights of fancy could spark new plotlines or unearth unexpected flaws in a protagonist, if you listen hard enough.

I envy Hudson’s visceral expression as he’s not yet confined by perfect word choices and other craft-type things. So I say, all writers, now and then, must stand at their desks and dance a frenetic dance, flap their arms like drunken fruit bats. And if you happen to be a parent, too, why please, by all means, shut your door, just maybe not all the way…

Friday, September 7, 2018

K.D. Miller Shows Up

In the 18th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, K.D. Miller, author of Late Breaking (Biblioasis), discusses her work habits and finding inspiration for her collection in an art exhibit.

Describe your writing practice
I am an early-morning writer and have been ever since I started to write seriously – almost 40 years ago. For 35 of those years, when I was working at a full-time day job, it was a matter of getting some writing in before I had to rush out the door. Now that I’m retired, I still wake early and carry my first cup of coffee to my desk. It’s about priorities, I guess—paying attention to what’s truly important before all the little banalities of the day start to intrude. My only rule is to show up, every morning without fail, and to be open to whatever happens. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes pages and pages of stuff. In some circles, this is called putting oneself in the way of grace. So I try to be there, just in case grace drops by.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced
Late Breaking began with what I can only call an epiphany. In 2014, I attended the Alex Colville exhibit at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). It was a rich, layered exhibition, linking the painter’s work with that of artists as disparate as Alice Munro and the Coen brothers.
Pictures at an exhibition: Colville at AGO

Why had I not seen the Alice Munro connection before this? Both creators pay meticulous attention to everyday detail—a dog’s raised paw; the seams of a summer dress. Colville’s invisible brushwork has its counterpart in Munro’s transparent prose. And of course, there is that ever-present sense of menace. No matter how tiny their focus, both artists capture something that looms. That impends.

I was between projects when I visited the AGO. As I tend to do when I’m at loose ends, I was toying with the idea of writing a murder mystery. (Deep down, I still want to be P.D. James when I grow up.) Of course, what I found at that exhibit, in spades, was mystery. Every Alex Colville painting, like every Alice Munro story, is an endless corridor lined with doors just slightly ajar. As I roamed the rooms of the gallery, the phrase The Colville Stories formed in my mind. It became a mantra. The Colville Stories. The Colville Stories. I felt as if I could spend the rest of my life gazing into those paintings. Pulling stories out of them.

Each of the ten stories in Late Breaking has a particular painting as its jumping-off place. I am delighted with the way Biblioasis has incorporated the visual works into the finished book.

What are the most difficult conditions you’ve successfully written under?
Years ago, when I was working, I had to attend a conference in Rochester, New York. I shared a hotel room with a colleague who, it turned out, snored like a buzz saw. Plus, she liked to sleep in. So there I was, creeping out of bed before dawn, tiptoeing past my roomie to the hotel room desk and somehow blocking out the noise in order to start my day the way I wanted to. I think that’s when I realized I was a writing junkie.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Recently I heard myself telling a group of writers that at some point, I fall in love with whatever I’m writing, and at some point, the writing breaks my heart. The heartbreak can come of a sudden blockage or the sickening feeling that a character or subplot that you’ve tended to lovingly for ages simply has to go. I’ve found that the best thing to do is take a step back. Work on something else. Or just read. (Reading author autobiographies—especially the parts where they describe their own failures, is particularly helpful.) The point is to leave the beloved alone. Let it come back to you, if it will.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Elena Georgiou's Letter to a Not-So-Young Writer

In the 17th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Elena Georgiou, author of The Immigrant's Refrigerator (GenPop Books), offers advice to those who might feel like they're late to the party.

Dearest Not-So-Young Writer,

Perhaps you’ve had children to raise, or parents to take care of, or some other of life’s many obstacles has stood in your way, so it is only now in your late 30s or your 40s or 50s, that you have the space/time to write. Don’t worry; you’re not “behind.” What you might have missed in writing years, you will have certainly gained in lived experience. The most difficult adjustment will be putting yourself first, after so long of not doing so. My advice to you is to use every trick in the book. For me, the most effective trick has been lying to myself—specifically, by telling myself that I was not writing for myself but doing it for others. (Okay, well, this is not a total lie; it’s 50% for myself, 50% for others.) So if it helps, tell yourself that you are not doing it for you, but doing it for X (fill in the blank).

Once you’ve done that, then you might want to try the following:

  1. Divide your day into sections and find one two- to three-hour section that belongs to your writing and reading.
  2. Do this six days per week. (Give yourself a day of rest.)
  3. Don’t worry if you don’t write all six days, but make sure you do at least five. (Okay four. But not less.)
  4. If you don’t have a Room of Your Own, again, don’t worry. (Who has?) There are libraries. In a pinch, or if you prefer to be surrounded by noise, you can buy a coffee/tea and write in fast-food establishments or 24-hour convenience stores with places to sit. (I am currently doing a combo of library/convenience store and it is working well for me.)
  5. Or you can ignore everything that I’ve said so far and find your own way to work.
  6. The most important thing is to snatch any part of your day, for any amount of time, at any location that works for you. 

I know that writers who have come before me have offered eloquent advice about the need to “see the world” before you can write. But I prefer to call on William Blake’s version of seeing the world—that is, to see it in a grain of sand. You don’t need to travel far: Sand can be found at a construction site near you. 

I also know that writing advice is divided over “writing what you know” versus “writing what you don’t know.” Why this split? Why not both? How do I feel about these ideas? Honestly? Whatever. I just know that you should write about what you must write about. Writing is obsessive. Writing is mysterious. Embrace your obsession. Embrace the mystery.
Toni Morrison: What She Said

I’ve also found it useful to study the life of a writer I admire. My inspiration has been the life and work of Toni Morrison (who published her first book at age 40). She has said, “The work is in the work itself. If you write a lot, that's good. If you revise a lot, that's even better. You should not only write about what you know but about what you don't know. It extends the imagination.” My experience has taught me that this extension of the imagination is contagious. It can link you to your readers. It can open minds, hearts, and form a oneness (community). Which means that writing can also make magic happen.

So, my dear Not-So-Young Writer, there is only one thing that you need to do: Take the urgent words out of your body and put them on paper (or in a computer). And then treat these words carefully: Love them like offspring, tend to them like a nest, feed them like baby birds, dress them in their best feathers, then release them into the air.

Yours with faith in writing,


Friday, August 24, 2018

Ryan Habermeyer on (Re)Upholstering a Story

In the 16th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ryan Habermeyer, author of The Science of Lost Futures (Louisiana State University Press), extolls the benefits of slowing down.

My wife is a self-taught seamstress. Somehow this factoid escaped me until after we were married. I came into the living room of our cramped apartment one day and found it a minefield of fabric bolts. At first she sewed little things: curtains, tablecloths, the occasional skirt. Over the last few years, she’s graduated to reupholstering couches and chairs, which should be required training in theological seminaries because reupholstery is a kind of resurrection—stripping the furniture to its frame and then painstakingly reconstructing it in a new fabric flesh. It’s a tremendous art and fascinating to watch. 

And watch I do. I’ve grown accustomed to seeing my wife spend hours sitting on the floor staring at her fabric. Before she ever reupholsters, she’ll spread the fabric down the hallway or hang it over a door and just look at it: tilting her head one side and then another, folding and unfolding it, occasionally placing little pins in it as if she is Napoleon and the fabric is her map of Europe. One time, like a fool of a husband, I joked it wasn’t going to reupholster itself and she reminded me you can’t uncut fabric. “I’m seeing the chair,” she said.

This seems about the right moment to take a not-so-subtle metaphorical turn (bet you didn’t see that one coming) on the writing life and the upholstery life. With reupholstering, my wife often doesn’t really know where she’s going or how she’s going to re-fabric a particular chair. So she’s got to see it first--a kind of Platonic, idealized chair--before constructing the thing itself. She spends a lot of time staring, figuring out what she doesn’t yet know she knows. Donald Barthelme has extolled the virtues of not-knowing for writers, so I won’t rehash that here, and besides: It’s not not-knowing that I’m really after. It’s the looking. The pausing. The wondering. Imagining the story in the mind, tinkering with it, before giving birth to it with words on the page. A kind of daydream. I like to daydream stories. It’s preferable to actually writing (or revising) them, which I find exhausting and frustrating.

My wife’s upholstering has taught me to pause more when I’m in the thick of writing. Slow down. Look. Wait. Stare out the window. Wait a little longer. Wait for the words right. As Raymond Carver says, “That’s all we have, finally, are the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the right punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.” What does that mean, exactly? I think of the opening to Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Circular Ruins”: “No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night.” Unanimous? Such a peculiar adjective, and yet a wonderful counterpoint to the story that unfolds which questions the fabric of identity and reality. Or, there’s Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”: “The world had been sad since Tuesday.” Really? Since Tuesday? The melancholy of that line punches me in the chest every time. Without it, I’m not sure I’d feel the angelic old man’s misery as much as I do. Or from Karen Russell’s collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove: “Samson was seventeen and had what Nal could only describe as a bovine charm.” I’ve never met a bovine personally, but when I do I will be invariably disappointed if it isn’t charming.

When I read fiction it’s not just characters and circumstance that should intrigue; I want the words to surprise, to startle, to provoke just as much as much as I want narrative leaps that bend the limits of reality. In fact, for those of us who traffic in fabulism—or magical realism, slipstream, surrealism, speculative, or whatever else the kids are calling it these days—having inventive syntax and diction (judiciously placed, of course) is of equal importance to me as a fantastical premise. It’s not just about turning a clever phrase. It’s about creating dynamic characters who, as Chuck Palahniuk says, speak with a “burnt tongue.” To create what I call sideways reality the words themselves had better compliment (or provide rich dissonance with) the impossible worlds we conjure.

Of course, sometimes meticulously plodding along at a snail’s pace is a bad idea. So write recklessly. Write mindlessly. Indulge every impulse. But don’t forget to pause, to lean back in the chair and just stare into empty space a little. It’s isolating, this writing thing, but don’t shy away from long bouts of silence. Slow down. Daydream. Wait for the right story to come along. In those quiet moments of waiting you’re likely to find seams to follow should the story come unstitched, as they so often do.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Matthew Baker's Experiments with Language

In the 15th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Baker, author of Hybrid Creatures (Louisiana State University Press), finds an unlikely source of inspiration.

Before writing the stories in Hybrid Creatures, I wrote three prototype stories. Like the final stories, the prototypes experimented with artificial languages: HTML, math notations, music dynamics, and propositional logic. Yet in terms of narrative, the prototypes had nothing in common with the final stories whatsoever. The plots were different. The characters were different. The settings were different. I hadn’t planned on writing prototypes, but experimenting with artificial languages narratively proved to be an extraordinary challenge, and each of those first attempts was a failure. No matter how much I wrestled with it, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

The breakthrough came in February 2013. For anybody following the hacker world, that past year had been chaos. The LulzSec hacker Sabu had turned informant for the FBI, leading to the arrests of nearly every member of LulzSec, including Jeremy Hammond. Barrett Brown had been arrested. Commander X had chosen exile over incarceration and had fled to Canada. Julian Assange had taken asylum at an embassy in London and seemed just as trapped there as he would have been in prison. Aaron Swartz had committed suicide in Brooklyn the month before. If hackers were satellites, it was like a night when satellites suddenly began to fall from the sky, one after another in bright blazes of light. It was astonishing and somewhat frightening to behold.

Spirit animal: Creative hack
I spent a lot of time thinking about those hackers, especially after Aaron Swartz died. At the time, I was living in Dublin, Ireland, in a drafty studio in an old townhouse. A fox lived on the roof of the shed in the backyard; at dusk, as I was cooking dinner and the fox was climbing down from the shed to go hunt for supper, we would always give each other a glance through the window before returning to our chores. That night, though, I wasn’t there for our ritual—I was at a lecture at a museum until long after dusk. Walking back in the dark, stepping between puddles, I noticed that the fox was running alongside me, slipping from bush to bush in the yards next to the sidewalk. I don’t know why I remember that detail so clearly, but I do: that fox keeping pace with me at a distance, as if it felt a compulsion to guide or protect me.

When I got home, I turned on a lamp and heated some milk in a pot and made a mug of cocoa, and then sat down at my computer to get online. On a sudden impulse, thinking about Jeremy Hammond, I clicked over to HackThisSite, the hacking website that he had founded in 2003, offering free and legal “missions,” or training exercises, for hackers “to test and expand their hacking skills.” I hadn’t been on HackThisSite in nearly a decade.

I had already written the prototype narrated partly in HTML. But writing the prototypes, I had been thinking about the experiment solely in terms of language. By forcing me to analyze the source code of different web pages, the training exercises on HackThisSite got me thinking about structure. I suddenly realized, in a flash, that a webpage had the exact same makeup as a human—every webpage consisted of a “head,” which contained data that wasn’t displayable, and a “body,” containing the data that was displayed—and that in the same way that a story could be told in the form of a diary or a letter or a series of newspaper articles, a story could also be written in the form of an HTML document, with that exact same structure that a webpage had.

By extension, I realized the potential for the other languages to be paired with corresponding structures, too: that the math story could be divided into two sections that in terms of word count would have the approximate proportions of the golden ratio, that the music story could be arranged into four movements that in terms of thematic development would have the traditional composition of a classical symphony, that the logic story could take the form of one long philosophical proof. The realization gave me goosebumps. It took me another three years after that night to write the stories and finish the collection, but that was the moment that the book finally took form in my mind: while doing training exercises on a hacking website that had been founded by somebody who was now in federal prison. If I could, I’d thank him, but he’s still there.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Where Do Stories Come from? Ramona Ausubel's Visual Guide

In the 14th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland (Riverhead Books), diagrams three of the ideas for stories in the collection: "The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following," "You Can Find Love Now," and "Awayland."

(click on the image for a larger view)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Todd Robert Petersen's Pyramid Problems

In the 13th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Todd Robert Petersen, author of It Needs to Look LIke We Tried (Counterpoint), explains how turning to an alternative concept of story structure liberated his work.

A couple of summers ago, while I was struggling to revise two key stories in a linked collection, my twelve-year-old asked me for writing help. He had to bring a story to workshop at a writing camp for teens. He had ideas but no structure for them. I wanted to help, but I was living under the shadow of an email I’d just received from my agent, who liked the last round of revisions, in general. “But somehow,” he wrote, in as kind a way as possible, “You’ve managed to make two of these stories worse.” I re-read those stories while I stalled with my kid, and I saw immediately that my agent was correct. They were a whole lot worse, but I didn’t know exactly what I’d done to them. Individually the stories seemed to work fine, but as a group, the stories were throwing off the pace and breaking down the flow of the manuscript.

So, even though my kid needed help, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. I didn’t want to admit that I apparently had no idea what I was doing, so I boned up on the basics and walked him through the standard stuff I’d taught and been taught. He got an earful of: exposition, inciting action, conflict, climax, denouement, and resolution. I told him how stories worked like little steam engines, and I even drew a little Freytag’s Pyramid and traced it over and over again with a capped pen.

When I finished my seminar and sent my son off to write, I started doubting everything I’d just told him. Almost immediately, I asked myself, “why does action rise? I mean, couldn’t it go down, or just fall apart?” Then I started wondering why the climax is always in the middle of the diagram, suggesting a symmetry that isn’t there. The more I thought about stories, the more I started seeing problems with the pyramid, and the more I thought about these problems, the more I realized that my rotten revisions were coming from my attempts to Freytag them. Because I was working on a novel in stories, having each story fully resolve at the end kept the book from moving forward. This made the next story strain to get going. I was creating entropy instead of velocity.

Now, this was a fine enough epiphany, but it didn’t come with instructions for what to do next. The pyramid story structure was so common and natural I couldn’t see past it. I took a couple fruitless passes, then I set the revisions aside to work on some Noh theater research for another project. This reading soon led me to the concept of kishōtenketsu, a narrative structure that comes from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature. The more I read, the more I wished I’d learned about this twenty years ago. It was the answer to my problems, but it was also a sad indictment of the limits of my education.

Kishōtenketsu: A different kind of structure
Kishōtenketsu is a deceptively simple structure, based on four narrative units or stages represented by the syllables in the term: Introduction (ki), Development (shō), Twist (ten), and Conclusion (ketsu). Instead of relying on Western ideas of conflict and resolution, kishōtenketsu is driven by change and contrast. It provides a much more natural perspective than Freytag’s mechanical one. The first two narrative stages have you establish and develop the story, and in the third, you invert or twist what's been established, very much like the third line of a haiku. After the surprise twist, the fourth unit brings unification, connection, and possibility. Resolution isn't necessary.

Straight away, I wrote these four stages on four separate note cards with a Sharpie, flipped them over, and with a ballpoint pen re-organized the worst of the bad revisions. I kept much of the same story material, but the new structure pushed everything in new directions as I hunted for a surprise rather than a climax. The characters deepened. The plot became more interesting. The pacing grew slower but more focused.

Once I moved onto drafting, I realized kishōtenketsu also worked at progressively smaller levels. This fractal quality helped me re-structure scenes, paragraphs, and images. I rewrote the other troublesome stories this way and sent in another round of revisions. A few weeks later, my agent wrote and said he liked them and wanted to send out the manuscript. Problem solved, but by that time I’d gone crazy, using kishōtenketsu for everything: syllabi, lesson plans, Tweets, and even blog posts. It seemed like there was no problem these four steps couldn't solve. Because life so often follows art, I've begun reframing the way I think of conflict and tension in my relationships at work and at home. I’m now revisiting a lot of what I thought I knew about telling stories. Perhaps this is my midlife crisis.

This year, when my son asked for help with his writing camp pages, I didn’t give him a seminar. Instead, I took a breath and said, “Okay, you need to set up your characters, then expand. Once you have everything established, give us a big surprise. At the end, connect the dots.” He paused for a second, then he told me how his story would go.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Ruth Joffre’s Reading Habits

In the 12th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ruth Joffre, author of Night Beast (Black Cat), discusses bus books and finding the right reading balance.

Working a 9-5 has made me almost fanatical about making the most out of my time. On my lunch breaks, I do language practice. Instead of taking two buses to and from work, I build exercise into my commute by walking over half a mile to catch the second bus where it stops in Downtown Seattle. And I maintain at least one (if not two) bus books at all times. In the past few years, I have made an effort to read more science fiction and comics, returning to the genres that first excited me as a child, so I’ve been doing a lot of catching up.

What I read still tends to vary greatly (last month’s reading list included Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up, Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun, Saladin Ahmed’s Black Bolt Vol. 2, and Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy—to name a few), but when I read a book depends largely on two factors: 1) when it becomes available at my local library and 2) if I’ve bought it, which usually means that I read through the first forty or so pages and then have to set it aside for a while to work through my time-sensitive stack of library books. I never forget to finish a book, though, and I always keep a record of what I’ve read so I can buy the books I borrowed when the budget allows.

All in all, I read about fifteen to twenty books a month. This is the right amount for me, I find. If I read too few, my writing suffers. That part of my brain that feeds on narrative gets tired of waiting for something new and starts picking apart whatever I’m working on, asking moronic questions like, “What if the novel is actually supposed to be an interpretive dance and the 80,000 words you’ve written so far aren’t supposed to be read but performed on the stage?” Whereas if I read too many, that same part of my brain becomes over-gorged and just wants to take a long nap instead of writing. I try to read just enough to remain inspired and engaged (and learn new tricks) without getting distracted from my primary goal (right now, to finish my novel).

This is not to say that reading is just professional development for me. On the contrary, it is one of my greatest pleasures, second only perhaps to the texture of a really good milkshake. In my reading life, I do all the things I never do in real life. I travel to places I’ve never imagined. I encounter new word combinations that excite me more than entire relationships have. Even when I know that I’m reading a book for research, it’s not about finding those little bits of information I can then use to fuel my own work. At least part of the pleasure of reading comes from knowing that there’s someone else out who took the time to find that information. To put those two words together. To imagine the impossible. I read voraciously to be reminded that I’m not alone.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Thomas Benz: In Defense of Elaboration

In the 11th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Thomas Benz, author of Home and Castle (Snake Press Nation), opines on the current reliance on shorthand, images, and symbols.

By its very nature, fiction helps cultivate and preserve language as the primary means of apprehending the world. Lately, however, I find myself wondering if the written word is under attack as never before from visual and social media, which also present ideas, but with a flashier immediacy. I don’t think this notion is simply nostalgia for yesteryear’s slower pace of transmission, which allowed for more in-depth forms of dialog. It is not out of mourning for the typewriter, the personal letter, for cursive handwriting and rotary phones, perhaps imbued with the aura of one’s youth. Rather, I wonder if our ever more sophisticated visual content threatens to compress and degrade the content of our speech.

Whether the attack comes in the form of movie special effects that often overwhelm the screenplay or a novel that comes with regular illustrations, the message is that words alone are not enough. Even our newspapers and magazines, once a bastion of sentences, punctuated with the occasional photo, are filling up with little films. Emojis, no matter how cute or detailed cannot transmit the rich possibilities of emotion contained in a well-chosen verb. At best, they are crude substitutes of expression, ones that require neither genuine thought nor accuracy. They seem to invite us to return to the days of painting on cave walls as a means of getting a point across.
Absolute bull: Then and now

Never has there been a time when it was more important to know the truth about what surrounds us. And yet concurrent with this, the means to deceive, based largely on the allure of speed and convenience, continue to multiply and gain acceptance. Through the use of memes that amount to slogans, and images that can be altered to any desired effect, the tools of propaganda and false persuasion have been sharpened. Hiding a lie has never been so facile, especially when the preeminence of words has been so undermined. By contrast, the use of longer-form writing usually offers many more clues about the substance and real purpose of a given point of view.

For over a hundred years, we have had cameras and movies, and there’s no question the artful use of both is a great boon to the world and the Internet greatly expands our horizons. The problem arises when the great rush of everything causes us to get ever lazier about how we absorb information, since passively watching a podcast or reading a bunch of acronyms is inherently less nuanced than a more elaborate exchange. While we all need a certain amount of convenience and entertainment, let’s be aware of the steady encroachment of oversimplified messages, which more easily lead us astray and threaten our discourse.

As anyone who has ever suffered through an interminable homily knows, longer is not always better. Yet the economy of a poet is not what I’m questioning. It is the imprecision with which complexity is often conveyed, as if a selfie could ever tell the whole tale. For example, nowadays literary fiction often seems relegated to the hinterland of a subcategory. Somehow it is just too difficult and requires an immersion that would cut us off too long from our incoming texts. The popularity of what is slick and swift and shallow appears to be on the ascendant.

Only language that is not artificially curtailed and remains relatively free of adornment enables the recipient to bring his or her full imagination to the encounter. A novel or collection of stories uniquely engages a reader to construct a world right along with the author, to infuse what’s been created with a unique filter, to make the abstract visible in one’s own mind.

I have no wish to assail the power of a sublime vista or the perfect frozen moment of a street corner, or anything else that can only be captured with the benefit of sight. And I’m not saying there is no place for Twitter or Instagram or the labyrinthine archives of YouTube. But just as taking pictures can be a way of outsourcing memory, we should be mindful of how easy it is to rely on simplistic methods of recording our experience and what gets lost in translation. If a “picture is worth a thousand words,” it cannot do quite the same thing as those words. In our rush to abbreviate, to go faster, to flood our senses, to live more and more, this might be something we should not allow ourselves to forget.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Dax Xenos on the Value of Reading the Dictionary

In the tenth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Dax Xenos, author of Mud and Stars (American Visionary Artists), discusses the importance of words.

When I decided the most interesting thing I could do with my life was to be a writer, I was working as a lifeguard on the beach at Key Biscayne outside Miami. There was plenty of time to read, so I started in with the American Nobel Prize winners—Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner. These were my teachers. They taught me how to construct phrases and paragraphs from words, the power of nouns and verbs and how the right adjective was like “a blow under the heart” (Hemingway).

Words. These are the building blocks of writing, just as bricks construct a house. Learning writing is like learning bricklaying or carpentry. While you may possess a strong interest or talent, writing is a craft that takes years to master. Since I was going to learn the trade of writing, I figured I had better learn about words.

I read the dictionary. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, in three volumes. I made myself read 20 pages every day, and each word I found interesting I wrote in a spiral notebook, reducing its composite meanings down to one sentence. Nine months later I finished and had about 5,000 words in my notebook, and in my subconscious mind. Today I rarely have to search for the right word. It pops into my head when I think of the context and the implications in a story. Reading the dictionary is an excellent way to develop not only a knowledge but a love of words. I found particular affinity for the V words: verisimilitude, veracity, valor, victory, vanity, vanquished, vivacious, voluptuous, variety.... Per letter category, V seems to have more interesting words than any other.

I once met a man who read the dictionary for pleasure, and we found an immediate affinity for one another. At one time WBW had been one of the richest men in America, flew airplanes, played polo with Prince Charles, was married to a movie star. He told me he had owned at one time or another just about anything a man could possess, but his most valuable possession was the words he had in his vocabulary. He saw words as little encapsulations of man’s knowledge and expressed the notion that a person could elevate his or her station in life simply by reading the dictionary. Words would enable a person to perceive opportunities he otherwise would miss.

WBW’s ideas were confirmed by a scientific study done by the Human Engineering Laboratory sponsored by General Electric. It wanted to find out how to make its employees more productive and happier in their work. Researchers interviewed thousands of employees and found that human beings are born with certain innate talents and by being placed in jobs where these talents could be utilized, not only did the employees perform better, they derived greater enjoyment and fulfillment from their work. Then the researchers went back through the data a second time, looking for a single characteristic that distinguished high performers from the others and found it to be a large vocabulary.

When I first decided to become a writer, I had a certain natural ability, as my early school work demonstrated, but I did not really know how to write, nor did I have anything to write about. Rather than follow the career path typical of my peers, I set off on a lifelong journey to learn about writing and about life. Over time I learned how to craft sentences that resonated in the minds of readers and clearly conveyed my intentions. I learned about life and the daily exigencies human beings faced with varying degrees of competence, joy, frustration, anger, guilt, and the panoply of human emotions.

And I read. Everything I got my hands on, from great classic literature by Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, and Twain, to popular fiction, learning what to do and what not to do. I wrote stories, articles, ad copy, brochures, scripts, letters, anything in words I could get paid for to support myself and my family. The beautiful part about writing anything is the practice. You are making decisions, you are telling stories, you are creating a collaboration between your words and the mind of the audience. Whether you are writing text for a restaurant menu, a blog, a TV ad, a Pulitzer-winning play, a text message on a phone, or a great novel, the challenge is the same: using words to communicate.

Words clarify, describe, excite, offend, delight, entertain, encourage, entice….

Take some time and read the dictionary. It will be a journey you will never forget.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

How Sandra Worsham Finds the Magic Place

In the ninth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sandra Worsham, author of Patterns (Third Lung Press), takes on the task of preparing to write.

Edgar Allan Poe drank. To get back to his place the next day, Ernest Hemingway's advice was to stop in the middle. Reading back over what he had written the day before would take him there. Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream, says to close your eyes and let your mind wander and then to make notes, with your eyes still closed, on index cards. Dorothea Brande, in her wonderful classic called Becoming a Writer, says the secret is to get up thirty minutes earlier and go straight to your writing desk, to write before you read the newspaper or drink your coffee. She says that when we first wake up, we are already in the magic place, that we should take advantage of that without allowing the outside world to come in.

And what is this magic place? It is, of course, the subconscious, that elusive magical brain hidden underneath our main brain. It is a place we cannot control, a place where our words flow freely, where analogies come naturally, where we meet characters we didn’t know we knew. And, until we are in that place, we shouldn’t try to write fiction. The first task of a writer is to find the magic place.

My method of getting there is to read. When reading a story from The New Yorker, I can read only a few paragraphs before I am there, before I put aside the magazine and begin to write in my journal. If I am reading a book that doesn’t bring my subconscious to the surface soon, I stop reading that book. Certain authors do this for me better than others. When reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I soon found myself writing about my own teaching career and the students who had been in my class at Baldwin High School in Milledgeville, Georgia. I wrote about my student Albert, who signed all his papers, “Albert the Zero,” and who I watched late one afternoon as he walked down the dark hallway, his right leg shooting out from the side as he kicked one locker after another, all the way down the hall. When reading the early stories of Dorothy Allison, I found myself writing about my Aunt Erma and the way her husband, my uncle, got drunk and began yelling and hitting until my aunt took all four children to spend the night on the pews at the Baptist Church across the highway from their house. The poetic language of Jamaica Kincaid summons my dream state so quickly that I find myself lost in the world of words.

Another Dorothy Allison story, “Gospel Song,” from her collection Trash, begins, “At nine, I knew exactly who and what I wanted to be. Early every Sunday morning I got up to watch The Sunrise Gospel Hour and practice my secret ambition. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a gospel singer.” This passage immediately puts the moving image in my mind, like a video gift, of my sister Linda and me sitting at the piano singing “Whispering Hope.” It is a summer evening, not quite dark, and Mama and Daddy have walked up the street to the Baisden’s house to ask them to put their phone back on the cradle. They are on our party line, and they often leave their phone off the hook. I sit down on the piano bench and open the old Broadman hymnal to page 466. Linda stands over my shoulder and sings soprano, while I sing alto. Out the screen door the cicadas hum the background base, like the solid sound under the melody of bagpipes. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, her voice high above mine as I sing the bottom line “Whispering hope, whispering hope, welcome thy voice, welcome thy voice.” We are in that place that music takes you to.

And there you have it. I have found the magic place.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Two Books That Speak to Jen Silverman

In the eighth in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jen Silverman, author of The Island Dwellers (Random House), discusses a couple of poetry volumes that have influenced her writing.

There are two books that I’ve returned to again and again across the years, both by poets. The first is Changing Your Story by Patricia Clark Smith and the other is Crush by Richard Siken.

I first read Changing Your Story as a teenager and found my way back to it some years later, right after college. I’d just returned from Japan and was in limbo, living in Boston with my best friend while I considered the life (and the relationship) I’d left behind me, stacked against my hopes for my life back in the U.S. I read poems out loud to my friend while we cooked, while we did laundry, while she studied for her med school exams. The book spoke to me in a new way. I was raised in many countries, raised with the constant fact of our ability to transform. Change your language, change your geography, change your customs, and there it is: a new iteration of yourself, a new story. No matter what you take with you from country to country, there is also so much that must get left behindno matter how you try to hold on. In the wake of my recent leaving, the poems reminded me that transformation is as human and inexorable as breathing. Patricia Clark Smith seemed to understand this better than anyone, although these poems are so deeply rooted in the texture and detail of her home state of New Mexico, in her identity as a Native woman. My transience and her rootedness, my uncertainty and her certainty, were two sides of the same coin.

Conversely, Richard Siken’s poems found me at a moment when I was coming to terms with my queer identity – and, with it, the wary questions I was receiving from people both straight and gay. Queer is a fluid construct, by necessity, and fluidity is so often distrusted. As someone whose entire identity is a confluence of fluidities (both national and sexual), I was compelled by Siken’s work in a way that, even now, is hard to articulate. His poems offered no comfort other than the feeling of being witnessedwhich is, of course, sometimes the only comfort. It is raw painful work, each poem a hard-won confession, a grappling with confusion, bewilderment, grief, violence, and queerness into which all these things are foldedand with it, defiance as well. Over the years I return to this collection, still amazed by how it propels itself forward, how it generates an electricity born of urgency. I don’t carry the same rawness that I first did; I’ve become much more comfortable with the discomfort that queerness can generate even within my own community. But I still feel like something in those poems sees me clearlylike the poems and I are sharing a long look of recognition.

The poems in both books read like short stories, confessions, perhaps even monologues, with the same attention to rhythm and voice that you find in good theatre. I’ve worked in theatre for the past decade, and it was in and around writing plays that I wrote my first story collection, The Island Dwellers. I can’t help but think that both of these poets influenced my approach to writing prose and plays. There’s nothing more powerful than a piece of art that functions like a shared secret, like a letter delivered directly to the one person in the audience who needs to receive it. What is writing if not an overture to strangers moving through the world, who might need what you need and long for what you long for? What is writing if not a chance to surrender the small lies that get us through each day, and risk coming face to face with your unguarded self?

Friday, July 27, 2018

Scott O'Connor on Embracing Uncertainty

In the seventh in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott O'Connor, author of A Perfect Universe (Scout Press), shares his exploratory writing process.

“In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties.”
— Joseph Brodsky

My little office is on the second floor of our house and features wonderful sunset light through the western-facing window and incredibly low, sloped ceilings that make the space feel like that vanishing-point room in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The slopes are good for both regular concussive encounters with my forehead and using as a display board where I tack up images, maps, sketches—anything that inspires or speaks to what I’m writing.

Currently, the slopes are covered in multicolored Post-It notes, which look like the far-flung neon shrapnel from some kind of cartoon explosion. They are, in fact, remnants of a violent blast—the fragmented pieces of the novel I’ve been writing for the past two years. And although the notes’ colors really liven up the room, they don’t do much for my current state of mind.

The Post-It eruption isn’t a tool to tweak the book’s structure, or to clarify different character arcs or plotlines. The notes are up there because, frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing with this book. Or, more precisely, I thought I knew what I was doing, but finally realized I hadn’t yet written the book I wanted to write.
Post-It notes: "Neon shrapnel"

So I sit at my desk, or lie on the floor, or pace the room and stare at the Post-Its, or ignore the Post-Its, or try to see them from some new, magical angle that will help the whole enterprise fall into place. I’ve been doing this for about a month now, believing that if push myself hard enough I’ll find the answer. But all I’ve really discovered is how much anxiety this insistence on finding the answer causes. I’m figuratively (and literally) banging my head against the wall. Maybe what I really need to do is take the advice I so often and enthusiastically give to students, fellow writers, anyone who’ll listen: Embrace the uncertainty. 

There’s a scene in my first novel where a lonely, bullied boy finds the remains of a burned-out house. One night he gathers his courage and a flashlight and begins to explore. All he can see is what the narrow, flickering flashlight beam reveals: a seared coffee table, a blackened couch—the objects within a room—and then, slowly, the walls and floor and ceiling, the parameters of the room itself. As he moves along, one room adds to another, creating the house in its entirety. Only then is this space revealed as the place the boy has been looking for all along, a secret refuge from the troubles and dangers in his life. But at first it was just that table, that couch, that wall.

Writing is like that, I think. We step into a dark house with our flashlights and move forward one step or word or sentence at a time. Sometimes the living room is just like we imagined. Sometimes it’s completely, disorientingly different. Sometimes we realize this isn’t even a house at all. We’re not sure what it is. But there’s only one way to find out: Keep moving, one step at a time, shining that beam around.

Which is not to say that some writers don’t plan ahead, whether through a full outline or a sketch of the next scene or chapter. But even those maps are of places that don’t yet exist.

There are dangers, of course. You could take a wrong turn and wander aimlessly for months or years. You could discover that this thing you’re writing won’t ever work. But at some level that’s why we do it, for the risk, the thrill and danger of discovery. So much of life is about avoiding or managing risk, about being certain. Writing is the place where we get to live another way.

It’s easy to look at our favorite novels and stories and believe that they arrived in the world that way—fully formed, many-layered, confident. But of course it’s just not true. And that way of thinking is not only self-defeating but a disservice to those writers who also groped around in the dark for what must have seemed like forever, searching.

So I’ll embrace the uncertainty. I’ll keep rearranging the Post-Its on the ceiling, and approaching (sneaking up on?) them from different angles, but I won’t expect any singular moment of insight. I’ll try to stay true to the spirit of that kid in the burned-out house, understanding that answers don’t always reveal themselves at once, and certainly not on demand. Instead, they come one step—one room—at a time.