Saturday, January 26, 2013

How To Write A Short Story, in 437 Easy Steps. (Thinking The Lions)

Today, you are going to get to watch me write a story.


Both "watch" and "LIVE!" are slightly misleading in that intro, but I felt that the hype was justified, because this post is about me, and I always live up to the hype.

There is a short story contest out there, run by Andrew Leon, which you would know about if you ever read my short story blog lit, a place for short stories* (*don't be put off by the extreme levels of pretension in that title), but you don't, and honestly I don't blame you because I am way behind in putting stuff on that blog.  I'm still working on my annual Christmas story, for Pete's sake.** (**That much is true.  Pete is my closest friend in the world, and he is desperately hoping I will finish the story, because Pete has been hanging off a precipice since December 1, clinging by just three fingers to an icy rock shelf, with his mortal enemy, Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge, standing over him, holding a large boulder.  Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge is going to drop the boulder on Pete's fingers and send Pete plunging nearly a mile to the rocky, freezing cold waters of the Conestoga River, below, so that Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge can be the only person who knows the whereabouts of the zinc mine the two of them located.  You don't think zinc is very profitable, but it is, and both Pete and Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge know that.  Pete's only hope is that I finish the story in time, because Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridgewas very interested in it and if I can divert Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge for a moment, Pete can reach into his pocket, pull out the sneeze powder he got as a gag gift from his wife on his last birthday, blow it into Mr. Jelliston-Tumbridge's face, and use the distraction to pull himself up onto the rock and run to his old jalopy, which might just have enough gas to get him down the winding road to Hope's Pass, where the small town sits and the sheriff is sleepily getting ready for bed.)

(HANG IN THERE, PETE, I've got some other stuff to do before I get back to that story.) But that's the kind of stuff I could be writing on lit, only I never really do.  That and my next story on lit will probably be about a Komodo dragon.  I've just got a feeling, you know?

Anyhoo!  There's a short story contest, run by Andrew Leon, and he's giving away chocolates-and-books, unless you hate real books like I do, in which case Andrew has predisqualified you from getting books,   and entries are due by February 6, but I've got a busy schedule of... well... OKAY I am NOT THAT BUSY but I don't want to be under time pressure because what if I just want to spend a night seeing if the library has Green Lantern comics that I could check out and read?  What then?

I don't know where that came from.

So I am going to, today, in this post -- well, not in this post... focus, man, Pete's life depends on it-- show you how I write a short story and help you write your own short story by following my simple process.  Using these 437 simple steps, YOU TOO can write a short story.  Got your pen and paper handy?  Good.  Now throw them away, because you don't need to take notes, as I am writing this down for you, and if you actually use a pen and paper to write your stories than you are being way more pretentious than me.  God invented computers for a reason, you know.*** (***He needed them to help do his taxes.) 

STEP ONE:  Find a contest to enter.  This is the most important part of the writing process.  Although not strictly necessary if you want to write a story, this step is helpful in that it gives you a reason for writing your story, because if you are going to write a story for no reason, this could happen:

YOU:  I am going to write a story.


Where was I?

I suggest entering Andrew Leon's contest.  Or P.T. Dilloway's contest.   Or Jeopardy!, because that game show is cool and I have always wanted to be on it.  You could write your story in the form of a question, at Final Jeopardy! And wouldn't it be wild if you won?

STEP TWO:  Find yourself a good, quiet place to write where you won't be bothered.  Step Two is the most important part of the writing process.  In finding your place, you might want to try Jupiter, which I recently learned is not, as I always thought, a completely-gaseous planet.  According to one of Mr Bunches' books, Jupiter might well have a solid core in it, and so you could theoretically walk on the surface of Jupiter no matter what Mr. Magestro said in 8th grade science class.

You could.  Not me.  I've got a story to write.

I have selected, for this step, my kitchen table, which is neither good nor quiet, but it has the virtue of being in my house.  Which is where I am, and so that is helpful.

The downside to being in my house as I write is that I am in my house as I write, and that may... just may... pose some distractions.

It may, for example, mean that I started this post at 7:40 a.m. and it is now 7:58 a.m. and during the time I have been writing this post -- I haven't even started the story yet -- I have been interrupted by Mr Bunches wanting me to go put "Star Wars" on (he means Revenge of The Sith,  which he has started watching, on DVD, on our big TV.  He only watches the first 15 minutes or so, right up until Count Dooku gets killed. But he is really into that first fifteen minutes, rooting Anakin and Obi-Wan on with vigor) and I have been interrupted by Mr F, who wanted me to let him go into our room to watch TV and bounce on our bed, which he cannot do because (A) he is the kind of kid who literally cracks his head open and (B) our bed is currently in need of repairs because a board broke and I don't want him bouncing on it until I get a more stable stack of books to hold up the end and/or fix it.

8:01 a.m.! Let's get crackin'!

STEP THREE; Get crackin'!

I don't really know what that means.  But it is the most important part of the writing process.

STEP FOUR;  Gimme something to write on, man!

 Isn't that a great song?  If you are going to write a short story, you are going to need something to write on and, as I said, people who use pen and paper to write are psychotic.  (I did say that, didn't I? I certainly implied it.)  Having something to write on is the single most important part of the writing process, and I never forget that. 

I am using our 10-year-old Dell Inspiron something-or-other, the laptop that has been around forever.  It is missing the "D" key and the ";" key, but the little plastic tabs are there for those keys so you can still write 

D; d: D;D;

if you want, and if you did that backwards

;D  :d  

You would likely be interrupeted by Mr F, saying tickletickle,  which is what he says when he wants you to tickle him.  Sometimes

OK I'm back.  As I started to write that line above, I was asked by Mr Bunches to get him a glass of milk, which I did, and then I was asked by him to look at the picture of the "baby bee" in the book he was reading, and we all agreed that it was cute, and then I hummed a bit of "Green Onion" by Booker T and The MGs as I went back to my computer

and Mr Bunches said "No, stop singing Do-do-do" and so I asked him why I couldn't sing and he said "How's the kindergarten?" and I said "It's fun."

Where were we?

STEP FIVE:  Get an idea.  This is the most important part of the writing process, not counting the part where you actually write the story.  So if you don't have an idea at the outset, I strongly urge you to find one.  Sometimes they are just lying around, covering up the sidewalk, causing your wife to complain that you never do any yardwork, and saying that you bought that new rake and everything for no apparent reason.  In fact, I have lots and lots of those ... er... ideas in my yard all the time.  Feel free to come over and gather them.

If that does not appeal to you,  there are other ways to come up with ideas for your story.  You could:

1.  Base a story on your own life.  You might as well do this because everyone you know will assume that you did anyway.  It doesn't even matter if you write a fiction or nonfiction story.  It doesn't even matter if your story is wildly inaccurate and could not possibly happen, like a story about a dinosaur stealing chocolate.  You will write a story like that, and someone you know will read it, and they'll say "Are you the dinosaur? Do you want chocolate?"  So just go ahead and base the story on your life.

2.  If #1 doesn't appeal to you, just rewrite an Emily Dickinson poem into a short story.  98% of all New York Times bestsellers are just thinly-veiled plagiarisms of Emily Dickinson, which is fine because Emily Dickinson is history's greatest monster.

STEP SIX:   Pick out some music to write to.  Having music to write to is the most important part of the writing process.  There are those who will tell you that you need quiet to write, that finding a quiet place to write is important.  Those people are wrong.  You have to have music playing when you write, because otherwise it will be so quiet that you'll start to actually hear your own inner monologue, and you never, ever, ever EVER want to listen to what you actually think.


OK, time to write.  Got my idea, got my story, ready to go.  Man, it's quiet in here.  Did those keys always make that weird sound when I typed?  It's not even a clicking sound.   It's more like slapping.  Like the keys are slapping the computer.  Like every letter I type is causing physical pain to the computer.  Oh, man, that's a horrible image.  I am literally slapping my computer just to get some thoughts written down.  I'm like an abusive stepfather.  Why would I go there? Is it because my own stepfather was abusive? That's nuts. I didn't have a stepfather. Then again, I never looked very much like Dad, did I? Should that be in quotes?  "Dad"?  I didn't look much like anyone in the family.  And I was so different from everyone!  I never did feel like I fit in.  I probably didn't fit in.  Who am I kidding with that probably? I DID NOT FIT IN.  There, are you happy, Mom? I admitted it! I never wanted to go to med school.  That's why I practically failed chemistry.  That was your dream, Mom, not mine. Oh, god, now I'm sobbing.  Why's that guy looking at me?  What's he saying? "...can't be in the McDonald's playland if I'm going to be wailing in anguish?"  Whatever happened to the Constitution, that's what I'd like to know.  I've got rights.  Fine. I'm leaving.

So I have selected as my music to listen to the group "Orchestral Maneouvers In the Dark."  


 Step SEVEN I THINK WE ARE ON:  Begin to write.  This is superimportant.  Probably the most important part of the writing process.  

You will want a good opening line.  It has to "grab" the "reader" and make "him" want to "read" "your" st"o"ry.  Ideally your line will not involve Mr Bunches reaching over and trying to type on your computer, and then asking you to find a video for "Hamburger" on Youtube on his iPad.  

That's what he just did: said "Can you find hamburger," which means he wants a video labeled "Hamburger" on Youtube, so I go to Youtube and search for that word, and this is the video he ended up watching:

I don't know how Mr Bunches found that video in the first place, since he cannot spell "hamburger" and so he had to find it by clicking around on videos on Youtube.  Perhaps I should consider supervising the boys on the computer? Perhaps.

Step EIGHT:  Continue writing until you are done with the story.  To do this, you will need things like a plot, and characters and possibly action.  Also maybe helicopters.  All of those things are the most important part of the writing process, and should not be forgotten, especially helicopters.  Inefficient, maybe, but they are also cool.

BUT FIRST: you forgot the title!

Step NINE: Go back and come up with a title.  A good title is the most important part of the writing process.  Do you think Gone With The Wind would be even half as good if it were called "The Adventures of Mortimer Snerd?"  Sure, it would.  Changing the title wouldn't change the story, after all.  The title is just the title.  It doesn't affect the story, at all.  You can call a book anything you want and the story will remain the same.  So don't sweat this one.  Just call your story whatever you want.

I have chosen, for my story, the following title:

The Electronic Fish Tacos From Jupiter Save The Day!!?!

So it is a safe bet you are not getting historical fiction here.

NOTE: That title was mostly inspired by something author Rusty Webb said, and something author Michael Offutt said.  I find that 99.9% of my inspiration comes from not really listening to or reading things people say but picking out some random word or phrase that makes me think for a moment about something other than myself.  This is a system that works perfectly for me, in that neither of those guys can sue me for royalties as they don't have very good lawyers.

NOTE, TWO: I am now listening to Dean Martin's Sway:


 It's making me want to dance, but I can't right now because I've got a story to write.  NEVER GET DISTRACTED BY LATIN MUSICAL RHYTHMS WHEN YOU WRITE.  That's the most important part of the writing process, right there.

STEP UM TEN I THINK?  Review prior steps to see what you missed.  Ah, right, the opening line.  You need a grabber, here. That's the most important part of the writing process, pulling the reader in with a great first line.  Something like this actual first line of my actual story I will actually write:

5 stepped lightly over the two dead bodies and shrugged.  

Really makes you want to read my story, doesn't it? That or punch me in the face.  I recommend the former.  Although I can take a good shot to the head and keep on going.  When the boys were smaller, about two, we used to play a game called "Tackle Game" in which I would sit on the floor and Mr F and Mr Bunches would take turns running at me, and I would let them 'tackle' me by running into me, but I'd catch them and fall to the floor and flip them over and put them on the couch.  It was lots of fun and not dangerous at all unless you consider that what I taught them was that whenever I am sitting on the floor, "Tackle Game" is going on, which led to one night where I sat down on the floor to talk to Sweetie, and I had my head turned, and Mr Bunches came running across the floor as fast as he could and ran headfirst into my temple, nearly knocking me out and giving me a horrendous black eye for the entire week, and I had a jury trial that week.

Also, last night, Mr F head-butted me but I'm 90% sure that was accidental.

So the point is, that is an excellent excellent opener for my story.  I think that's the point.  I get a little confused these days.

Step SIX probably are you keeping track because I'm not:  Write the story.  That's the most important part of the writing process: Write it! I cannot emphasize that enough.  If you do only one thing when it comes to writing a story,  make sure you write it.  Did you know that 98% of all stories that never get written don't reach this stage?  It is the number one reason authors have to work at "real" jobs, jobs where they will spend most of their day sending query letters out to publishers and the rest of their day "tweeting" how far they are in their "WIP" which is a kind of Jell-O, I think. 

Step SEVEN:  SERIOUSLY, write your story.  Did you even try?  You moved onto Step Seven pretty darn quickly, there, bro.  I'm pretty sure you're not done with your story.    I bet you don't even have a denouement, which is a French word and is pronounced "de new MWAH," and here is a key to speaking French: Never pronounce the last consonant of a word and you'll be fine.  I learned that when I was in Morocco, where they speak French and Arabic, and where I spoke English and some Japanese, but I picked up some Arabic pretty fast in that I could order a coffee in Arabic, and I could order a hamburger in Arabic, but most of the time when you think, in Morocco, that you are ordering "beef" you are not at all getting "beef," you're just getting whatever meat they had that day -- probably goat.  They eat a lot of goat.  It's not that bad.  Not as bad as you'd imagine, maybe, if you have to imagine eating goat.  They even had goat bouillion. 

Back to denouement: If you don't have one, get one

It's the most important part of the writing process.

STEP K:  Make yourself some toast, and try to get Mr Bunches to agree that Mr F can watch "Little Einsteins" instead of having to watch "Revenge of The Sith" again.  This probably doesn't apply to all writers, but whether it applies to you or not, you should do it, as it is the most important part of the writing process.  Also important: taking Mr F for a ride in the car.  It's 9:36 a.m. now, by the way.  The ride was very nice.  We saw some cows.  Sweetie and Mr Bunches have a game they play when we take rides.  They see some cows, and Sweetie will pretend the cows are something else.

"Look at the dinosaurs," she'll say, and Mr Bunches will laugh and reply:

"No, they're cows.  Dinosaurs live in the jungle."

Whatever Sweetie pretends the cows are, Mr Bunches corrects her and tells her where the other things live, except for carrots, which threw him for a loop.

"Look at the carrots," Sweetie said, pointing at some cows.

"No, those are cows," Mr Bunches informed her.  "Carrots live in the..." [looooooooooong pause] ground?"

Someday, thanks to all these mental exercises, Mr Bunches will win the Nobel Prize In Knowing Where Things Live.

(That one's not given out every year, you know.)

Step FIVE:  Did Sweetie disconnect you from the Internet? She did.  Propose a rule that nobody turns off the Internet, ever. 

Step FOURTEEN:  Number your steps correctly and keep track of them.  It goes without saying that those last two steps are co-equally the most important parts of the writing process.

Step FIFTEEN: Name your main character.

GOOD Names for protagonists:  Jack.  Ray.  Timothy Olyphant.

BAD Names for protagonists:  "Darth" Anything, because you will get sued.  ALSO: Darths are bad guys.


A good name for your protagonist is important because otherwise no quality actors will want to play your guy in a movie that you hope will get made out of your story, and don't think a short story can't be made into a movie.  Brokeback Mountain was originally a short story, and that got made into a movie.  Other stories were also short stories that got made into movies.  But if your main character is named something like "Jimmy Earwig" then the big time actors like Ryan Gosling will not want to play your character.  And if you can't get Ryan Gosling attached, you're never going to get a major studio, and if you can't get major studio financing, why are you even calling yourself a producer? This is why a good name for your protagonist is the most important part of the writing process.
Step SIXTEEN:  Poor Jimmy Earwig.

Step SEVENTEEN: It is time to begin writing the story, which you already have written the first line for and the title, and you've got your box full of denouements and your Emily Dickinson poems to crib from in a pinch, so with all that plus let's go get a soda, I know people say you're not supposed to drink diet soda but honestly, the time I gave up soda for Lent I gained five pounds and you can say all you want that when people stop drinking soda they should not start drinking more milkshakes, that was not the reason, so let's go get a soda, grab a handful of denouements, and start writing, which is, after all, the most important part of the writing process.

Here is how I plan on beginning my story:

The Electronic Fish Tacos From Jupiter Save The Day!!?!

5 stepped lightly over the two dead bodies an shrugged.

"Get 'em out of here," 5 said in a voice that everybody found surprising the first time they heard it.

They found it surprising because second, it was a high-pitched, quiet, voice, not at all the kind of voice you imagined 5 would have.

And they found it surprising because first, 5 was an abstract number representing a given quantity of items in some numeric systems, and so the fact that 5 spoke at all was surprising.

But that was in the olden days, before the Imagination Room had been broken wide open and everything fell all to heck.  Back in the time before even abstract concepts could come to life and begin taking over the criminal underworld, ruthlessly killing everyone who got in their way, even Jimmy Earwig, poor guy.

But Jimmy had a secret, too.

He wasn't dead.

Step Eighteen:  Try to remember where you were after you got Mr F some cheese puffs.  This is really the most important part of the writing process.  Not the cheese puffs.  Remembering where you left off in your story and where you were going with that. THAT is the most important part of the writing process. Although the cheese puffs? ALSO PRETTY IMPORTANT.


For the rest of my story,  you will have to follow along on lit.  I'll try to write a bit each day but I've promised that before, so don't expect any real follow-through, here.**** (****I bet you expected one final that's the most important part of the writing process here, but I'm not going to do that.  Instead, I'll leave you with a little George Baker Selection:




Andrew Leon said...

I'm pretty sure it took me longer to read this than it took you to write it, but that's too long a story to go into. Let's just say that I started reading more than 3 hours ago and only just now finished.

But I loved this post, and -that's- the most important part of the writing process.

Liz said...

Yeah, I'm one of those writers who needs quiet. I need to hear the voices. They have great ideas.

And I agree about needing a contest. Because who just sits down to write a story without a purpose? I keep meaning to, but...

Briane P said...

If I have helped just one person from this post, then I feel very sorry for that person.

Nigel Mitchell said...

Very helpful. And by helpful, I mean funny. And by funny, I mean helpful.

Rusty Webb said...

My god. That's how the magic works, eh? There needs to be another term that means the same thing as 'seeing how the sausage is made.' Because this is what this post is, it's like watching sausage being made. Which I've never seen. I have seen butter being churned though, which I thought was the most disgusting thing ever. I saw it happen when I was a little kid and I still have nightmares about it.

I'm happy I've inspired your story, even if it isn't by anything I've said, but by a word you saw that I'd written. I'm pretty sure you should have 'inspired by true events' in your subtitle once you decide this one gets published, or Andrew does.

Andrew Leon said...

I've seen sausage being made. But it was nothing to the horror of seeing hogshead cheese being made. And I mean horror.

One of my kids has churned butter, but I don't remember which.