How to Write a Story (If You’re Me)

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First, how not to write a story

I was home from college, sitting in the small upstairs bedroom, determined to write something. I wasn’t sure how to start, but before I left that chair, I was going to have one page.

Having nothing to say, I typed a few sentences about a boy sitting in an upstairs bedroom, who eventually got up and went outside to stand in the driveway. Then I quit. I had two hellish sentences.

I’ve recently been asked about my creative process, so I’m writing this for anyone who’s ever experienced that two-sentence hell or said, “I could never write a novel.” Maybe this will help.

On the night mentioned above, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any ideas–it was that I was trying to force a story for the sake of writing alone. One might as well insist on cooking any object close at hand–you’ll eventually get something, but what? The important thing here is that I had nothing to say. When attempting to write a story, solving that is the first step.

1. Discover what you care about

This time I was sitting alone at a desk behind a glass wall, with twenty angry people on the other side taking turns tapping on the glass to rouse me. I had just returned from a dehumanizing sales training class that had taken place in a dingy room. Pretending to be busy with loan applications, I recounted the scene, pouring all of my hatred of the event onto the page and taking creative license wherever it made me feel better.

When I was finished, I had written two pages in which a version of me arrived late to a dirty meeting room, where a small team of miners was assembled and lifelessly hitting buttons on their desks to acknowledge that they understood the prompts on a worn-out VHS video that was pretending to praise them for their dedication to the company.

At that moment in my life, I cared deeply about feeling trapped in a humiliating job, which routinely belittled us and expected us to be grateful. I am, of course, referring to my days as a retail banker–in a grocery store. But this is what my story was all about, and once I started writing it down, I found that I had much to say.

Write down an experience you want others to understand, write a example that illustrates something you want others to know, and take as much license as you need. This is very different than trying to be a writer.

2. Find the epicenter

For me, there is a central event in every story. In the one I had just started, the meeting was the center. The cast of characters was familiar enough–they were basically the people I worked with, but some clues had arisen. Why was the main character late? What would he do next? Miners? Why did they have that particular job?

Multiple questions should arise, and answering them is the next step.

3. Start digging

Why was he late? Not knowing the answer, I backed up and wrote him waking violently to a bright, garish alarm clock, and then staring at something that loomed in his mailbox. These details surfaced at random as I wrote, and soon I knew that he simply didn’t have the will to get to the meeting on time. He eventually went out of fear, but he lacked all motivation to participate. It felt true, so I accepted it.

Returning to the first point for a moment, I was describing real life, something I felt, in different, exaggerated terms, not simply trying to fabricate something from nothing.

Later, I determined a few other facts. The big one was that he and his coworkers comprised one of a handful of teams left in a huge mining facility … on some asteroid. What? Why space?

In hindsight, I suppose the answer is that science fiction is a context of easy, ready made metaphors. The writer doesn’t have to describe how isolated one is because it is built into the context. Of course, I wasn’t thinking that at the time. I was simply trying to uncover what was already there, and it turned out that he was on some rock, whether I liked it or not.

Remember, you have to accept what the story tells you is true. It knows itself better than you do. It’s better to walk away from a story than try to make it something it’s not.

This investigation–asking endless questions and discovering the answers–can take months or years (if you have another full time job, at least.) It’s labor intensive work. However, clues are everywhere. Why was the meeting room–and the facility–so run down? Why were they watching such an old tape? What drew them to those positions in the first place?

How to investigate

Write blindly

In short, make guesses based on what you know, and react to what appears on the paper:

“The facility is run down because… [and you try something out] …because there is no budget … because of corruption [no, too cliché], because the company doesn’t care about them. Because the company doesn’t know about them. [Oh, now this is getting somewhere] The company is so big, when it downsizes or fires people, some of their operations keep getting funded, because the system is too complex, and because everyone hates the company, when they leave, they don’t bother to close up loose ends.”

None of that would eventually make it into the story, which is good, because I would have had to explain it and it was beside the point, but it was correct enough, and important to know. Thematically, it reinforced the feelings of the main character–of being lost in a meaningless, dehumanizing bureaucracy. Knowing this detail, more would emerge–such as the fact that there were no rides home, and that unknown to them, the miners hadn’t been paid in months.

Use music like a drug

Much of my investigation happens while under the influence of music. There are bits of truth in music that speak directly to what you care about in the moment, and in turn, to the story you’re writing. Sometimes I’ll skip over 20 songs because they all seem irrelevant, but one will eventually catch, and it will put me in a frame of mind in which I can easily see deeper into a story.

I don’t remember if music helped the story I’ve been describing, but in The Whispering Walls, the critical, murderous events on the night after the tournament were conceived largely while listening to the following track from the score to Elizabeth, and if you listen at just after 1:50, you’ll hear exactly where Tergiver realizes what’s happening, and starts trying to backpedal on the wet grass.

4. Record and structure your findings

I can’t help but outline. Other authors can start writing with nothing but a dark and stormy night, but my mind is different. I collect facts and events and scenes into timelines, character arcs, sketches, etc., and I then construct chapter outlines from there. It’s a long process of rolling out the dough one way, smoothing out the lumps, then turning it over again and doing the same thing until you’re happy.

5. Write

This is where I sat for a year, writing TWW

This is where I sat for a year, writing TWW

At this point, there is no substitute for sitting down and hammering out that first cliché-riddled, horribly written page and moving on to the second. First chapters are made to be scrapped and rewritten anyway, so don’t worry about it. (You’ll have to trust me, because I’m not about to show anyone my first drafts.) When the first chapter is done, you can tell yourself the same thing about the second. Just keep moving.

This is grueling, and the work can be ridiculous and hard, but the result is worth it. Don’t give up.

6. Edit

When you have a draft finished, edit it until you think it’s done, and then give it to your editor/writer friends. They’ll tell you why it’s not done. Listen to them, not the people who love it, and fix the issues–especially the ones you really want to leave untouched–you know, the ones that only someone in your enlightened, artistic state can truly appreciate. The more you have to fight for something, the more likely it is that you should cut it.

I hope this helps someone out there get started. Good luck.


About J. E. Hunt

J. E. Hunt is a writer based in Washington DC, and the author of The Whispering Walls, its pending sequel, and several short stories. Please take a minute to check out his work.

6 Responses to “How to Write a Story (If You’re Me)”

  1. Wow – you nailed it. This works for any kind of writing, any length of document, and any task a writer may face. Sometimes you have to experiment with collecting and arranging your facts, research, ideas but the idea is still the same.

  2. Dave Burkum says:

    Great post, Josh. I'm glad you're blogging. Don't let it get in the way of your other writing. :-)

  3. Lisa Forrette says:

    Excellent. Thanks for that, Josh! Looking forward to more.

  4. Beth says:

    One of the most interesting insights about writing I've ever encountered was in the movie 'Wonder Boys,' (another Chabon…). The character played by Michael Douglas kept saying something to the effect that authors have to make decisions about their writing- advice that rings true to me as making decisions is especially hard for me, even in scientific reading. But after reading your post, I feel much more… empowered (?) (dunno if that's the right word) to take a stab at writing, if only I could decide to do so. Thanks for the thoughts.

  5. WKevinG says:

    Fascinating insight, Josh. Thanks for sharing that. It is quite interesting to think through your process as you describe it and to begin to understand even more how that process literally takes you on a journey of discovery about yourself and your own story.
    My recent post New Panera Location Says Pay What You Want – NYTimes.com

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