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.