My stories start out as ordinary beans. I like to think of them as such. I don’t know what I have, but I’m compelled to water these beans. Shoots then grow into stems and my beanstalk matures. Sometimes the stems die; the story loses life. Then I travel along my beanstalk and find new stems to explore. Eventually leaves grow and there is a flowering, as the organism that is my story comes to life, and the characters take shape, and I can see them and hear their voices. Then they grow up and go off and do things I haven’t planned.
That’s how I know I’m getting somewhere.
Except it doesn’t happen like that all the time. Sometimes the beans turn out to be just crap. Duds. Nothing stems. Nothing flowers—no matter how much watering. The story must be killed with two slugs in the back of the head as you tell it to watch the rabbits.
But you won’t know this until you complete the first draft.
“Saul Bellow said, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”
Maybe for him. Not for me. Sometimes you’re up at 3am simply because you drank way too much. That’s no epiphany, it’s heartburn.
But you write the crap down, anyway, and under the cold light of the next day, you sigh, and then tell it to look at the rabbits.
I don’t do outlines anymore. I’ve found that adhering to any kind of superimposed structure closes more doors than it opens. Structure is something discovered; it reveals itself gradually. I also try to develop good rhythm in my sentences, as well as cadence and tone. You have to write it over and then again, until the sentence is attuned to the inner ear.
If I think I’ve got something special, I revise. Then I revise more. Then I revise even more. In my experience, the story always gets tighter. It always gets better.
My professor at UC Irvine once told me that, in order for someone to be considered knowledgeable about any given subject, they need to have read at least fifteen books on that subject. He actually gave a number: fifteen.
I like it. I have been revising fifteen times, in his honor. In order to feign knowledge on a subject, I aim to read at lest fifteen different sources on it. That’s what it takes—fifteen. Because he said so.
If someone tells me they’ve finished their novel, I want to ask “How many drafts?” If you haven’t rewritten the story at least half of my accustomed FIFTEEN, then, sorry, you’re stuck with unripe beans.
As a draft develops, I steer clear of predictability. My stories have frayed edges. It’s like a tale you tell in the kitchen, one with slipups and repetition. It’s genuine. A story should feel like an off-the-cuff conversation with loved ones. Endings can be ambiguous, sometimes unsatisfying. Just like real life. Just like people. There is no black and white. We are both good and bad.
My stories also explore the existential continuum, from the bleak to the divine, from the darkness to the light. We hate and we kill. But even in the most dreadful circumstances, we also manage to hope and to love.
Theme-wise, I like to play with the idea of control—who has it, or who is losing it. Identity plays a large part in my stories; knowing who we are and what we can do weave through my writing like fine fabric: “Who am I, really?” “Why am I here?”
I often don’t know what my theme is until after several drafts of the story. Then it emerges as if stepping out from its hiding place in the woods, and I think, “Oh, I’ve indeed written about that!”
I like to write horror, but I’m not a horror writer. Steven King said, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
I am fascinated by this kind of inner beast that resides within so many of my favorite writers. Whatever resides within me is nothing more than a surly Chihuahua.
Comic fantasy is more my game, and if I’ve watered my beans in the right way, then maybe I’m able to spark some kind of emotional connection with readers.
Way to go, you gorgeously crazed beanstalk!