Short Story Workshop #1: How do you start?

One of the first projects I’m going to undertake, and attempt to chronicle, as part of this blog is the creation of a short story.  My goal is for this blog to really go behind-the-curtain, and it is totally possible that several writers are going to look at this process and snicker because I’m doing it wrong, but if that’s the case please comment below because learning is what we’re here for, right?

An aside:  Will it be any good?

Before we begin, one comment I hear very often is “I can’t start, all my ideas are terrible.”  I think this is unlikely.  But even if it is true I would posit to you that the soundness or originality of an idea, in its most basic form, is virtually meaningless when assessing whether the final result will be any good.

If that thought is causing you to scratch your head and wonder how, then, will you know if an idea is worth pursuing, good!  They all are, to some degree or another, because you never know at this early stage how an idea will play out or where your imagination will take it.  And then there is also the question of what does “good writing” really mean?  Does it mean you use language artfully?  Does it mean you tell a good story?  I sometimes think one of the greatest hindrances to human communication is that people so very often use words that mean two different things to two different people.  But I digress.

The bottom line is if you are setting out to write Blood Merdian and don’t want to start until you find an idea worthy of your genius, you are setting yourself up for failure.  For me, good writing means that the story is sound and compelling and entertaining enough to trigger an emotional response from the reader (other than boredom, har har good one guys).  If I can accomplish that, I feel like I deserve a C+ to a B.  But if I’m going for the A, I need to bind that story in artful language and description that is a treat to read.  In either case, I think this can be accomplished without an earth-shattering premise just by imbuing your story with character, detail, and texture from the real world that will leap out to your reader so that they say “Ah-ha, I know what he (you) means.”  The good news is that everyone has a life to draw on, and no two lives are different.  Let your own life and experiences texture the story, and you’ll be fine.

Where do ideas come from?

So then here’s the rub:  It’s just you, me, and a blank page, and you want to know where to start.

Ideas can come from the most mundane things.  The story that I am going to write (which I am, in fact, a few pages into at this moment) involves a man getting drunk at a bar and then lost in the woods.  At least that’s where I’m starting.  It may turn out totally differently, but for now, I know that he’s drinking in a bar, and eventually he’s going to wind up in the woods.

Where did this come from?  You may ask.  Well, I was lying in bed one night thinking, and my free-associative brain began to knit things together.  I thought of The Girl who Loves Tom Gordon by Stephen King, and I thought about going out and getting drunk, and it occured to me how hard it would be to naviage drunk in the woods.  Then I began to think of my own experience in eastern North Carolina, and I began to inject my own problems into a character who to start with is going to seem like a real prick, and over time we will learn more about him.  I don’t expect this story to be very long, and I have no idea how it will end or where it is going, but the building blocks are there, and that’s how I came up with them.  Simple as that.

Now, if you are reading this and want to try to play along at home, feel free to write your own few pages of a man who is drinking in a bar and you expect to end up in the woods.  There will likely be some similarities to start with.  I’d guess overindulgence of alcohol will play a factor in most of these.  But there will no doubt be plenty of other areas of divergence.  Unless this thing really takes off, I guarantee I will look at all of them, and I may even quote a few for a future blog post.

Alternatively, try coming up with your own idea and taking a stab at it.  Don’t bother outlining, just figure out a couple characters, a rough sketch is OK, and put them to work living their lives.

And lastly, I should add that just because we start with a premise doesn’t mean you are beholden to it.  Some of my favorite (and most complete) stories began as a short scenario that I wrote and then went back and explored further.  Sometimes ideas peter out and you realize that the idea you thought you had wasn’t great, but it leads you to something better.  That’s all part of the process.

And that’s that.  Now you know how to start.  So get to it.

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