Even not-so-longtime readers will remember that up until about two years ago, I had a thing about writing short stories. I’d set up a Medium.com feed and Patreon account and declared my intention to write and post one short story each month. They weren’t necessarily going to be good short stories, but as Neil Gaiman says, the main thing is to just write, however you can, whatever you can.
It all worked pretty well for a while. I even got a nifty little book out of it, collecting my favorites from the first couple of years, published by a small press in New England. But there was always something floating in the stream, waiting to precipitate a massive authorial logjam: there was a novel I wanted to write. I even wrote about wanting to write it before I’d started writing any fiction. It was what got me to sign up for Sara Houghteling’s “Practicing the Basics of Fiction” class in the first place. Damned good class, by the way – I’ve taken a fair number of writing classes since, and none of them hold a candle to Sara’s. I went back and counted, and was amused to realize that most of the stories in Eight in Three Weeks got their start in that class.
But I digress. (That’s what I do, as they say. I digress, and I know things.)
All the time I was writing short stories, I was really trying to write that damned novel. So I’d stare at the page trying to get my protagonists where they needed to be and my brain would say, “Hey, let me distract you with an idea about a kid on a sled! Or maybe an old guy with more dynamite than he needs!” and another short story would pop out. It felt like those physics experiments where you bombard a target with high energy electrons, and other weird, non-electron stuff comes bouncing off. It was productive, I’ll give you that. But it didn’t help with the novel.
I distracted myself for a couple of months with NaNoWriMo – yes, I know that, by definition, National Novel Writing Month is supposed to be a month, but I’m a slow writer, okay? On a dare with our eldest offspring, I dove into an unrelated project beginning with nothing but the title: “A Brief History of Time Travel” and the line, “Okay, so it’s complicated…” Clocked my obligatory word count of 51,232 words of fluff and moved on (And no, you can’t see it. It’s dreadful and incoherent, but it’s done, and I’m never going to look at it again).
But there was still the real novel to finish writing, and it was driving me absolutely #$@#@!&*. And so I continued banging my head against it until, at the end of January, 2016, I typed “the end” and declared it done.
Then I made a mistake: I went back and read it. Turns out that it, too, was kind of dreadful and incoherent. But there were also some really good bits in it and I cared so much about it that I started trying to rewrite it almost immediately. And failed. And set it down for a bit to get some space, then picked it up and tried again to rewrite it. And failed again.
That Damned Novel (“TDN” for short) has been rewritten four times now, and is still…problematic, to say the least. Couldn’t face it anymore and, what’s worse, when I tried rewriting, my brain didn’t do the “Let’s distract you with a short story to write instead!” thing. So the short stories dried up, too.
Then, you know, pandemic. And running a farm. And that software project. And I stopped trying to bang my head against fiction, because there was so much else to keep a lid on.
But mid-April last year I decided to try and get myself back in writerly shape. Because, again, pandemic, and I figured it would help keep me sane. Started doing exercises, writing morning pages, scene sprints. One popular exercise is to spend your block of writing time mimicking the style of an author you know well (and presumably like). Describe your favorite pub, but in the style of Hemingway. Describe a walk in the woods as though you were Steinbeck, or Jasper Fforde.
I’d just read Mink River, Brian Doyle’s magical musings on life in a fictional small town on the Oregon Coast, and settled one morning on describing my adoptive home here in the same style. And then suddenly it was afternoon, and I had over 5,000 words, and didn’t feel like I’d even gotten started yet. I added a bit more the next morning, and the next. And suddenly there were a few more quirky characters I had to explore, and something about an ominously-named coffee house, and a boy who listened to trees.
By month’s end, I was still discovering – not creating, but discovering – new features and quirks and fictional characters in a never-named fictional town o the tip on a peninsula on the tip of another peninsula. I was fascinated by them and could barely keep up with what they were all doing.
Fast forward a year. Last night around 10 p.m., just as the caffeine was sputtering on empty, I think I finally tied down the last of the loose ends and sent each of these new acquaintances where they needed to go. The word count reads “121,253”, and I’m going to call it done.
No, you can’t read it. I’m not even going to try to read it for a while. I’m sure it’s incoherent and inconsistent – after all, I had no idea it was even going to be a novel when I started writing. It’s going to need drastic revision, and rewrite after rewrite. But for now, it’s done, and I’m gonna celebrate a little. But there is this idea for a short story that just occurred to me…
HIGH FRICKIN’ FIVE
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This makes me so happy. And I still have your Mink River- I haven’t forgotten!
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So, you mentioned Sara Houghteling’s “Practicing the Basics of Fiction” class. Can you recommend any online classes of similar quality?
So, you mentioned Sara Houghteling’s “Practicing the Basics of Fiction” class. Might you be able to suggest an online class of similar quality? This feels like my primary barrier to getting going.
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Ah, there’s the rub – Sara was teaching part-time, and I’m guessing getting paid pennies by Stanford for doing it. So I was saddened, but not surprised, when she stopped.
There were two things that made the class unique among writing classes I’ve taken: 1) Sara read and commented in detail on *everything* each of us wrote for our weekly assignments. No other teacher I’ve studied under has done that. 2) She had *all* of us read and comment on each others’ writing, individually in subgroups, and then all together. Getting that perspective on what expert feedback looked like, and learning to read and give it on our own, helped understand how stories worked, how the bones needed to be connected for something to be able to get up and walk.
Each week’s assignment was based on a reading. E.g. “See here how Flaubert plays with varying time scales? Next week, write something that smoothly transitions between short and long time scales.” Or, “See how Zadie Smith makes the sounds of the words part of their meaning? Now write something that…” Or “See how Williams only slowly lets you see that you’ve got an unreliable narrator? Now write something that…” And so we wrote, and we got her feedback, and we saw how others wrote and got even more perspectives.
I wish I had some idea of other courses that had that. Most of my other writing teachers afterwards (except the brilliant and devoted Ellen Sussman) seemed shocked that I would expect them to read what I had written as part of an assignment. Having a writer’s klatch is probably the best thing one can do on one’s own. In fact, even after Sara’s class ended, a few of us continued getting together over coffee, swapping stories, marking them up, then discussing what we best liked and didn’t like about them. At the heart of it all, it’s just writing, and writing, trying on different techniques, and finding some way of getting people you respect to tell you what parts work and don’t work.
Thank you very much for the details. It is the feedback – peer and expert – that I’ve been seeking. Both to benefit from and to learn how to do.
I shall continue seeking.
As am I, my beloved editor! And I promise I’ll give it some solid revision before I impose it on you.
On Mon, May 10, 2021 at 11:04 AM David Pablo Cohn wrote:
> david pablo cohn posted: ” Even not-so-longtime readers will remember that > up until about two years ago, I had a thing about writing short stories. > I’d set up a Medium.com feed and Patreon account and declared my intention > to write and post one short story each month. They wer” >
Looking forward to your articles.Sheila
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