For all you writers out there who are toiling under the misdirection of the so-called experts, I’ll let you in on a little secret: There’s no such thing as the “correct” way to write a story. In some instances, you don’t even need sensible grammar and punctuation (witness the “Benjy” section of Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, or any reasonably long segment of James Joyce). As a rule, unless you intend for the narrator or the book to be taken as being written by someone for whom the English language is a bit of a mystery, you should observe proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling (or GPS, as I frequently refer to it). Other than that, you’re free to do just about anything you want when telling a story.
I did say “just about,” because there are a few things that a story should do, and one of them is to satisfy the reader. You can’t satisfy everyone every time. Even that most popular American author Stephen King tosses out the occasional bit of rubbish (Cell leaps immediately to mind; there’s several hours of my life I’ll never get back). I find certain authors repugnant (Richard Brautigan, Chuck Palahniuk, and Paul Auster, for starters), but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an audience or that they’ve written “incorrectly.” Some of my favorite authors (Lawrence Block, Rex Stout, Sherman Alexie, Simon R. Green, and my beloved mentor Ray Bradbury, who I confess I’ve rather deified) aren’t well-liked by others, some of whom are still friends of mine. Imagine that: We can have differing literary taste and still be friends. Who’d a thunk it?
As I strive to point out in my blogs, you’re allowed to have an opinion about anything, including what constitutes a good story. Most writers – myself included – sometimes stare for huge stretches of time at the patiently blinking cursor on our computer, or the blank page of a notebook, or the empty space of a legal pad, and start cursing our muse because “the perfect beginning” or “the brilliant idea” hasn’t shown up yet. The fault, however, is neither in us nor our stars, but in the mental editor sitting on your shoulder, criticizing you for what you haven’t even written yet. The little blighter gets in the way even of sorting out a sentence for you to start from. I often see him as a tiny, ugly, deformed, demonic little monstrosity that bears a striking resemblance to a politician.
My first offering to you is an opportunity to tell that buggardly brat to sit in a corner, shut up, and leave you the ever-lovin’ heck alone for a while. (Increase the vulgarity of those words to whatever degree is necessary to counteract your inner editor. Some require more prodding than others.) The problem is rarely that you “don’t have a story to tell,” but rather that you’re somehow afraid to get started on anything, because the editorial chupacabra is going to devour your words. So bypass the noisy old prat by doing a little warming up.
I used to tell folks to set a kitchen timer for ten minutes. Some younger people don’t know quite what I’m talking about, especially if they’ve never seen the old-fashioned kind that works with loud ticking and rings a bell at the end of it all. So find any device that you can set to signal you when ten minutes are up. There’s nothing magical about this number; it’s just convenient.
Next, take any book, and I mean any book that contains words arranged in partial or complete sentences: Novel, short story, non-fiction, travel guide, graphic novel, cookbook, whatever. Open it to a random page and, as the Indigo Girls once sang, “lay your finger anywhere down.” Whatever sentence you’ve found, write/type it onto a fresh page/screen. Take a deep breath, start your countdown, and start writing. No, really — write or type whatever that sentence brings to mind. It might even be, “What does that mean, anyway? How can I write about something I don’t understand?” You can write anything that springs out of your fingers.
Here’s the trick: Don’t edit, not even misspellings. Never go back, never pause to think, just let words flow, even if they don’t seem to make sense. Tell the flaming gas bag of a HindenEditor to shut up and leave you alone for ten flippin’ minutes and just write. When the timer goes off, stop. You can finish the sentence or the thought, if you want to, or just stop in mid-sentence; either is fine.
What you’ve just written could be anything from brilliant to absolute raw, bovine-produced fertilizer. That honestly doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve just thrown out a bunch of words all at once. You’ve warmed up the part of your brain that strings words together, and you’ve done it without the editor trying to make you correct everything on the fly. An average typist might toss out 300-500 words before they know it, and there’s an even money bet that something in all those words has a good ring to it, or the essence of a new character, or the seed-crystal of a new story, or perhaps even the beginning of a new story. Or maybe it’s something for the “Smite” button… but you’ve broken through the block. Words will start showing up to work for you now.
There are books out there that can provide something more orderly for you, if you wish. Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days is an excellent example, with interesting and inspiring writers’ stories as well as daily exercise starters. The book 642 Things to Write About and its sequel 712 More Things to Write About (San Francisco Writer’s Grotto and Po Bronson) are tailor-made for this exercise, and they can be made into something more like a diary, if you prefer to approach the exercise that way. Give it a try. If nothing else, it’ll give you a chance to step outside of your comfort zone and write something completely off the wall. Let me offer a few of my favorite starting sentences:
- The fact that I was dead had nothing to do with it.
- The first we heard about it was when the aliens tried to mate with Volkswagens. (I turned this into my short story “Untitled,” available in my collection Remnant Stew).
- On reflection, Henry realized that he probably should have taken some measure of his co-workers’ possible reactions before he started growing his tail.
- “This week’s meeting of the Clairvoyant Society has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.”
- It made me feel all warm and fuzzy, like a werewolf under a heat lamp. (From Kevin J. Anderson’s wonderful book, Death Warmed Over: Dan Shamble, Zombie PI (Volume 1)).
- “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t offer a lifetime warranty on this product, seeing as how you’re immortal.”
- The park hadn’t changed all that much from the days since I was just a kid.
- “I laughed when the King broke wind. What are you in for?”
That’s a good starter kit for you, and every book in your house can provide more fuel. Have fun, and happy writing!