One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the Introduction.
The Gamble of This Book
In his incredible novel Apikoros Sleuth, a murder mystery taking the form of a Talmudic inquiry, Robert Majzels writes, “If you take hold of the larger, you do not take hold; if you take hold of the smaller, you do take hold.”
Majzels’s novel mimics the style and visual structure of the Talmud, with a core scripture surrounded by commentary, and it’s possible that Majzels borrowed this quotation from some Hebrew text. Majzels is the one who, without knowing it, gave me the idea for this draft-by-draft project, by telling me a story about dining with a Very Famous Author. (I will begrudgingly hold back the Very Famous Author’s name. If you meet me, or Majzels, hector us into giving it up.)
Majzels commented to this Very Famous Author that he would love to see a writer of his prominence start a blog to show readers the process of how one of his novels developed, posting each day’s writing and the changes as the story moved through its drafts. The Very Famous Author was apparently horrified by the suggestion. Readers seeing his draft work! Majzels, a gruff curmudgeon, responded with, “Well, why don’t you just carve your novels on stone tablets,” and the conversation devolved.
(My other favourite story about Majzels is that he was once interviewed for a creative writing job somewhere, and they asked him a question along the lines of, “What would you do to encourage a student to discover her voice?” Majzels replied that he would never do something that horrible to a student. He didn’t get the job.)
The gamble of this book of mine, a 50,000-word inquiry into how I wrote a 5000-word short story, is that there some truth in the Majzels quote, and some wisdom in his challenge. By delving deep into the process of writing one single story, we should come to a fuller understanding of how any story develops, of how to write and edit overall — a better sense than if we remained in the broader realm of generalities and overarching principles.
As a creative writing teacher, I keep looking for a creative writing textbook. The existing ones have numerous failings. The most common failing is that they are written for beginners. Ironically, a beginner cannot get much out of a book aimed at beginners.
Beginner writers make all the same mistakes, but are better served by articles than by textbooks. A ten-page checklist that includes things like “convert sentences from the passive to the active voice,” and a booklet of related exercises, is really what a beginning writer needs, along with the time to write and read and learn through experience. Yet creative writing books focus, primarily, on providing a handful of things no beginning writer needs.
One useless thing that books for beginners typically provide is encouragement. It’s nice to encourage writers, but it’s not useful to the writer — at least, not useful in a practical sense. A writer who is motivated enough to buy a book about writing, or take a creative writing class, doesn’t need encouragement. They’re already encouraged, and they need to know how to work.
A writer who picks up a self-help book like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which offers only encouragement, and no craft discussion, is another matter. As a rule, I’m not much for self-help books, but you could do a lot worse than Pressfield’s. It will give you a good ass-kicking, which I would prescribe to most writers. Since that book exists, writers don’t need its ideas summarized, bowdlerized, prettified, and repackaged in larger textbooks that were supposed to be about how to become better at writing.
Another useless thing you’ll find in most creative writing books is a variety of exercises focused on developing your creativity and generating ideas. Writers who can’t write well don’t need exercises that spur forth their creativity. They need to be less creative for a while. They need to learn some rules. Then they need to sally forth with their creative guns firing and break all of those rules.
First, though, they need to understand the conventions that their readers and that publishing professionals understand and bring to bear on their reading. They need to know how to look at their writing the way that somebody else will look at it.
This is why so many beginning writers make the same mistakes: they don’t know how to read their own work. If they read the same story they just wrote in a magazine, they would hate it, and they would know why. But they can’t do that yet. That’s what they need to learn. Encouraging your ego and creativity won’t help you see yourself in a mirror.
In addition to being useless to beginning writers, these things are potentially harmful. They can distort that mirror. Yet there is another simple problem with most creative writing textbooks, which is that they aren’t useful to anybody who’s not a beginning writer.
So, as the writer grows, she grows beyond the book. While the above summarizes my frustrations as a teacher of writing, as a student of writing my frustration is that I want to learn from books! And almost every book is written for a beginning writer.
My gamble is that, by writing this book for a non-beginner, by moving through my process for writing a single story in as much detail and depth as I can, I will create a book that is of interest to both the established or mid-career author and the beginning author. In other words, I hope that this narrowness and depth will produce a book that paradoxically has more broad use than the standard, general, unfocused textbook.
You should be able to read this book again in five years and still find it useful, while other books in the genre have fallen away. We won’t know for five more years, I suppose. Let’s stake our wagers and wait and see.
In my next post, we’ll start to look at how I wrote one single short story, called “Explosions.”