Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Risky Business

I usually conceive the basic idea for most of my stories with an observation and a “What if?” statement. For example, I got the idea for “Cant,” or at least the story’s earliest iteration, when I was taking Amtrak into Philly, or maybe riding the El, and I saw an impossibly-high-up piece of graffiti on the side of an abandoned building whose neighbors had all been demolished. Out of nowhere, I thought, What if my sister’s boyfriend, the one she had in high school, had done this?

Usually I develop an elevator pitch for the story I’m thinking about, tell it to a few people, or just my wife, and if it entertains them for one or two minutes then I try writing the story. It is quite possibly the most perfunctory, unimaginative thing to say that rough drafts are perfunctory and unimaginative, but it is true, especially for me. I console myself by saying that I am just sending scouts ahead to assess the terrain, to feel out where the story is going to go. However, this metaphor only holds up for so long, and my rough draft begins to feel not like a mapping expedition but a poorly thought-out business investment—a time-and-energy pit. At this point I call in the writing equivalent of Mitt Romney’s old venture capital firm, Bain, and try to harvest the assets of the story.

What does this look like?

I usually break up the story into five or six discrete sections and give each a narrative goal. I place a lot of emphasis on the beginning because I know this is the part I will have to reread daily while writing the story. I try to imagine how writers I admire might handle the material. I study their syntax and diction, use of metaphor and simile, and usually end up generating five or six different versions of the beginning that are only marginally better than what was there before. I also produce many, many digressions from the initial storyline. What else can I do at this point but borrow more to prop up the business? I try some of the writing prompts from college and graduate school, the ones that are meant to get you started writing, and hope they help me get to the heart of the story. I generate a lot of pages. A typical story, one I plan on making 20–25 pages long, usually turns into an 80-page monster. However, by this point, ideally two things will have happened: by putting my own work in dialogue with other authors’ more well-crafted pieces, I will have hopefully developed a defter hand with language, and—by some unexplainable process—I will have discovered something just below the surface of the material that unsettles me. Then it is a matter of pushing it to the surface.

This is when the compression stage begins. I search through the bad material, finding a sentence here, a descriptive paragraph there, or a piece of dialogue that might push the story into more interesting territory. Once I have strung enough of these together to form a beginning I can live with, I start to reimagine the arc of the story with the new, unforeseen narrative development as a distinct goal toward which to write. I try to jettison as much of the initial material as I can and keep only what I need. This is usually the most fraught stage of the process, as I find myself judging sentences, paragraphs, and scenes not based on how they are actually written, but on how they might be written after weeks or months of revision—once I have nudged them a few inches closer to their Platonic ideal. Often I don’t make the right call. If, in the end, an essential passage is not nearly as powerful as I assumed it would be, then it’s time to break up the company again.

I also cannot overstate the importance of being a good listener. A close friend lived in the world depicted in “Cant,” feeling both empowered by it and ambivalent about its ethos, and I owe him a tremendous debt—not just for sharing his own personal experiences, but for many other reasons as well. His stories helped me flesh out these characters, making them feel authentic, which was what I needed to write the story.  

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