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Short story writing method reveals New Year’s theme

Instead of making a list of New Year’s resolutions, my friend Nicole likes to have a theme – a single statement that encompasses a key idea that she wants to focus on for the year. For 2012, I decided to adopt a writing theme – one that would help me focus on the power of imagination.

Sometimes it’s easy to over think the writing process. I’ll worry if I don’t know where my story is going. I begin to doubt myself and the project. Then I have to remind myself (again) that we write to discover, to find out what happens. It’s okay if I don’t know everything that’s going to happen.

In The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work, author Stephen Dobyns says he was inspired to write a book of short stories after hearing advice from writing mentor Raymond Carver. Dobyns asked Carver how he had written a particular story:

“He (Carver) said the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it. The sentence was something like: “He was vacuuming the living room rug when the telephone rang.” Carver said, ‘It came into my head and so I tried to see what came next.’ In such a way had the story unwound itself.”

After the first sentence, the whole process had been a process of discovery.

I like to think of writing as an act of faith. I’ve always thought that as writers, we can do only so much from our conscious state, and then we must rely on the indescribable mystery that propels us to find the words, the sentences, and the paragraphs of the story.

Dobyns went on to follow Carver’s method. He wrote 60 potential first sentences. Some absurd, some thoughtful, some sad. Some of his criteria were that the sentences had to be unique from each other and contain action and detail. He then went through them and created paragraphs.

From there, Dobyns pushed each story forward. One word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time. Conflicts and characters emerged. Some of the sentences and stories didn’t work out.  Over six or seven years, Dobyns revised and reworked the stories. He eventually published a book of 15 stories called Eating Naked.

Inspired by Dobyns, I decided to make my 2012 theme: “One wild sentence, one wild paragraph after another.”

When I get stuck, doubt my story’s bones, or fear failure, my theme will remind me to grab hold of my imagination, live in the story’s moment, and trust the mysterious alchemy that happens if we place one wild word after another on the page.

For more details about Dobyn’s process and other short story authors’ methods, read The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett.

What will your writing theme be for 2012?

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