My wife and I went camping one day. It was nice! But that night, we met a bear. He came into our tent and sat down and stared at us, kept pawing sort of sadly at the ground. What…
As a writing teacher I talk about craft all the time, but it feels strange to discuss it in relation to my own work; almost everything I do as a writer is designed to eliminate rational thought and amplify the voice of, I don’t even know what to call it—the unconscious, the subconscious, the instinctive?
I write every story in the same way: I sit down, make my mind as blank as I can, and then wait for the first thing that pops into my head—whether it’s a line, an image, a character, whatever. Then I grab that thing, stick it in an opening sentence, and run with it; I write a first draft as quickly as I can, beginning to end, without backing up, deleting, editing—I don’t even fix typos, I just follow the character and keep poking at ’em if they stop moving. That’s all I do, and I keep doing it until I reach the end of the story—or if not THE end, at least AN end…. I can usually tell that the story has gone wrong somewhere along the way but I force myself to write to an end anyway, even if it’s a stupid one. Whatever, just get it out there; we’ll make it better later. This first stage usually takes about 20-30 minutes. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more (bear in mind, my stories are very short, usually 700-1400 words, sometimes hitting 2000 at the outside). Then I save that draft and go eat an English muffin and then work on something else for a while.
Some time after that—usually the next day—I move into the second stage, which is basically just me sitting there reading over that frantic, often only semilegible first draft and trying to see if there’s anything interesting about it or not. Sometimes there’s not; sometimes it just sucks, or makes no sense at all, and I have no idea why I even wrote it. And that’s fine; no big deal. Maybe it’ll look different to me next week, or next month, or in three years when I randomly stumble on it in a weird folder on my computer…. In any case, I never delete anything. But! If it looks interesting to me, then I resave it as a new draft (storyname2 or storyname3 or whatever) and I just start reading through it from the beginning and “ironing it out.” That means that I sit there and read it out loud, line by line, checking each line with my stomach to see if it feels right. If it feels right, I move onto the next line, and then the next, and the next, etc. If, on the other hand, my stomach screams “Ahhh Jeez it hurts!” then I sit there and fiddle with the line until my stomach stops complaining. Then I move on again. Sometimes the cringe is due not to a line but to a space between the lines; then I have to come up with some other lines to stick in there. I don’t “think” about any of these changes, I just do whatever that quiet, floating voice in the back of my head says, without questioning it. When I get to the end of the story I take a break, resave the document as a new numbered draft, and start over again. This time around, different lines will hurt my stomach (or sometimes the same ones I “fixed” the time before). And I just keep doing that until none of the lines hurt my stomach; at that point the story is finished.
How many times do I do that? It depends. Usually by the time I publish a story, I’m up to around 20-30 numbered drafts, often 40-50…a few times I’ve gotten up into the 70s and 80s, and there’s at least one story I’m still working on that’s in the 90s now and still hurts me in a different place every time I read it. I’ve never gotten to 100 but I’m sure I will someday (I will probably have a little party). I never really “give up” on a story; some of them just take longer than others, and others are just lying around forgotten (for now, at least) on my computer.
I should probably clarify that I don’t work on just one story at a time, like some people do…. I am constantly working on 10 or 20 or 30 at a time, bouncing between them, back and forth. I get tired of one and move on to another, fixate on that one for a bit, then get bored or frustrated and jump to the previous one, or a different one, or go read through forgotten first drafts looking for something interesting to bring out of retirement. In the meantime, I try to produce a new first draft every day, so the pool of possibilities is always growing. It sounds insane and it probably is, but it keeps things fresh for me; my biggest problem is boredom.
The one exception to my “Only Go By Stomach” rule: every now and then I’ll be “ironing out” a story and I’ll be up in the 20s or 30s of drafts and I’ll get the sense that I’m just not getting anywhere, that there’s something I’m not understanding and I just can’t make it hurt less, and so in that singular instance I will sit back and allow myself to think with my brain. I’ll get out a piece of paper and draw myself a little diagram of the story in structural terms, identify the main character’s stated or implicit goal, and then see if I can identify the midpoint turn, the moment where the other side—the secret side, the repressed side, the unfed side—of the character begins to become active. If I can’t find that moment then it usually means I don’t yet have an internal conflict for the character. What are they forgetting about? What are they not addressing? What are they running from? What do they really need, that all their hurrying about trying to do things is obscuring? Once I figure that out, the midpoint turn usually pops into place and then I can see my way through the story—there’s usually a crisis ahead where those two opposing inner goals or desires smash together and make a big mess, and then a third act where the winning “side” plays itself out (while still paying due attention to its opposite)—and at that point I usually “understand” the story and then can stop thinking about it and go back to feeling my way through the sentences again, with my internal compass set right. That’s the only time I ever use anything approaching logic on a conscious level, and while it is extremely useful, it is also not much fun and very tiring on the brain, so I try to avoid it if I can. In my ideal process I never once think about what a story’s “about,” I just write it until it feels right and there it is.
As to actual “craft” things, I thought a little bit and then sat down and wrote out a little primer on “How I Write” for you; here it is: I focus on action; I limit interiority unless I can’t get the information across any other way (I can almost always get the information across some other way); I never describe anything that isn’t the focus of the character’s attention (or wouldn’t be the focus of a viewer’s attention if they were on the scene watching it all unfold); I make sure every sentence is a direct escalation (no vamping or backtracking); and I push relentlessly to uncover and exacerbate the central conflict inside the main character and bring it to some kind of conclusion. (This is all complicated a bit when I write in first person instead of my usual third, but only a very little bit.) I also never write a sentence or a word that I wouldn’t say out loud exactly the same way in front of my friends.
Looks pretty weird seeing it all written out so baldly on the page, but…that’s what I do.
As for this story, “Bear,” it was a pretty standard “good” experience. I wrote the first draft of the story on January 27, 2020, and then did 12 more numbered drafts over the span of the ensuing 19 months; final draft on September 21, 2021. The opening idea was “a man going camping with his wife,” the bear popped up immediately and everything else flowed from there. A number of true-to-life personal details appeared as usual for little-to-no reason (Ronald Knight was a friend of mine in first grade, I used to watch a lot of Star Trek with my friend Neil in high school, my girlfriend is much smarter than me and always understands things before I do). I didn’t have any particular difficulties with the story and so never had to take it apart and think about it consciously (in my book, that makes it “one of the good ones”). I was particularly pleased to realize, after the story was long finished, that the title constitutes a pun. That is often the way; I am forever “realizing” what my stories are about and/or how they work long after they’re done. The unconscious is powerful and will do the work for you if you do the work to clear the way.
BEN LOORY is the author of the collections Tales of Falling and Flying (Penguin, 2017) and Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011). His fables and tales have appeared in The New Yorker, BOMB Magazine, Fairy Tale Review, and A Public Space, and been heard on This American Life and Selected Shorts. He lives and teaches short story writing in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter @benloory.