Founding a Fiction Factory
by Doug RennieMuch as I love Jack London -- I just reread The Call of the Wild for the eighth or tenth time -- I disagree with one bit of his advice to aspiring fictionists.
In his famous 1903 article "Getting Into Print," London offered several sage tips for writers, including his command to work hard at what he called "the dig", the daily output of a given number of words. In London's case, 1,000 words a day, every day, for 20 years. "Don't loaf and invite inspiration," he warned, "light out after it with a club."
But in the same article, London says this: "Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen." Uh-uh.
When I started writing fiction in late 1993, that's exactly what I did. I started a story and stuck with it until the damn thing was done. Between conception and completion, however, were many days -- many days -- when either a) I sat down and produced nothing because the muse was out of town, or, b) I found something else to do -- take a run, hit a bookstore, vacuum, organize my closet -- anything so I didn't have to sit down and work on a story for which, on that day, I had neither ideas nor inspiration.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Sit down and hammer out something. Put in the requisite hour or whatever at the galley oars. That's how writers work, right?
Well, I did this for my first two years as a fiction writer, during which I finished 17 stories, published five. Then I found a better way. In the last two years, I've cranked out 39 stories, 21 of them published. Call this method the Fiction Factory, the Anecdote Assembly Line. Whatever. The important thing isn't the name, it's this bottom line: KEEP A MINIMUM OF THREE STORIES GOING AT ONE TIME. Is more than three okay? Sure. Maybe better. So, go right ahead and ignore London: Dissipate that sweat. Set up a "Fiction in Progress" file on your computer and always -- always -- have at least three stories in progress on deposit in there.
What constitutes a "story in progress"? Let's say something between 150 and 500 words. Once you have an idea -- any idea -- for a story, start it (See below, "Producing Pod Stories"). Any mix of setting, narrative and dialogue you can summon up. Then repeat this process again . . . and again, until you have at least three new stories underway. How come? Because, now when you sit down to write, there is always something there to massage or tweak or polish up, a narrative to pick up on and add to, choices to move among as inspiration and interest dictate that particular day.
The last three stories I've finished started as ragged 100-word beginnings in my "In Progress" file. One pretty much wrote itself in under a week. The others were the product of dabbling -- dipping in and out for a few minutes to half an hour here and there over the course of several months. But when I sat down to write I did so without resistance or trepidation (well, okay, there's always some), because I knew that even if I was all sails up but standing still in the creative Horse Latitudes that day, I would still probably be able to write something on at least one of the half dozen or so "pod" stories that are always on file in my starter kit.
In this same file, under "Launch Pads", I also have twenty or so opening sentences, lines that came to me at odd times during the day -- during a run, driving around running errands, sleepwalking with my wife through a mall -- or, sometimes, right after I woke up. I wrote them out, and each sentence became a new embryonic file, even though at this point the file title was nearly as long as the text it contained. Several of these lines -- "It was in the early fall of the third year of his marriage that Hooper first began to suspect that his wife was having an affair," and "Abby liked to record on her computer the names of the insects she killed, for example -- grew into finished stories. Others -- "A box of live mice arrived each day at apartment 7C." and "I turned twelve a week back, and my daddy says it's my time." -- are still in the gestation period.
The important thing is this: Get stories started. A bunch of them. A line grows into a paragraph, a paragraph into a page, and one day -- voilà! -- it's lift off for another story.
Producing Pod Stories: Here's How
Like most new-to-fiction writers, there were times (many) when I would avoid writing for weeks because I didn't have an actual "story" in mind --- you know, the whole thing. Beginning. Middle. End.
Moreover, I felt that I had to write my stories in that order and often, too often, gave in to "sequence frustration" -- that is, not knowing what happens next and unable to move ahead or go back and write something new without first having in mind some kind of "connection" to the story I'd already laid out. Most rookie fictionists I know speak of the same kind of part-way paralysis. And, like me -- the old me -- they fall back on the ever-reliable "writer's block", as if it were some kind of virus that regularly afflicts the creative mind: proof of their status as real writers.
Well, I don't write that way any more. I don't fret about linearity when I start a story. My output has tripled -- in both quantity and quality. Yours can, too. How? Two words: Write Scenes. Not stories, not at first, anyway. Scenes. They are the key to writing every day -- and sometimes actually enjoying it.
So, create a character, even if it's just a name, and have him/her do something immediately. Anything. Could be something you've done, something you just witnessed, something you read about in the newspaper, something that just sounds funny or creepy or interesting, something you'd like to do, something you cannot ever imagine yourself doing. Whatever. Just get it down. Even if you don't yet know what this new person looks like or how old he/she is or whether he/she is nice or nasty, write or type out a name -- whatever comes to mind; you can change it later if you want -- and get that character moving. I'm going to start one right now. Here goes.
"Sheila walked off the bus and into an ankle-deep puddle. 'Goddamnit!' she screamed, stepping out of the muddy water and stomping one foot, then the other on the pavement. 'Sonofabitch!' So this was how her first job interview in eight months was going to start."
Next, you'll add another half dozen lines -- right away if they come, tomorrow or the next day or the day after that if they don't -- and you have another pod story for your Fiction in Progress file. A new narrative line started to call up a look at from time to time. A story start you will remember, whose character and setting will bubble around subliminally from the moment of creation on (trust me on this), and whose next line(s) will come to you when you expect -- seated at your desk with the story right there on the screen. Or when you don't -- out on a run or in an aerobics class, grocery shopping, watching the evening news, driving to work: Yes! That's why she's been out of work for so long! Yes! That's the kind of job she's interviewing for today! Yes! That's the guy who hires her. Beady turtle eyes. Loose, wet lips. Yes! That's who's going to be sitting at the desk next to hers that first day! Guy who doesn't blink and speaks in a monotone and has a coffee cup with the words "Gotta Have It Every Day" printed out on it.
The important -- make that vital -- thing is this: Get that first line down. Once you do, more will follow. Guaranteed. If not that story, that particular day, then in another of your pod stories. Remember: You are writing scenes, not stories, at this point. Don't worry about where this scene will ultimately "fit" -- or even if it will ever be part of a complete story. Just keep adding to it. If you suddenly find yourself thinking about your character at some other point in his/her life -- even if it doesn't seem to immediately connect to what you've written -- then go with that.
Suddenly have this image of Sheila on a date? Go with it. Put her across the table from some guy (maybe the oddball at the adjacent desk?) or in his car going to/coming from a movie/dance/restaurant/AA meeting/reunion (did they go together, or meet there?). Suddenly have a clearer picture in your mind of what she looks like, what she wants, what she is afraid of? Whether she is confident or shy, whether she lives alone or with her mother or with a roommate? Get it down. Create a new scene -- people talking, thinking, moving -- or fill in a scene you¹ve already written.
Don't worry where the scene is going to "go" in the story already underway. Connect the dots later. Maybe this new stuff will appear at the beginning. Somewhere in the middle. Maybe you find yourself thinking "Ah, so this is how it's all going to end." But perhaps it won't fit at all. Maybe you'll eventually dump it.
So what? Even if you never use a scene, think of it as you would piano practice. You've done some some skill-honing on setting, character, dialogue, diction, language rhythms. But it's also possible -- and, in my limited experience as a fictionist, this has happened far more often -- that this new scene will open up heretofore unknown areas of a character, or even suggest an new story line that goes galloping off in some direction you never thought of until you started this particular scene.
And on those days you're having trouble and just cannot focus, do this: Pull up every pod story in your Fiction in Progress and commit yourself to adding at least one sentence to each. If you have to, do this for several days. What invariably occurs is that you will take off on one and the thing will, for a while, write itself; other times, oddly, a sentence you add to one pod story stimulates some new idea for another.
Write scenes. Turn them into pod stories. A lot of them. Once you do, you will never again have to fear sitting down to the blank screen and thinking "What am I going to write about?" "Where's my next story coming from?"
Try it. It works. You'll see.
**Doug Rennie's short stories have appeared in the anthologies American Fiction: Best Stories by Emerging Writers, Traveler's Tales: Italy and Summers Loves and Winter's Discontents as well as Chicago Tribune Magazine, The Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Whetstone, Grain (Canada), Vignette, Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern and many others. Next year, Creative Arts Books will publish a collection of his short fiction (tentative title: Badlands). He lives in Portland, Oregon. Doug Rennie can be reached by email at: email@example.com