Making Stories

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A couple of months ago I was asked to submit a story to an anthology. The theme was interesting but nothing I’d ever really thought about. To be frank I didn’t have a clue where to start. Besides, I thought, I’m too busy to write a short story – I’ve got slush to read, novels to edit, an anthology to put together, not to mention year-end books to do, a web-site to build and marketing that won’t do itself. And that doesn’t even take into account my day job. Or the people I mentor or the workshops and contest judging I’ve promised to do.

But then my wife suggested I was working too hard and that was why I was tired all the time. I liked her diagnosis better than my doctor (he thinks all my troubles are caused by wine). We agreed that we would take the 4-day Easter weekend off and just have fun.

Great! Now I can spend four days not working. I can write a short story instead!

Now, the only problem was: what to write? I still didn’t have a clue and the deadline for the anthology is looming. I suppose I could write something else – but the anthology pays so well and I already have an in with the editors. No guarantees, of course, but better than a blind submission.

On Thursday, I was finished my lunch and had twenty minutes to wait until my next meeting began – which was being held in the same Yellowknife coffee shop where I had just eaten. I took out my note book and a pen and wrote down the theme of the anthology (as best as I could remember it). I stared at it for five minutes. I scribbled down a random disconnected thought. A minute later I wrote down a possible name for the protagonist. Then a few of the character’s basic features.

Then I thought about what they might want (notice I haven’t decided on gender yet) and then what might be standing in their way. Things were starting to happen but I only had ten minutes left.

Where does the story take place and what does it look like? What colours predominate this world, what smells, what textures? What does all that have to do with the story and the character? Well, maybe this person has been shaped by their environment. But that takes time – so now I had a sense of how old the person was.

So I knew what was standing in the way of the character’s goals but since it was largely an internal conflict – regarding duty and values – how might that be manifested? Could there be a physical representation of the conflict. Yes, I thought, the environment itself might be a character and since this is science fiction – that means the spaceship they (now there is a bunch of people – sort of) are riding in or rather the artificial intelligence that runs it.

All that was left was to discover the theme of the story – which needed to be a reflection of the anthology’s theme. I wrote down a sentence that encapsulated the conflict and what it meant to the character and the larger world.

My appointment arrived – but I had a story in two pages of notes, words, arrows, shapes and connections. Because that is where stories come from.

And this is ten minutes.

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