Telling Stories

[May 2009] In the introduction to The Green Mile, Stephen King talks about his unique treatment for insomnia. When he lies awake in bed, he tells himself stories. Each night, he starts at the beginning of the current story and takes it little further. Usually he grows bored with these remedy stories, abandons them and starts a new one after a while. The Green Mile was an exception.

Most writers—myself included—are reluctant to talk about stories or novels we’re thinking about or are currently writing. It’s a kind of superstition. We believe that if we talk about a story, it will lose it magic, the wind will go out of our sails, and the whole thing will collapse at our feet. Or we’ll grow bored with it and lose the motivation to put the words down on the page.

The other reason we don’t want to talk about plots under development is that we don’t want anyone else to make suggestions before the idea is fully formed in our minds. People love to make suggestions. How about if he does this? What if she did that? Another superstition—we’re scared that another person’s input will steer a story in a direction other than where we intended to go, as if our own intent isn’t strong enough to hold the course.

I normally subscribe to these superstitions. I’m usually reticent about talking about stories, for these very reasons. However, I had an experience recently that made me reassess my position.

I was invited to contribute to a loosely themed anthology by an editor who had previously accepted one of my stories. I had an idea that melded the themed situation with another genre that is near and dear to my heart, which made me think I could come up with a story that would be different from most of the other contributions. As the scenario developed in my mind, I came up with a subtext that added what I considered to be a significant level of meaning to the story. I don’t usually write with metaphors in mind, but this one was too good to ignore.

The invitation to submit came several months ago, when I was deep in the throes of working on a large project with a short deadline. However, since I’m an agreeable guy, I accepted the invitation, which had a three-month deadline. I was confident that I’d have plenty of time to work on the story once I finished the current project.

The closer the deadline came, the greater my anxiety level. I’m not usually subject to stress, but I was feeling it. I had made a commitment to submit something, and it just wasn’t coming together. The idea still seemed solid, as did all of the elements I foresaw, but the words weren’t coming. I wrote the first page or two, which set up the situation, and there it sat. With a little less than a week to go before the story was due, I was faced with a business trip that was going to take me away from my normal writing routine for four days.

On the day I was scheduled to leave on the trip, I went to breakfast with my wife, part of our weekend routine. As we sat in a secluded corner, sipping our tea, I decided to tell her about this story I was contemplating. At that point, I knew the main character and the general setup, along with the high concept, but not the plot. As we discussed the metaphor, my wife’s enthusiasm for the story was infectious. Her suggestions were not about the plot but rather helped me gain a deeper appreciation for the symbolism. I didn’t get any farther with the story during that discussion, but when I got back home, I opened up my document and wrote about two pages of notes to myself. Thoughts and ideas that arose out of that conversation and the general thrust of the plot. In essence, a loose outline, although I didn’t get to the climax of the story. That was still unseen to me. However, I had about 2/3 of the story dancing around in my head.

Later that afternoon, on a three-hour flight, I rewrote the first two pages of the story in longhand in a blank journal and then took off. By the time I landed I had a cramped hand and fifteen pages, approximately 3000 words, of the story. I typed them up when I got to the hotel and, by the end of the week, I finished the story. Submitted it at the end of the weekend after a couple of intensive editing sessions and had it accepted with revisions a day later.

As always, I’m not sure there’s a take-home message here, just a window into one incident in my writing life. I think I’ll probably still be reluctant to talk about most of my stories as I work on them, but I now know that talking about one isn’t a death knell. After all, storytelling started out as an oral tradition. Where would we be if stories couldn’t survive being told before they were written?

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