How I Write a Story

27 Jun
ImageIt’s a little like asking how do you dream. I don’t really kn ow and lots of writers DON’T know. Effective writers channel their dreaming brains in effective ways, I think. This is how I often do it. 
A story always starts with an image or sentence that gets stuck in my head. I’m convinced this is pathological — an OCD or some kind of spectrum disorder tick — many, many writers that I’ve spoken to know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not a playful, whimsical thought or daydreaming. It’s THERE, like a sliver — stuck, and not necessarily pleasant. If I concentrate on any given story of mine, I can remember the tick that started it:
A saint bleeding on her penitents.  A swordsman at the bottom of a latrine, digging through composted poop, looking for…something.

(It doesn’t matter if you know these stories, by the way. They’re just examples, and I’m mostly listing them for my own amusement.)

The heads of three giants poking up through a highway.

A tarot-reader at a restaurant is approached by a magical creature for a reading.

Undead sailors walking across a frozen harbor from their ice-locked ghost ship 

A warrior who ate her enemies and referred to them as “Trophies/Ingredients.”

“‘Apartment.’ Get it? We were ‘meant’ to be ‘apart.'”

Whatever the snatch of text or the image is, I can’t put it aside. My brain returns to it all day-long for days. The story itself usually comes out in layers of paragraphs, more than in a linear narrative, but a straighter through-line emerges once this process gives way to actual storytelling.
My favorite stories to write are the ones whose germ turns out to be the last scene/image. (That’s how my first book “Patron Saint of Plagues” was written.) If the ending is in place and a main character hasn’t emerged, I concentrate on that before anything else. When I started writing “Alone in the House of Mims,” I thought the main character was the drag queen, Honey, from “Lark Till Dawn, Princess.” Honey sort of took over my poor brain before I realized she needed her own story, setting, etc. It’s interesting though.Both stories are about performance and authenticity — read them both, and you might see that they they are just two trees growing out of the same trunk. That’s how I think of them.
Anyway, once the main character an ending are in place, I start the outline, storyboard, and/or block out scenes that carry me up to that first/final germ. “Magician and the Fool” was the opposite of PSOP in this way — the initial germ was the beginning — and I think the book suffered because I didn’t have the ending in mind from the very beginning. That said, I think that book contains maybe my strongest exit (and some of my best prose). I love to read stories that leave me with one, potent, final image.
 
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