Writing your way into the heart of the story

Whenever you’re on an author panel, people are always like, “How do you write? What technique do you use? Do you outline?”

And I’m always surprised when authors, especially authors who are no further along in their careers than I am, have answers! Like, you’ve got a method for this? Seriously? There’s something you do over and over again, and it actually works?

Because I’ve written ten novels (only one’s been published) and 217 short stories (49 have been published or are forthcoming), and I have no process.

Right now I’m working on a short story for an anthology, and I’m at a place where I might be 2/3rds of the way into it, and I might be able to push through and just write it, but I know I don’t yet have the heart of the story. Much about the story is clear to me. The voice and the setting are clear. Many of the situations are clear. But I don’t yet have the thing that makes it tick.

But this is a new feeling for me! Usually I just go through and write a story, and then it’s either good or it’s bad. I’ve only rarely tried to stop and rewrite or correct course (and when I have, the story usually hasn’t sold). On the other hand, I also have a bunch of stories I’ve sold after revising according to editorial suggestion. So there’s really no method there. You just follow your instincts.

My theory is that if Nabokov could painstakingly his novels sentence by sentence, on index cards, and if Anthony Trollope could write them according to a schedule of such and such pages per day (which was so strict that if he finished a book before he’d reached his quota of pages, he’d open a new notebook and begin the next one), then you can write a novel according to really any old method.

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