Story First was a widely used and cited practical guide to producing fiction in any genre, covering voice, character, dialogue, and the other elements of writing—but without making use of outlining or synopsizing. Long out of print, 1982 edition is presented as an ebook first the first time, and exclusive to Storybundle.
"She loved like a child, worked like a stevedore, cursed like a sailor and sampled the world with Twainian zest."– Mack Reed
"She was not precious in her praise but she praised things if she liked them, and if she thought you should get rid of a particular phrase or piece of writing, she would read it and then make a pistol with her fingers as if she had shot it."– Alexander Chee
"She was a fierce advocate for her students and for fiction itself. Many notable writers came through her care, including Stephen Alter, Suzanne Berne, Peter Blauner, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett), Akiva Goldsman, Nina Shengold, DB Weiss (Game of Thrones), and Zack Whedon."– Wesleyan University News @ Wesleyan
Sources: Where I Think Fiction Comes From
Beginning to write fiction, you may wonder what you have to write about. Even a young writer has plenty of material stored. The problem is not where to find it, but how to get at it.
A writer begins by learning to identify stored material. This means being willing and ready to remember, to add to memory through observation and to make sense of what is observed and remembered through a habit of self-examination that is part of writing for as long as the writer lives and works. Add to this the complex and rewarding process that makes the writer of fiction a writer of fiction and not a diarist or a journalist or historian. I call it transformation. Transforming the raw materials, the writer attempts to order all the profusion and disorder of life, taking whatever comes to hand to make something new: a work of fiction.
What are the raw materials? As writer, you can draw on everything you have seen or heard or learned and everything that's ever happened to you. You have as well everything you've ever felt or read or comprehended or failed to comprehend. All these elements have been sifting into your memory over the years, accumulating in an alluvial sludge somewhere at the back of your consciousness. It's there now, growing richer as you grow older. If you are willing to start wading around in this sludge, you will discover how rich you are.
At one point my resident critic asked me where I'd picked up a song I was singing. I said, "On memory lane." Then I looked him in the eye and said, "I'm strip mining it."
Look into memory. You have your past to draw on: family, or lack of family; relationships within the family, with friends, with enemies. There are the places you have been or want to go, from Middletown to Marrakesch; there are all the people you have met or heard about or seen or overheard. Once you have recognized all these sources you can number another: the world you are living in. You are very much a product of your own country, your particular corner of the culture with its quirks and cadences, and your perceptions are informed or affected by a new element: the rapidly developing global consciousness. As a writer, you have the singular distinction of being yourself, at your age, in this last quarter of the twentieth century, when for the first time it is possible for everybody to know, all at once, whenever a volcano erupts or a new government comes to power, to watch revolutions and assassinations live and in color. You are not stuffed in a garret somewhere, writing in a vacuum. Like it or not, you are in touch with the rest of the world in a way that is unique to this generation of writers. It is bound to affect your writing.
You will enrich your holdings through observation. Observation begins with intense curiosity about anything and everything. You need to be willing to look at everything new and to examine old things as if they were new: familiar faces, rooms, landscapes. Most writers I know are madly visual. They can tell you almost everything about somebody else's parlor. They will notice if a single object in your house has been moved or added, and if you ask them what a third person looks like they will delight in telling you, with gestures, picking out the exact details to give you the person. Most writers are insatiable eavesdroppers, storing up good lines the way other people save string. They're listening for cadences, too, and when they tell stories at parties they can usually do all the voices, reproducing accents and character walks.
The people you observe have more than external detail to give you. They all have stories, and most of them love to tell them. As you listen you will learn to read life like a novel. Collecting the life stories that abound everywhere, projecting on what you have gathered, you will be able to invent new ones, imagining scenes where you were never present, unfolding in places you've never been.
At a deeper level, observation means learning people from the inside, developing your perceptions, or sensitivity, to a point where you can begin to have a fair idea of what they are thinking. This means listening not only to what they are telling you but also to what they are trying to tell you, or trying to keep from you, being aware of their feelings and alert to the discrepancies between what they mean to do and what they end up doing. This is not to record their responses on tape for storage so you can regurgitate them later.
It is, rather, so you can begin to understand them. Understanding, you will try to imagine what you would do if you were a particular person in a given situation.
I do not believe in writing unvarnished autobiography, or even writing directly from life, so that only the names are changed to protect the innocent. I think it is sometimes unscrupulous and always self-limiting. The writer who uses up the childhood in a first novel and the rotten first marriage in a second will have to live through a new crisis before he can write another. The writer who uses up the life stories of those around him may end up in court, or in trouble, and even if nobody sues or complains, this writer is also limited, because part of the process of making fiction is learning to shape and make sense of raw happening, and part of the pleasure is making something more than what already is.
Observe, then, collect, let the bits and pieces sink into that alluvial sludge and stay there until the whole mixture grows richer. When you draw on them again the bits and pieces will emerge as brand new—yours, and no one else's.
Writers who collect and assimilate in this way are never bored because they are engaged in an unending process of collecting, embroidering, projecting. They love detail, they love speculation and they are often as good at diagnosis and analysis as any trained psychologist. They are eavesdroppers and pack rats and, I suppose, thieves, taking little bits of other people's lives from them so deftly that they won't even know they are missing. Then, because they are voracious and unscrupulous, they'll use those fragments as cavalierly as if they were their own. Most writers are working even when they look as if they're doing something else. They're considering, sifting, assimilating what they have taken until the bits and pieces are ready to emerge as fiction. They are also accomplished liars, taking what really happened and turning it into something more than it was; they can say what they want about life and use every trick in the book to make you believe it.
The writer is rich, no matter what the external circumstances. The bill collectors and the burglars may come and take away everything in the house, but when the jewelry and the car and the furniture are all gone the writer's secret hoard is still intact. The impoverished writer can be discovered in an empty room as happy as any pack rat, surrounded by what would look like junk to the rest of the world but what is, indeed, a fabulous collection, bottles and old magazines and snapshots and bits of string and tough moments and i captured glances, all the bits and pieces discovered and laid by because sooner or later they may come in handy.
Look what you have already collected:
An entire childhood, happy or unhappy.
Inside knowledge of parents or guardians or institutions you grew up with.
Close knowledge of local geography—terrain, from the color of earth to what grows there to kinds of fast food stands along the nearest superhighway.
Knowledge of attitudes, customs, quirks of the people you grew up with—from family to friends to the larger society.
This is only a beginning. The items on your own list will number in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands.
Collecting is easy and fun. The rest of the job is complex at best, and often painful. It is self-examination, or introspection. A writer has to be willing to look inside, to explore and investigate, to pry up scabs and probe old hurts and examine motives. A writer must be willing to look at everything, from unexpressed fears and darker wishes down to the time, all those years ago, when his mother hit him and he kicked the dog.
The process of self-examination functions at two levels. The first is a simple, workmanlike level. You must learn yourself as you attempt to learn other people, so that writing about characters, you can become them. Becoming characters, you will know in your bones what they are going to do in situations you create for them. You have to be able to project lives for them and make your readers believe, not that this happened, on this particular day, but that this is precisely what would have happened, it is the only thing that could happen in a given circumstance.
The second level is much more complex. You must know yourself in such a way that eventually you will discover your central material. I'm convinced that by the time we are grown up our books already exist within us; they are the sum of our concerns and experiences and individual vision, and they are stamped in our consciousness. Examining ourselves, and writing, we discover what we have to write about.
This is an unending and mysterious process, and to try to analyze or explain it is as dangerous as attempting brain surgery with a machete. Let me say that it exists, it is individual and intensely personal; it is essential. The point of departure may be memory, but to it you must bring the will to reflect and analyze. Every writer is engaged in this process and anybody who wants to write must be willing to court this particular awareness, and with it, vulnerability. Exploring yourself, you will find your own way of looking at life and making sense of what you see; if you care to probe you may discover what makes you want to write and why, and why your best writing will be yours alone, like no one else's, as distinctive as a fingerprint.
As you discover your raw materials, you will need to learn how to transform them. I stress transformation because it is this that separates the writer of fiction from the diarist, the journalist and the historian. Instead of laying out events exactly as they happened, using up your autobiography faster than you can live it, you need to learn how to draw on everything you know and everything you are to give authenticity to the story you are making.
As a writer making fiction, I am quick to point out that I didn't make it all up. I am not making something out of nothing, which may be why I hate the term "creative writing." I am well aware that I am making something out of something. My most wildly inventive stories are composed of elements I can separate and identify, even though the most informed reader couldn't do it with a miner's lamp and a map of the inside of my head. This is because nothing is as it was when it happened, or when I saw it. I will take what I have been given and make something new of it.
I can give observed elements or attributes to fictional characters or settings or situations. A pair of nile-green corduroy trousers I never owned turned up on a character in my first novel. Another character somewhere else has borrowed a masquerade costume I once saw. I have imagined a life story for a relative who died before I was born. I find myself transforming events in a dozen different ways. Looking back at my work I can see that fictional events stand for real events in my own life, but nobody else is going to know which ones or how unless I tell them. Transforming, I can make a dozen stories out of the truth of one particular moment. Transforming enables a writer to use remembered emotion: pain, confusion, love, feelings of loss, taking everything that is known to create something the writer could not know in any other way.
The best analog may be the Stanislavsky method of acting. Method actors draw on their own experience to bring life and character to their performances. An actor about to play a bedside scene in which another dies is expected to mourn for him. He may never have been in this situation but he will dig into his own past experience for a time in which his emotions were appropriately similar. He will go back to a moment of disappointment or loss, a brush with tragedy, and retrieve his emotions and transform them into tears at this particular deathbed. An actress will draw on her own remembered pain to create and become Mary Tyrone or Blanche DuBois, whose stories may be nothing like her own. One director used shock tactics to supply emotions to a child actress who was incapable of this kind of transformation. She was supposed to cry in a scene. He told the child her dog had died and then rolled the cameras.
As you begin to write fiction you can draw on your own experience in some of the same ways, transforming, projecting where necessary. You don't have to be a hatchet murderer to write about one. At some time in your life you've had murderous feelings. Use them. We can all write about love and loss because we have experienced them in one way or another, to one degree or another. A character falling in love with a schizophrenic or losing a parent will feel some of the same kinds of love, or loss, perhaps at a higher level of intensity. Even if you are a trick rider or a lumberjack with a checkered past, what you make up is likely to be more interesting than what you have experienced directly. Certainly there are more possibilities. Transforming, you multiply them.
If you think you want to write and your wish to do so extends beyond credit for a term or a fond fantasy about winning friends or instant fame, then you probably want to write because there are already stirrings in the alluvial sludge at the back of your brain, shapes emerging, and it is going to take your best efforts to bring them to the surface so you can deal with them and make them work for you. Be willing to bring everything you know and are to the typewriter, and to stay there until you have brought some of this to the page.
Most writers write out of a compulsion that keeps them going at all costs and against all odds—a childhood trauma, an emotional injury, or cultural dislocation or felt lack; large or small, it is something that has left them feeling unfinished and compelled to try to complete themselves in their work. People with externally ordinary lives can discover this within themselves, and the discovery is made in the process.
Beginning to write, you discover what you have to write about.