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“Short Story: A Process of Revision” by Antonya Nelson
Last spring, I taught an undergraduate fiction workshop that differed significantly from any other workshop I’ve taught or taken: I tried to have my students mimic the process I go through when writing a story. In most workshops, students are charged with creating two or three short stories in the course of fifteen weeks. But I myself have never written three short stories in a semester—at least, not since graduate school, when I was in a workshop that demanded it of me. I don’t know many writers for whom three stories in fifteen weeks is a habit, but somehow in workshops it’s become the procedure. The fact that that doesn’t replicate my own process seemed sort of weird after a while.
So I decided I would make an experiment with my students to have them go through the full process of creating a piece, taking the story from inception through stages of revision to its eventual polished ending. I insisted that they undertake the process of writing that I myself undertake. I dictated the stages, it’s true, but I am the teacher, and that’s my prerogative. It proved for an interesting semester, and I’m going to refer to what happened in the class as I present the process here. I’m also going to illustrate the process with a hypothetical story I wrote as I moved through the stages of the exercise with my class. So these are the threads being braided or woven or tied in knots in the course of this essay. I hope it doesn’t get confusing.
On the first day of class, I had my students write a five-hundred-word piece about an event that actually happened to them and that they understood was a story, something they’d tell in a bar or on a plane or to a friend. I had them write it in the first person and I capped it at five hundred words. The thing that I wrote, when we sat down to do this, began, “When I was five, my family was in a tornado,” which is true. That happened to me. My family was inside a car, in Kansas; all of us were there, including my little sister in utero. There are a lot of us, five children and my mom and dad. My little brother and I were three and five, and we were in what is called the “wayback” of the station wagon. We were on our way home from dinner at a restaurant in early September, and we saw lightning strike. We pulled into a parking lot and watched roofs ripped off houses, rain pouring down hard, and the wires from electric poles snapping on the ground. In the parking lot—this was at a strip mall—there was a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream parlor, and I can still remember the image of all the people behind the plate glass licking their ice-cream cones and looking out at us in our car in the parking lot, a parking lot that was full of cars, yet ours was the only one that had people in it, and ours was also the only one that was lifted up and turned over by the tornado—twice. With us inside it. We all survived.
You can see how this would strike a person who’d gone through it as a story worth telling, right? That’s a story! So there’s my autobiographical event. I had my students write about their own autobiographical event, some nugget of narrative that they intuitively understood had meaning. I wanted the event to be autobiographical because it’s important that writers have an investment in and an attachment to their stories, as well as some authority over them. They need to write what they know, what they care about. The tornado, in my family, was a defining event in our lives. I told that story for years and years and years.
But the autobiographical event needs to be given some freedom to become art, so the next step is to allow that story fictional leeway, because art is best if it’s not hampered by the constraints of factual anecdote. The next step for my students was to occupy the point of view of a third-person character related to the event and not the person they were in relationship to the event. They had to posit another character to oversee the story. In this way, the material is approached from a new angle, opening up the possibility for fiction.
In my own case, I didn’t want to be stuck in the point of view of a five-year-old. My pressing concern in 1966—when I was that age and in that tornado—was that I not wet myself. It was deeply important to me that I not pee my pants while we were in the ambulance. That’s a five-year-old’s concern.
And so, for my story, I would occupy the point of view of my father, or the father, he, him, the third-person character who was driving the car on the night the tornado happened and who was, oddly enough, the same age then as I am now, which puts me in the curious position of having intimacy with that point of view. I’m more likely to be the driver of a car full of people these days than I was then, obviously, and now I understand what it must have been like for my father to be the parent driving a car that’s then tossed into a tornado.
When I began occupying the point of view of the character who was my father, I realized that I didn’t want to set the story in 1966 because I don’t know what it was like to be an adult in 1966. I would set the story in the now, so that I could write from the point of view of an adult now. Would I place it in New Mexico or Colorado, where I live? No, because we don’t have very many tornadoes in the places where I live. I would keep the story in Kansas. So I’m combining the fictional, in that I inhabit the story from the point of view of a third-person character who isn’t me, with the factual, putting the story in a place where the event that I wish to write about actually happened. This merging of what is personal and what is fictional, what is factual and what is made up, starts happening for me in the process of writing a story.
That was a thousand-word draft. Every time my students went through a revision, I upped the word count by five hundred. It was an arbitrary, but manageable, number. By creating multiple drafts (by my insisting that each revision was its own draft and had only to attend to the requirements laid out for that draft), students revised with a single objective each time. The clarity of writing with a single objective seemed helpful. All the stages were accompanied by literature that provided examples, so we could talk about the stories they were reading, the writers they were modeling. And with every draft, they workshopped the pieces in small groups that changed with each revision so that they had new eyes on their material at each stage.
The third step—I’ve got a point of view, and I’m invested in this story I’m creating—is to put some sort of clock on the story. What is a clock, in the vocabulary of story making? It can be any of a variety of things, but ultimately it is a shaping device through which you signal to the reader the time they have to spend with your characters. For instance, the clock can be a road trip. If you set characters in motion on page one and they are traveling across the country, the story would be over by the time they arrive to their destination. Using a literal clock, the clock that dictates the day, is an impulse people seem to resort to very naturally when they sit down to write. There are many stories that begin with someone waking up—you’ve probably been tempted to write one of those yourself. It makes sense to me that consciousness, or the sudden arrival of awareness, would be a starting point for a story, which suggests then that darkness or nightfall, sleep and the release of consciousness, would mean the end of a story. The clock can be the time line of an hour, a day, a weekend, a summer. A ceremony is a clock; a ritual is a clock. Starting with the preparations for a large party—in the instance of, say, Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway—of course leads to the book ending with the party.
You can also use a clock in the way that Alice Munro claims to construct stories, with the notion of there being a house through which someone is wandering, so that the shape of the story becomes a house whose rooms must be visited and understood. You can use Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, the duration of a friendship, or the stages of grief as a clock. Anything can become a clock. You just need to find one that suits your story. I recommend you look to the works you love and see how they begin and end and how the construction and movement of time gives them some sort of shape.
For the clock in my story, I asked myself, Do I want to write about the day of the tornado itself? Or am I interested in something other than that? Writing about the actual tornado reminded me of that not-as-fascinating-as-it-might-sound conflict: man vs. nature, and while the dramatic business of being tossed around in the car was fascinating, it doesn’t really lead me, here and now, to a story I’d be likely to write. I would be more inclined to dwell in the aftermath. Here’s why:
In the true aftermath of our tornado, there was a photograph that some AP photographer took of me and my dad being hauled to an ambulance. It appeared on the front page of our local newspaper—the Wichita Eagle—which correctly identified us. But when the photo appeared on the wire and then in stories around the country, the caption read, “Young Toni Nelson with unidentified man.” For weeks following the tornado, my dad kept getting these weird letters and phone calls “identifying” him. People would call and say, “That’s my long-lost brother.” Or husband. Or son. All over the country this “unidentified” man, who was my father, kept being identified. Wrongly. He was none of those people. And that’s kind of cool to me, and it makes me think, as an adult looking back, Well, there’s something to interrogate.
Of course, another factual thing is that my mother was pregnant, and so in the interval between September, when the tornado happened, and October, when my sister Julie was born, we wondered if the baby was going to be okay. Everything indicated she would be okay, but it was nerve-racking. So I think that is the clock I would put on that particular story—the aftermath of the tornado, the immediate effects of anxiety, my character’s concern about what his wife is going to experience and whether the baby will be normal while receiving these odd updates on who he is from around the country.
My students had to attach a clock to their stories that made some kind of sense with the material they were writing about. It had to have some bearing; it had to be something that was built into the anecdote they had started with.
I then asked my students to go through the material they had written thus far and identify the props and objects that would be of use to them in the story. The props and objects draft was a draft of detail-making. Some of the props might become red herrings, but some might be of use. The students’ only charge was to chronicle what was (or could become) useful objects in their stories. In my own story, that photograph became a kind of prop or tangible object to take advantage of, to play with, and also perhaps to be used to dictate the terms of the clock in the story. I also had the bashed-up car, the ice-cream cones being licked by people behind a window, and an unidentified man who’s being misidentified.
The next step was to determine the protagonist’s age. In addition to imposing a clock on a story, determining the proper age for the protagonist is, I think, one of the story maker’s biggest decisions. Imagine a time line, a line whose beginning is a person’s birth and whose end is that person’s death, then imagine significant mile markers along the way. These are markers that have their sources in several factors: physical, psychological, sociological, biological, intellectual, et cetera. They are not firm markers, but approximate ones. At certain moments in our lives we face transitions. Ideally, the central character in a short story is in a transitional situation. If you can sync your character with a sociological or otherwise traditional transitional moment, you will have a more powerful position from which to illustrate your character’s dilemma. So it’s important to know the age of your protagonist, because the transitions that happen to us are sometimes of our own engineering, but oftentimes, they are products of a cultural or biological or social transitional moments, and if you can match those up with your character, you’re going to have a story that makes use of the proper time for the proper transition. Or, conversely, you will create a powerful distortion because the transitional moment is inappropriate; it’s wrongly placed. For example, sexual knowledge that comes at age nine or ten is not properly placed and so becomes a disrupted transitional moment.
Here are some basic transitional ages. Age three or four: your first memory, the first time you begin owning your life through an ongoing series of memories. That seems to me quite significant. Five years old begins a sort of social transition. You become a kid who goes to school. Eight years old—well, if the kids are like mine and you drive the way I do, they start pointing out to you how you’re speeding and it’s very upsetting to them because you’re breaking the law and they know you are, and they can’t reconcile that their good mom would be doing this bad thing. They turn into little cops in your car. William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” makes use of that particular transitional age. The child protagonist is, roughly, eight or nine years old. His brother is twelve, and his other sibling is younger, about five. The story is his story precisely because he’s at a moment when he must either commit to the family’s way of living, which is to burn down barns and then go to some other place and get accused of burning down barns but always get out of it, or he has to say that his father burns down barns, in which case he’s taking a stand against his father. For him, this is a hugely conflicted moment, because he knows what’s right by law, and he knows what’s right by family, and they aren’t the same thing. For him, this is a conflict that’s genuinely of consequence. The five-year-old sibling does not care, cannot see it, and the twelve-year-old has already stepped over the line. The story could only be happening to this eight- or nine-year-old child. A transitional moment—cognitive, social, whatever—is very useful in situating your story.
Let me illustrate this another way. If you said to somebody, “This is a story about a son who lives with his mother,” there’s no obvious conflict built into that situation, or expectation about it, until you name an age. He’s ten: of course he lives with his mother. He’s fifteen: naturally he lives with his mother. He’s twenty-one: well, who knows, he might go to college someday. He’s thirty-five: he really ought to move out of his mother’s house. He’s fifty-seven: there’s something very wrong with him. Or with his mother. Or both. What age will give a story the most hinging power? Let’s say you want to write about a woman who’s worried about not being pregnant. She’s thirty. Okay, I’m sympathetic to a point. Age thirty-five, I’m a little more sympathetic. Age forty-one? I’m worried for her. You’ve increased the pressure of the situation merely by aging her a bit. So consider a character’s time line. You’re probably going to write only one story about this character; make sure you’ve got her at the right transitional moment to tell her story.
Maybe every story ought to be a coming-of-age story, in that coming-of-age stories are always about the reluctance or difficulty of passing into the next phase. The most common passage in a coming-of-age story is adolescence, but there are many other passages. The best coming-of-age stories are ones in which a character has to make a passage but regrets or fears or fights against having to do it, because once you’ve reached the other side, once you know what you don’t want to know (this seems to me to be the crux of every Hemingway story; the guy resists—No, I don’t wanna know that. No, I don’t wanna know it.) you can never unknow it. You pass a point of no return.
So back to my own example: I’ve decided my father character is in his middle age and he, like my own father, is an atheist. After the tornado, people would say, “You’re so lucky. You’re so lucky.” And my father’s reply was, “How is it lucky that of all those empty cars in the parking lot, our car was the only one picked up?” What’s interesting to me about this is that the fact of being selected, it seems, by a tornado, in a parking lot full of vehicles, and being turned over and dashed about, might give an atheist some pause. The middle-aged father character, having long established a sense of self and beliefs, is suddenly challenged by the thoughts that maybe there is a God, maybe he is an “unknown” person, is it time to change his life? And so this would become, for me, a way of inhabiting the character further.
We were in week eight or so of the class at this point. I asked my students to take the most recent draft and introduce a world event into it. Something from the world had to come into their story. It could be as simple as sending the characters to a Halloween party or as complex as having the characters evacuate after Hurricane Katrina. I asked them to insert something of the world into the story to see how that gave them an outside influence for their characters to do battle with. When a world event enters a story, it creates a new dynamic. Oftentimes my own work has been accused of being too insular, too negligent of the larger world, too much about the privacy and smallness of family. So in an effort to challenge myself, I decided I would use the events of 9/11 to inform my story. The actual tornado had happened at the same time of year, September, so the decision was somewhat organic. Let’s say that the tornado happened on September 5 and then the World Trade Center gets attacked on September 11. How is that useful to me in terms of navigating some new material in the story? Well, I think—and this is purely speculative; I’ve not actually written this story—it would be interesting to consider the ways in which an attack on America driven by religious fervor might affect a man who doesn’t believe in God. As in: what is the power of belief? That might be something I’d begin speculating about in the story if I decided to use 9/11. And if 9/11 were too dramatic an event to enter this story, I might set the story on the anniversary of 9/11, a year later. Or maybe the five-year anniversary would further defuse the overwhelming power of 9/11. This is the stage my students really resisted, and in a couple of instances, it didn’t make a better draft of the story, but by and large, it did.
I next asked them to divide the elements of their stories into what I call binaries. I’ve quit thinking about short stories as having the traditional conflicts as taught to me in junior high school. Then, it was explained as three choices: man vs. man, man vs. nature, or man vs. himself. It has never been useful to me as a writer to think about conflict that way. But what is useful to me is to start identifying the opposing forces that are providing a piece with some sort of energy or tension. And that, I think, is conflict. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” for example, there is the Misfit, who has a very concrete understanding of the Bible, and there is the grandmother, who has a very abstract adherence to the tenets of the Bible. There is the empty sky, and there is the ground occupied by the characters. There is the sense of violence and the sense of passivity, travel and stasis, the right thing, the wrong thing, Jesus and the devil, the living and the dead. Faithfulness and a lack of faith. And so on. These are oppositional forces, and they create tension and conflict within that story. So I asked my students to start making sure they had binary forces at work in their pieces. If they supplied one part of the binary, they needed to have the other part ready. They needed to understand that there would be something missing if they didn’t fulfill the binary—that tension requires both parts.
The next draft involved creating a traditional story arc, that quite reliable Freytag’s Pyramid you probably also were taught about in junior high school. I want to emphasize that story arc, the idea of rising action, is not about plot, in my experience of writing, but about the writer’s ability to keep creating tension and meaning by upping the ante and raising the stakes as the story proceeds.
An example of this is “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, which takes place over about a two-year period and has no discernible plot—none. It’s a series of recollections, events, encounters, but it does not have a plot, or not what you would call a plot. Yet the reader’s investment in that story grows and escalates because of the ways in which Baldwin shapes the story. First, he shapes it with the theme of music. If you trace music throughout the story, the first instance of it being mentioned is a “very complicated” yet “very simple” whistle that the narrator hears on the stairs of the school where he teaches—a boy is whistling. The next instance is music coming from a jukebox in a bar that the narrator passes. This is followed by a mention of music he heard in the past, when his father was playing a guitar. And the next reference, also in the past, is to a piano that his brother, Sonny, played, but that he didn’t hear, because he was off at the war. The next instance is a combo of musicians on the street that is improvising; he’s hearing it from a bit of a distance but he can see that people are moved by it. And the final instance of music is when he is at a bar listening to Sonny play improv with a group—perhaps the most complex and difficult situation of music that exists. So there’s an escalation that accommodates this arc, and it is very deliberate and it accrues power over the course of the story—from the high, thin whistle somebody is just blowing from his mouth to, at the end, a jazz combo performing brilliantly and beautifully. That’s one of the ways the arc in that story is accomplished.
There are other ways, but I’ll just mention one other, which is the presence of Sonny himself. The story begins with the narrator on a subway train, underground, reading about his brother in the newspaper. That’s how distant they are from each other. The next instance is that he runs into a friend of Sonny’s. So it’s some connection to Sonny, but not a literal connection, not a real connection. The next instance is that Sonny writes him a letter. The next instance is that Sonny gets out of jail. The next instances are told in flashbacks. And in the next instance the narrator and Sonny are together, looking out a window, and Sonny tells him it’s so horrible to see all that passion out there on the street. Yet the brothers are still not as intimate as they need to be for the story to fulfill its arc. The final instance is when they’re at the bar and the narrator realizes he is hearing Sonny’s music fully for the first time. It’s hugely powerful, because of this narrative arc. Baldwin is counting on the reader’s ability to take in narrative constructed this way, even though it’s not plot-driven. It’s very important to me to emphasize this, that the shapeliness of fiction almost always depends on the presence of an arc, and it’s not simply a plot-driven device; it’s the ways in which the story creates meaning and emphasizes and amplifies. And it has to work on the reader sneakily or he or she won’t be persuaded. Alongside a traditional story arc, I asked that students also make sure they had at least three scenes (conforming, I suppose, to the notion of beginning, middle, and end).
Toward the end of the semester, because they had read some Donald Barthelme and George Saunders and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” I asked my students to try something crazy in their stories to see what happened. Would it be a better story if it were told in the second person? Would it be a better story if it were told in the present tense? Would it be a better story if it were told in reverse chronological order? Would it be a better story if it were told from the dog’s point of view? Do something crazy, I told them, and see if that shakes something loose that you have yet to think about. Make something magical happen in it. Let there be something bizarre. Only one in about one hundred short stories—that I read, anyway—successfully uses some of these quirkier mechanical moves and gestures, and that seemed about right for the class. Only one student made something unrealistic or distorted from a straightforward, conventional story work to his advantage. But it worked really well. He had written about a pet store in a storm, and everybody starts starving, and they all go a little nuts, and the story was well served by allowing the characters a kind of craziness and the animals a bigger sentience than you would think animals would possess. So for him, that was great. For the rest of us, it didn’t work out so well. For example, how would my own story profit if I alternated the point of view with that of the in utero sibling? What was my future sister (my character’s future daughter) experiencing during the tornado? It would be compelling to write, but probably wouldn’t serve the realistic terms of the story.
And then, finally, on the last day of class, I received their stories. The pleasure of reading those heavily revised pieces was singular in my teaching experience. The authors and I alone knew the scenes and anecdotes that had engendered each piece. The manipulations were impressive; the shapeliness of each was solid. The stories were all, to a person, durable and thought provoking. Of course, there is almost always more work to be done. That was never emphasized to me in grad school. I was always just churning out yet another story for workshop rather than going back and truly investing in one story for a lengthy period of time and dedicating myself to making it somehow better. If you are not invested, truly invested, in the fiction you’re making, it will show. The reader will not be invested in it either. Oftentimes when reading fiction, I feel a detachment on the part of the writer toward the material, but when I’m reading the work I love best, I understand that there’s something at risk for the writer in it, that something, whether it’s autobiographical or not, matters to that writer, and that thing really makes some difference. I was tired of my students’ work not seeming to matter enough. I wanted them to be at some risk. What my students took away from that experience is what I hope you take away from this report on it: the work you’re writing is worth your attention and it really is in revision that you’re going to find something meaningful and useful.
Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including Bound, and six short story collections, including Nothing Right (Bloomsbury, 2009). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, as well as in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program.