I love dipping into random piles and finding a book filled with helpful writing ideas. Writers at Work, a collection of Paris Review interviews, is chock full of writing tips. In the introduction, Malcolm Cowley identifies “four stages in the composition of a story”– here’s an overview:
1) The “germ” — Something heard or heard about or remembered: a passing remark, a chance encounter — “something that serves as a focal point” … Henry James once described this as “the precious particle…the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at a touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point.”
2) “More or less conscious meditation” — “The book or story shapes up — assumes its own specific form…during a process of meditation… This may be a conscious process, where the writer asks questions: “What should the characters do at this point? How can I build to a climax?” Or, Cowley notes, “most of the process, including all the early steps, may be carried on without the writer’s volition. He wakes at dawn with the whole story in his head…Or again — and I think most frequently — the meditation is a mixture of conscious and unconscious elements, as if a cry from the depths of sleep were being heard and revised by the waking mind. Often the meditation continues while the writer is engaged in other occupations…”
3) “The first draft” — Some writers draft at top speed: Says Frank O’Connor, “Get black on white used to be Maupassant’s advice — that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I begin to see it.” In contrast, William Styron once said, “I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.”
4) “The revision” — Frank O’Connor may have breezed through his first draft, but in this stage, he would rewrite, “endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.” James Thurber would revise his stories by rewriting them from beginning to end — one story was revised completely fifteen times. Georges Simenon, on the other hand, spent exactly three days revising his short novels and Francoise Sagan spent very little time revising what she’d written.
Four stages — and many different strategies for navigating them: All of which shows that just about anything goes that gets you where you want to go. Write on!
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