Tag Archives: short story

The Method of Writing: Plan, plan, plan, or “back the fuck off”?


The literary dawn on the lake of the mind. (Murte Lake, Wells Gray Provincial Park, BC.)

In October The Atlantic ran an awesome interview with Andre Dubus III.

I love Andre Dubus III. He’s got a cool name. He writes cool books (Dirty Love just came out this fall). He swears profusely, even in print, even in a 156-year-old magazine, because, well, he’s that fucking passionate about writing.

And in this interview he suggests all you plotters and planners and outliners really need to just back the fuck off. He’s talking to you, Ms. Writer with your note cards and your plot points and your summaries. These are his words. Back. The. Fuck. Off.

That outline you just did? That idea you had for the climax of your novel, for the clever resolution of the short story you’re going to email to some hip litmag? Throw it the fuck out and sit the fuck down. Then write, and see what comes.

You’re a blind woman, or man, or marsupial. Whatever. You’re feeling your way through a tunnel, and the point is you don’t know where you’re going. All you know is what your senses tell you about what’s right in front of you.

That, Dubus says, is all you need. Take note of whatever is mentally in front of you. You’re the ethnographer of your imagination. You’re wearing twill khaki shorts and the mosquitoes are bleeding you dry, and you’re just scribbling notes about whatever you observe in your immediate dream-surroundings.

You’re not composing a novel or devising a short story. You’re not even a writer. You’re just taking field notes from your subconscious.

So your job is to shut the fuck up. Just be quiet and wait for your subconscious to float an image. Your conscious mind is a security guard/stenographer. It waits for something to happen, then it takes note.

This is what Dubus says. He probably knows what he’s talking about, if The House of Sand and Fog or any of his five other well-regarded books are something to go by.

On this, he echoes the sentiments of other bestselling — though less “literary” — writers like Stephen King, who in his memoir On Writing also said he doesn’t plan. He just sits down and feels it out.

The downside of this approach is you end up having to chuck out prose by the boatload. But Dubus is simply too bad-ass to shed tears over spilt ink.

“I don’t care if I spent a year writing pages 1 through 96. If I feel some real energy on page 93, and I think that should be page 1? Those first 92 pages are fucking gone.”

Thrown in the fucking wastebasket. Ruthlessly recycled. He doesn’t care. He’s Andre Dubus IIIOne day he may wipe his ass with those 92 pages. It just depends if he buys environmentally friendly toilet paper or not.

All you planners out there, stop sucking your teeth while you contemplate the horrifying inefficiency of this approach. There are plenty of upsides we have yet to consider. Allow me to hold forth on them forthwith.

Well right off the bat, you save all the time of plotting and sketching. Plotting days become writing days.

So although you may have to throw more stuff out, you have way more stuff. You are word-rich. You no longer have any excuse not to write every day. You can’t say, “Well, I would write today, but I have to hammer out the twists in my story first.” If Dubus heard you say this he would politely tell you:  stop making excuses, sit the fuck down, and write.

It’s very passionate advice. The main question, though, is about quality. Because better quality is a potential upside here, though obviously not all high-quality writers approach their work this way.

Yet Dubus suggests  if you don’t write like this, your book or story or epic poem is going to sound contrived. It’ll come off as gimmicky, inorganic. You’ve got to let it develop naturally or it won’t have an authentic ring. The soul of art is born of uncertainty, he would claim.

It’s hard to settle this. We need some scientists in white coats to see which writers work like Dubus and King, and which ones plan out their writing in advance. Then they can get a bunch of participants to rate the work each group produces. Barring that, it’s just an assertion made in really fucking strong language.

I’ve tried both approaches, and I don’t know which is better. Planning in advance provides a lot of comfort as you move through the writing process. But maybe comfort isn’t really what you want as a writer. I must admit it does raise questions in the back of my mind about sounding contrived.

Proceeding with no plan, however, often seems to produce work that doesn’t go anywhere. Work I couldn’t imagine people want to read because it doesn’t present itself as a clear story. But I do find this work tends to be raw and engaging. Maybe I’ve just never given this freewheeling process enough time.

The point Dubus seems to make is that even your output is a colossal mess, eventually you’ll be able to tie pieces of it together into a coherent structure. The trick is to keep going, to write continuously so that you have enough raw material. So that you don’t care if you have to scrap pages 1-92.

I’d say that’s a tall order. But it’s also a brave way to work. And if Dubus’s books are anything to go by, it’s something worth going after.


Style No. 90: Action Movie

This mattress later found its way into the dumpster, and may have saved grandma's life.

This mattress later found its way into the dumpster, and may have saved grandma’s life.

“Did you drop acid at the bus station this morning?” Raj asked. He wore an orange t-shirt and held a Glock 9-milly in each of his hands.

“W…W…What?” the woman asked, backing over shards of glass that crunched and popped as she pressed herself against the crumbling brick wall of the notorious Rashtrapati gang’s headquarters and secret underground crack-cocaine factory.

“I said did you drop acid at the bus station when you got up this morning?”

“Answer the question grandma, before your ass gets lit up like Diwali fucked Christmas in a lightbulb factory,” Kumar said, brandishing his trademark acid-soaked potato cannon. He also wore the Rashtrapati gang’s signature orange t-shirt, and was leaning against a bullet-proof Hummer behind Raj, smoking a Cuban cigar.


“Well that ain’t good news baby. Cuz I’d say dropping acid at the bus station is maybe the only way you coulda wound up here in the wrong part of town by accident. And since you ain’t dropped no acid I’d say you come here on purpose. And old ladies who come here on purpose get they ass lit up, unless they our mommas, you know what I’m saying?”

“Yeah, or our aunties,” Kumar said, jamming a poisoned spud into his cannon and sneering as he played with his chrome-brushed lighter.

“I…I…I swear to you, I was just out looking for the sabzi market, I only need to find some bitter melons and coconut for dinner is all.”

“Oh don’t you worry, there’s gon’ be some bitter food to swallow in a minute,” Raj said, smiling and looking back at Kumar as he twirled his shining Glocks on his middle fingers.

“I beg you, I’m just an old woman, please let me go.”

“Just an old woman, yeah?” Kumar spat through a puff of cigar smoke. “Well if you’re so innocent, why don’t you show us what you’re hiding under that headshawl of yours.”

“Yeah grandma, let’s see what you got in there,” Raj said, raising his pistols and aiming them at her head. “Unless you want me to shoot it off for you.”

“There’s nothing, I swear! I’ll show you, I’ll show you. I just keep my grocery money in a small purse up there is all. Here,” she said, reaching for the cloth on her head.

“Hey, slow, no funny shit,” Raj said.

“P…P…Please don’t hurt me, I’m just out shopping for my family,” she pleaded through a salty current of tears. “I only wandered in here by accident, and please if you’ll just let me go all I want to do is… KILL ALL YOU SISTERFUCKERS!!!” The grenade hidden beneath the scarf on her head flew through the sky as she roared these final words, landing at Raj’s feet as she dove for cover behind an old dumpster filled with soiled mattresses.

“Raj!” Kumar cried out as shrapnel from his brother’s skull blew into his face along with a strong dose of brain and guts. He scrambled behind the reddened Hummer and noticed his cigar had been extinguished by one of his brother’s eyeballs, now stuck to the end of it. “You old cunt butter, I’m going to kill you and your whole goddamn family! I’m going to kill your dog and shove its dick up your ass!”

“Oh yeah?” she shouted from behind the heap of steel and garbage. “And just how is a dirty ass hair like you going to do that?”

“In about five seconds this potato is going to burn a hole right through your fucking face, that’s how.”

“Try me, ass rod,” she shouted back, quietly withdrawing a Sterling submachine gun hidden in her kameez beneath her ample grandmotherly bosom.

Kumar threw down his brother’s eyeball and wiped the brains off his face. Then he readied his lighter and charged around the backside of the dumpster. “Die you mangy whore!” he cried as he lit the potato cannon.

The spud blasted through space like a rocket, but the old woman was too quick. She tossed the submachine gun in front of her then dove into a front handspring, picking up the weapon as she flipped back on her feet. The tuber splattered across the wall, and the air filled with the sizzling smoke of acid as it ate right through the brick.

The grandma pointed her weapon at Kumar, his eyes bulging white with fear. “Looks like you’re mashed, potato man.” With that she smiled and, casting her head back in wild laughter, cut the Rashtrapati gang’s most feared enforcer to shreds with thirty rounds of hot metal.

She dropped the weapon and stood over the corpses, or what was left of them. It was less a pair of bodies than a vat of blood stew spilled on a cracked patch of concrete. “Well boys,” she said. “Time for me to get those veggies.”

She turned to leave, but saw a crowd had formed in the distance. No matter, she thought. I’ll escape the other way. As she turned, however, she noticed behind her a strange man. In one hand he grasped a samurai sword, and in the other he nursed a caramel frappuccino nonchalantly while looking the other way.

Dear God, she thought, fear pulsing in her veins like a mad taxi blasting its way through traffic. Not him. Anyone but him.

She thought to hijack the Hummer and mow him down like an unruly lawn. But it would be no use. He knew too much.

And so she would hold her ground. She would wait till he finished his blended coffee. And then she would end it for both of them in a mushroom cloud of Semtex and C4, bringing these Rashtrapati dogs to heel once and for all.

Style No. 88: Ninja

Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

Generally ninjas can only be seen by infrared.

It was gusting and frigid, and the type of storm was brewing that was liable to end a man, but my orders from the shogun were clear. I was to inure myself to the orange vassals at once in order to make them loosen their tongues and spill the secrets of their vile master, Mr. Kojikasu, so that he could be disemboweled before his knowledge grew too great.

I had very little time. Stories of Kojikasu’s knowingness were already whispered in roadside inns from here to the barbarous isles of the north. Even the lowly garlic-eaters of Korea now laughed up their sleeves at the shogun’s expense, such was their confidence in the powers of Kojikasu-san. Little did they know they would all be boiled for their insolence. But first things first.

I entered the storm in the night’s deepest hour wearing the straw hat of a zen monk to mask my features and give me a reason to climb the western foothills: a pilgrimage to the great temple of Norimitsu. My bones ached and the skin around my hands grew tight, but I took heart for I was reminded of the days of training and how I’d sat with Sunomono-san beneath the Great Falls for many hours in the weeks before it turned to ice. Poor Sunomono-san, frozen in our mountain camp. At least he’d passed honourably. His children will not have to slice their bellies open for shame.

When I heard the cry of birds I stopped. I’d walked all through the darkness and the sun was heaving itself over the mountains behind my back. I knew from my training that the cry was false, and so I found a grassy plinth on which to meditate. From there I scanned the forest for those who courted death with their deceitful song.

There was nothing to be seen and the forest again grew quiet as the cold light of morning filtered through the leaves. I knew, however, that a strange presence lurked nearby and so I held tight to the hilt of my shortsword as I feigned meditation. Having thoroughly scanned the forest floor I’d just begun to watch the canopy when I saw them: two small flashes of orange in the foliage. Kojikasu’s vassals toying with me from the sky.

Before I could properly identify them, however, I spied an old woman cresting the hilltop. “Old woman,” I said. “Why go you alone in this wooded country. Thieves and shinobi populate these parts and may disembowel you for a trifle.”

“I am grateful of your prudent counsel, sensei,” spoke the old woman, who wore a strange headdress of monkey fur. She bowed deeply as she passed, and I noticed she was sweating. This woman is nervousI thought. And she is hiding something under her monkeyskin hat. Fearing an ambush I sliced off her arms with my shortsword and looked to the canopy.

The orange vassals were gone, but behind the trees now stood a curious man. “Kojikasu-san,” I said. “I have seen your plan to destroy me, but I cannot allow it. For I belong to the shogun, and to end me would be as to dismember our great master. I fear not for my life, but I cannot let you debase yourself in such rebellion, nor can I permit you to offend with your insolence the very ground on which we walk, itself an embodiment of the shogun’s majesty. And so I must disembowel you at once.”

I spoke these words with a gravity that tends to strike fear in the hears of impudent traitors. But Kojikasu was different. He did not even deign to look in my direction, instead gazing the other way. Indeed, I thought, becoming nervous myself as I heard the distant sounds of a crowd gathering, which could only mean more danger for my mission. His knowingness is strong. 

Despite these misgivings I sprung to my feet. The element of surprise had been lost with the arms of that aged spy-woman, and now it was incumbent upon me to destroy this foul creature here on the slopes of these western hills. I charged into the wood ready to cleave the head of that vile betrayer Kojikasu and be done with my work, the better to rejoin the shogun and set about disemboweling his myriad remaining enemies in other lands.

But as I reached the spot where he’d stood amidst the darkened greenery of the wood, I found him to be gone, carried off like the mind in a deep reverie. I glanced in all directions but saw nothing. He had disappeared without a trace, along with his young vassals. Very well, I thought. He shall return. When he does I will be here, and I shall cut him down like rice at harvest. And so, climbing a tall spruce, I resolved to wait. As the nervous woman’s moans echoed faintly through the trees, I knew I would stay until Kojikasu had reaped the bitter reward of his effrontery. Or, at the very least, until I fell to the forest floor, gaunt and withered like the dry leaves of winter.