Friday Flashback: Frederick Barthelme’s 39 Steps for Story Writers

Frederick BarthelmeFrederick Barthelme, my favourite novelist and short-story writer, put together a checklist of things for writers to learn and remember that has guided all my creative work. It’s simply brilliant, and extremely funny. My favourites from the list, which I’ve written about on the blog several times:

  • Mean less. That is, don’t mean so much. Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys. Make it up, please.
  • We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself.
  • Coherence is a big part of the game. Make sure the story is coherent, that the scenes flow each from the last, that the reader has the clearest sense at all times of what is going on. Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind.
  • If you write a sentence that isn’t poignant, touching, funny, intriguing, inviting, etc., take it out before you finish the work. Don’t just leave it there. Don’t let anyone see it. To repeat, there is no place for rubbish & slop in the highly modern world of today’s fiction. Every sentence must pay, must somehow thrill. Every one.
  • Apropos the big issues, note that parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby. Or, because the baby was born with fins for hands. It’s the particular.
  • No characters named Brooke or Amber.
  • Don’t let it make too much sense. Doing odd stuff is good, especially like when you make characters do it in the story, like when stuff is happening to them and they just do this unexpected, even inappropriate stuff, and then somehow it makes a little sense.
  • Don’t let too many paragraphs go by without sensory information, something that can be felt, smelt, touched, tasted.
  • Don’t reject interesting stuff (things for characters to say and do, things to see, places to be, etc.) because the stuff doesn’t conform to your idea. Change your idea to wrap it around the stuff.
  • Also, when doing the above, notice the things you notice in your own “real” life — like what’s at the horizon, how the sun is in the sky, what kind of light’s going on, the way the street, ground, grass, dirt looks, your interest in bushes, what’s happening at the edges of things — buildings and signs and cars, the sounds of stuff going on around the scene — who’s that wheezing? what’s that rattle? are those leaves preparing to rustle? Etc.

In case you haven’t yet discovered his work, here’s a lovely passage from Barthelme’s book Elroy Nights, that I think resonates with a lot of us aging baby-boomers, 

As I drove across the bridge, I thought how we’d started as young people insisting on living the way we wanted, and how we’d gradually retreated from that, from doing what we wanted. Things change. What you want becomes something you can’t imagine having wanted, and instead you have this, suddenly and startlingly not at all what you sought. One day you find yourself walking around in Ralph Lauren shorts and Cole Haan loafers and no socks. You think, How did this happen? It isn’t a terrible spot, and you don’t feel bad about being there, being the person you are in the place you are, with the wife or husband you have, the step-daughter, the friends and acquaintances, the house and tools and toys, the job, but there is no turning back. You have a Daytimer full of things to do. You have a Palm PDA and names and addresses and contacts, and there is no way back. Even if there were a way back, you couldn’t get there from here, and you probably wouldn’t go if you could. The effort required isn’t the kind of effort you can makeanymore.
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1 Response to Friday Flashback: Frederick Barthelme’s 39 Steps for Story Writers

  1. Your list makes two words come to mind: Firefly and Serenity. And not just because they’re my current, if late, obsession. :-)”I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.”

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