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Mysterious Ways

Novelist Katie Williams offers advice to Short Story Contest hopefuls
Katie Williams, 11:00am, Mon. Nov. 26, 2012

You should know that we aren’t dealing in fact here, but superstition.

Write after napping. Write while standing up. Write while drunk, but not too drunk. Every writer I know has an array of tips, behaviors, and outright oddities that helps her put pen to paper (write longhand!) or fingers to keyboard (never write longhand―it's an affectation!).

But as I said upfront, these aren't facts; they aren't the careful measurements of a recipe or the tried-and-true steps of an equation that, if followed, will result in a brilliant finished manuscript. (Or, forget "brilliant," even finished will do.) Rather, the writer's process tricks are the bent penny, plastic Jesus, and Technicolor troll doll lined up in front of an old lady's Bingo sheet. She pats each object in her own particular order, believing that some small god will be listening and will nudge her number forward.

I'm not saying don't listen to advice about how to write (after all, I'm about to give you some); in fact, I'm saying the opposite: listen to a lot of advice about how to write. But as you do, know that it's all bullshit. Writers are good at bullshit. So don't feel that you must follow every provision, and don't feel bad if one writer's process isn't your process. Try lots of different advice and figure out what works for you, your own little line-up of magical totems. Once you've patted each of them on the head, you will still be facing the blank page, the characters, who they are, what they do, and why they do it. This is hard stuff; it's hard for all of us. Which is why it can help to have a bent penny in your corner.

Now, with warnings, disavowals, and qualifications laid out, my own piece of writing advice, by way of my former teacher Charlie Baxter: When you don't know what to write about, close your eyes and let a picture rise up in your mind. The image could be anything – footprints in the snow, a woman's face in shadow, the wing of an airplane. It's okay if the picture is a strange one, and it might be because it's coming from your subconscious. Once you have the image in mind, start asking yourself questions about it. If there are footprints in the snow, who left those prints? Where were they headed? Were they going to see someone? To do or say what? Did they wear the proper clothes for the weather? If not, why not? Why are there no prints headed back the other way? Trust in your mind; it is clever and gave you this image for a reason. There is a story in there, and you will find it.


Katie Williams's second novel, Absent, will be published by Chronicle Books in April 2013. She is a graduate of the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers and a 2005 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest prize winner.


The Austin Chronicle is currently accepting submissions for its annual Short Story Contest. (Postmark deadline Dec. 10, 2012; see more rules and regs.) Check the Books blog all week for more encouraging bits from published authors and past Short Story Contest winners.

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