John Straley: Staring Into the Fire

Here is the second post from July guest author John Straley. As he told us in his first post, “I thought I would write about craft questions I have never taught or lectured on before…and I hope to respond to questions that may come in over the month and enter into a dialogue with any of you who are reading these posts.”

*  *  *  *

So, I have basically decided what kind of story I would like to write, (always with the proviso that I can change my mind with any of these decisions) I know basically the scope, if not the actual length of the story. I know if I’m going to have to do extensive research/travel for this story or not, and I know basically what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.

Now you and I ready to start the spacing out and dreaming part of writing the book. This is the thinking about the book stage. While you are walking… cooking…working at a crappy job…you are thinking about it. It’s ill formed. You can’t even describe it to anybody. At this point you shouldn’t even try to describe it to anybody. If somebody asks you you should say, “I’m thinking about a story”. If they say, “What’s it about?” you should say, “I don’t know yet.” If you try to tell them at this point, you might commit to something too soon. Or you might become embarrassed by a half-baked dumb-assed idea that will set you back months. This stage is intensely private and best to keep it that way. You have no idea what’s going to happen at this point because you are juggling with an infinite number of eggs.

Let me say something right here that is intensely personal and may apply only to me. Worrying about “whether I’m a writer or not” is a colossal waste of time. It is a question that answers itself by what you spend your time doing. The less said about it the better.

You should have a fat notebook that you can divide into four parts or four separate notebooks. You should write in these notebooks either first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. Think of this as a kind of dream journal. This dream journal will have the four important parts:


Every day after thinking/dreaming about this story that you want to write you should write something in you notebook under one or the other one of these sections. Poetry is the poetry of the story, the heart, the mood, the soul material of the story. It can also be some experimental technique you want to employe. I am a visual person I will note images here or details that will evoke mood or atmosphere. Other people may write scraps of poetry, their own or others. 

What is the world of this story? This will have little interesting details of place, images, snapshots, places you may want to go in a story. Does setting influence action? How? Does it effect character? Think of it as if you were shooting a film, you can scout locations and list possibilities here, create maps. If you travel to locations put your descriptions here along with, pressed flowers, photographs, drawings. Remember you may use these things in your story or not.

Who inhabits this story? Details of characters, biographical sketches. Things you have observed. Details. Who might be in a story? Who do you need in a story to tell your tale. Who lives in these places? Who has these poems? This passion? Who inhabits the world you want to create? Imagine these people. Here too: photographs, drawings. quotations. Poems. Moods. Are some characters foils for other characters? How? Necessary? Some characters are simply needed to advance plot necessities but they can still serve several functions.

One of the things that is most difficult to do is keep a story moving in a natural way. Action comes naturally in a story from the seeds you plant in the world right from the beginning with the setting and your characters… or it drops out of the sky like the hand of fate. Chaos is the friend of action. Domestic tranquility is not. In crime novels the expectation is that there must be a “plot point” or some dramatic action close on to every three pages or less. But even in the most intellectual mainstream fiction things happen, even if it is a subtle shift in tension. Things happen that keep the readers interest. When considering your story, keep a list of things that happen. peaks and valleys. dramatic actions, think of them as non-cheesy, highly intelligent cliff hangers. This is what Shakespeare did when shaping his plays, he created dramatic tension. and David Foster Wallace, who used broad humor and exquisite detail as well, and no one called him stupid. Just don’t forget to make things happen, while you are making things smart and beautiful.

While your are thinking about your own story. Read other peoples stories. Go to public readings. Listening to writers read aloud, is the single most inspiring thing I do. I get the best Ideas for my own stories by listening to good writers read aloud. The better the writers the better the ideas I get. I swear. I think they just raise the bar.

Remember that in this notebook you are not composing your book. You are gathering possibilities. Do not sweat this. There is no editing this notebook. Neither is this free writing. You are pulling up possibilities of poetry, geography, people and things that happen. This is more like dredging the well of well of memory and imagination.

The difference between memory and imagination, is tricky. Here is what I think: imagine you find an old well in the hard granite country where the fissures in the earth are very deep. It’s an old fashioned well with a short wall built around it and rope pulley and bucket. Bend over, pick up a stone and throw it in. The stone falls a distance, you look over and see your dappled reflection and hear an echoing splash. The sound of the splash echoing up, the reflection, the bricks of the well and the dank air, is your memory, everything the stone falls through ever after is your imagination.

Now there is a mysterious thing that happens. At some point of staring out the window and puzzling about this story, you will think you are ready to start writing. But you will be wrong, and you will know it in your heart, because one of your characters will be too thin, or the geography will be too vague. But you will be excited because ONE THING will be so good you will want to get started right away. DONT DO IT. When you have some thing really great in each section of the notebook, then you are ready to go on to the next step. They don’t have to all fit together. They don’t have to even make sense. You just have to have something great in Poetry, Geography, People and Things That Happen, you will be close.

Finally, mysteriously, you will just know. You will know your story is there. Not in the notebook, but in the darkness of the well. In your mind, and ready to come out.

Next time we go the actual, butt in the chair grinding it out phase. Step one: Colonizing the Day-planner.

John Straley is a poet, novelist, and a private investigator. He has published eight novels and one book of poetry, and was Alaska’s twelfth Writer Laureate. He and his wife Jan live in a bright green house near Old Sitka Rocks.

1 thought on “John Straley: Staring Into the Fire”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Great post, John. This is my favorite part of writing, just staring into the fire or daydreaming about the book. At this point, anything seems possible and I'm excited about the concept, but I haven't done any "work" yet.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top