While reading through submissions for our ninth anthology, the editors began to discuss what work needed to be done to “find the nugget”, the good story that’s buried inside early drafts. The following chat is what emerged.
Cole Meyer: When we were reading through the longlist for our 9th Anthology and narrowing down to the 30 we selected for our shortlist, we remarked how many of the stories had something fantastically unique or interesting embedded within them, but hadn’t yet found the right way to capitalize on that aspect yet. Melissa, I think you made the comment that the stories need to “find the nugget” that makes the story work—Could you expand on that? How might authors go about mining their drafts?
Brandon Williams: I think we’ve talked about something passably similar to this before, but every time we get one of those stories that has that one unique thing in it, I find myself coming back to the question of how the rest of the story works—so often, that singular uniquity is in a story that’s otherwise traditional, or that is using the same narrative beats or character notes that we see in more straightforward stories, and it can have this weird effect of making those traditional elements feel either off-putting or else too obvious. I think it’s important to remember that a story’s responsibility is to itself, to the logic of the world and characters and plot that it is creating—when something strange or unique is brought to the table in a piece, then the normal of that story must invariably shift as well. We love the strange, the unique, the individual, but everything then needs to be built, or at least reconsidered, around whatever it is that is singularizing the story.
Melissa Hinshaw: Once I took a workshop about “mining for story ideas” with Ethan Chatagnier. The workshop was about learning to keep an eye out for story material in your life, the news, podcasts, articles, books, etc. I really liked the phrase, and even though the workshop was about sourcing for material before the story, I think of it often when I’m reading through submissions. I think a good way to look at a second draft is mining your first story for the heart or meat or nugget or whatever metaphor you want to use here. Brandon’s right that a lot of what we’re talking about here is the wrapping surrounding that one unique thing—how much packaging do you have to tear open to get to what the story has to offer, and is it worth it? How many layers of dirt are between you and this treasure, when you’re reading it, and did that make it an adventure or a slog?
I think when I say “nugget” I can mean two different things: either a super unique concept / detail / idea, or a key conflict. There are content nuggets and plot nuggets and I do think they get hidden in the same way. I think this is because we start stories in different ways—sometimes we start with an idea and sometimes we start with a feeling, and sometimes we keep the focus on one of those things and sometimes it shifts back and forth between what we started with and other stuff. It’s so much work just to build a story at all; it’s even more to make sure your arc is aligned with the heart of the story in a way that maximizes the mood and conflict you’re going for. And for most of us, we often don’t know what we’re going for at first!
Sometimes, I think authors don’t see what the nugget is in their own work. It’s like being in relationships, where you’re so swept up in the drama that you miss sort of the point of the lesson you were supposed to learn for yourself or the thing that isn’t working for either of you. I had an MFA professor talk a lot about how good stories have a “thing and the other thing” going on in them—I think a lot of MFA professors talk a lot about this. Sometimes you need to shed the first thing you have in your draft, enhance the other thing as the thing, and add a third thing to be the new other thing. Sometimes you’re aware of the thing and sometimes you’re not—sometimes the thing that got you writing the story was the thing you need to come back to and dive deeper into, and sometimes it was just a stepping stone to get you writing about something else entirely, or just writing again in general.
There’s that Hemingway quote I just had to Google to make sure I was using it right: “Find what gave you emotion; what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear so that the reader can see it too. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.”
The benefit of being a reader/editor is getting to feel the thing that gives us emotion/excitement and being like “Oh, this story might be a love story?” or “Why was the grandma only in this for a minute, she was WILD, let’s go back to her!” It’s hard to get that objective distance from your own work when you’re fresh in the thralls of writing/submitting.
CM: I love the idea of this nugget being the thing you were writing to discover without consciously understanding exactly what it was you were writing. I wrote a story once—flash, actually—that I had been tinkering with and tinkering with and submitting without getting a ton of traction. Then, Tara Laskowski over at SmokeLong said, Hey we’re not going to accept this in this current form, but if you’d consider cutting everything but this one paragraph in the middle, we’d love it. Which threw me for a loop. But then I pulled the paragraph from the story and said, Ah, shit, she’s right—this is what I wanted to say the whole time. All the rest was unnecessary. The nugget was right there in the middle of the story the whole time, and I just needed someone else to point it out to me. SLQ published it as a micro and it ended up in Best Small Fictions.
The best thing was I salvaged what I cut and recast it into a new flash, which ended up getting published at Pithead Chapel. Two stories out of one.
I think what I’m trying to say is even though we’re mining through our own work often for what’s really working in the story, what it really wants to be about, the other stuff, the more traditional stuff around the Thing, is still useful. Maybe in another context. Maybe with new characters. Maybe you’ll never use it at all, but they’re still your words to work with later on, if you want. It’s not time wasted. So much of writing is rewriting— I’m sure you tell your students this all the time too— but none of it is wasted.
I guess I’ll add that I think although it’s possible to find the nugget in your own story, so often I’m too close to the writing to see what that might be. This is where another pair of eyes will greatly help you. Someone else, a trusted writer or reader, can help point out to you what stands out in the story, can find the nugget. I guess that’s what you mean, Melissa, by not being able to get that objective distance from your own work. I find, too, that putting a story away for a year or more makes it feel like something new when you return to it. There’s value in not rushing your work out.
MH: Yeah! I was thinking that a lot of this could be summed up by, “Maybe I’m just asking for a serious second draft?” or “Kill your darlings!” type of thing that we hear a lot. Don’t be afraid to cut 80% of your story and see what else can come from that.