The Inkpunks have asked me to discuss my fiction-writing process, which struck me as an odd request. The process one uses to write fiction hardly matters as far as the end result goes. One may as well ask how writers fold their socks. Do they roll them up in balls, just lay them flat, fold over once? Who cares? Whatever works, works. I was approached for this essay because of my how-to book Starve Better, which covers both short fiction and short non-fiction, and I said as much there. But, process. Okay.
My process is basically this: I spend a fair amount of time thinking about a story. I’m usually preoccupied with formal elements: should I write this in first person, past tense, have two storylines running at the same time, tell it all in flashback, etc.? When I figure out something formally interesting, I then come up with a first sentence. When I have that, I sit down and write the story. I keep the Internet on for research purposes, which I perform on an as-needed basis. If I need to know something, I look it up on the spot. It’s impossible for me to leave something for later. Usually, I hit the “ending” and realize that there is more story to go, then finish it up with a final page or so. Then I look at who is still awake and on GChat and beg someone for a proofread. Not a critique. A proofread.
Then it’s done. I spend almost zero time revising, make no outlines, and don’t put a story aside for a few weeks to return to it later. That’s it. I generally finish a story in one sitting, though some more difficult stories take up a few evenings. Length is only a secondary factor—I’ve written novelettes in a day, but one 1800-word short story took me a week. For novels, I treat individual chapters as short stories. Sometimes, I might add a sentence or three after the fact, and indeed, often after a sale but before publication.
I don’t recommend this process for anyone, not even me. It’s not appropriate for the writing of lengthy novels, which many people wish to write. It’s a pretty exhausting process as well. Ever pull an all-nighter in college? It’s like that. After about a decade of practice, I’ve managed to make it work fairly efficiently. Occasionally, I’ll have a run of doing a story a week for three, or four, or six weeks. This year so far I’ve managed to produce stories, mostly on solicitation, for the anthologies Demons, Long Island Noir, Future Lovecraft, Black Wings II, Shotguns vs Cthulhu, West Coast Crime Wave, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk (a novelette), and something for a tie-in book the name of which I cannot yet reveal. I’ve also produced a number of essays. But I still don’t write very much. When I have lunch with a writer friend, he often says something like, “I have twenty-two stories out on submission.” I don’t think I’ve ever had more than three or four out at a time after I got past the days of universal rejection.
I developed my process for mercenary reasons. For a long time I supported myself by writing non-fiction—journalism, copywriting, and even term papers for college students with more money than brains. The price was right. Even small political journals will apologize for paying as little as twenty-five cents a word; in the world of short genre fiction that’s top-dollar. I often had multiple daily deadlines, so short stories had to be squeezed in. The sprawling novels beloved of the publishing industry were a scheduling impossibility. I also discounted the future by writing work I could sell relatively quickly, instead of spending years on a novel first. My stories still tend to be on the short side—2500 words is a sweet spot for me.
The secret for me is figuring out the structure first, then filling the frame with the information the story should actually contain. Back when I was editing Clarkesworld, the plurality of the stories I rejected had informational problems—elementary lapses of point of view, false suspense, tedious exposition, and the like. The formalist method not only precludes such errors, it lets the story tell itself. After all, there is an infinite amount of information that could be disseminated about any individual or circumstance, as the endless volumes on the life of Christ, or the influence of the French Revolution, or those ol’ debbils the carbohydrates demonstrate. Form is like a cookie-cutter of any shape you like, used to slice a consumable bit of informational dough out from an infinite plane of the same.
Ultimately, the process is occult. Where do ideas come from? How do I know that the form I selected was correct? Honestly, I spend almost no time thinking about any of this. Hell, I’ve only recently realized that I write stories form-first. I’ve done it just eighty times or so in the last decade. (Essays are written differently. Novels are a variation just different enough to exclude.) Not too often, really. Writing fiction is like folding socks in that we all have our own way of doing it. Writing fiction is also like folding socks in that changing one’s method will not likely lead to cuter, or warmer, feet.
Nick Mamatas is the author of three and a half novels, over seventy short stories, and hundreds of feature articles, and is also an editor and anthologist. His fiction has been nominated for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards and translated into German, Italian, and Greek; his editorial work with Clarkesworld earned the magazine World Fantasy and Hugo award nominations. Nick’s reportage, short stories, and essays have appeared in venues such as Razor, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Silicon Alley Reporter, theVillage Voice, The Smart Set, The Writer, Poets & Writers and anthologies including Supernatural Noir and Lovecraft Unbound. He teaches at Western Connecticut State University in the MFA program in Creative and Professional Writing, was a visiting writer at Lake Forest College and the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus, and runs writing classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.