Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Ingredients Exercise

In class, I give each student a note card and ask them to write down three ingredients for a short story. I don’t give them a lot of time, just a minute or two. I tell them to go with the first things that come to mind, to not worry about making sense or getting too crazy. In fact: don’t make sense, get a little crazy.

Afterwards, I collect all the note cards, shuffle them, and have each student draw a card that is not their own. Upon seeing their ingredients, some will shout with joy. Others will groan. When they share their ingredients with each other, there will be envy and commiseration, depending. Regardless their assignment is to write a story that uses all three of these ingredients as seamlessly as possible.

I liken this exercise to the “mystery box challenge” (thanks, MASTER CHEF!) of short story writing. The idea is to use “a little or a lot” (thanks, CHOPPED!) of the ingredients and to make each ingredient feel as organic as possible. In the best examples of this exercise, the “ingredients” don’t jump out as random, wacky details, but feel essential and inevitable.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the students who get an “easy” list, i.e. ingredients that all fit together in an obvious way (pirate, shark, rowboat), tend to produce the less interesting exercises. It becomes tempting to fall back on the obvious; the imagination isn’t sufficiently pushed. Usually the most exciting stories come from the students gifted with the more esoteric lists (piranhas, Bury Reynolds, Abu Dhabi), who get put in a box so kooky they have no choice but to think outside it.

I first tried this exercise on a whim, in an attempt to engage a class of high school seniors who had fallen into a bit of a mid-semester slump. For many of these students, their “ingredients” stories were among the best work they produced all semester. This exercise is now one of my all-time faves.

…write what you feel like writing each day…It sounds so basic, but there’s something radical in it, and it has helped me many, many times.” – Aimee Bender (via One Story)

Short Story of the Week

“Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” by Lindsay Hunter.

It should be noted that I am stealing shamelessly from Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, where the great Roxane Gay recommends and introduces this badass story by fellow FSG-er Lindsay Hunter, and for good reason. “Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula” opens Hunter’s new collection, DON’T KISS ME, and it is such a glorious gut punch of a story.  Read the story. Read Roxane’s glowing introduction. Get the book. It will change you.

…when it comes to writing the way you do, you’ll always be the world champion at being yourself.” – Etgar Keret

ISLE in The Millions!

Hugest of huge thanks to The Millions for including THE ISLE OF YOUTH in their Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2013 Book Preview: “…The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins.” Honored to be in such wonderful company.

Short Story of the Week

“The Tenth of December” by George Saunders. Here is the opening paragraph:

“The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.”

I love this story for many reasons, but especially for its profound empathy. It’s also one of the best stories I’ve ever read that explores what it means to die gracefully, and the struggle to hold onto valor and dignity in the face of mortality. In case it’s not already obvious, the light summer reading you’ve been looking for is RIGHT HERE.

Some Things I Thought About While Revising My Story Collection

When I make a list of all the first lines, what do I see? What kind of landscape is being built? Ditto for last lines.


Is each story taking the reader someplace new?


Where do I feel myself getting bored?


Where does the reader get taken one too many times?


Is there a story that doesn’t feel in conversation with the others?


Are there technical tricks—whoo boy do I love a good flash forward—that I’m overusing? 


What would change if I made the first story last and the last story first?


What would change if I dropped story number three? Or five, etc.


When I reach the end, what am I left with?

…the novel duplicates at a supremely fascinating level the imperfections of the human subjectivity that produces it. In other words, to say that what gives a novel its force is that it feels very human, and why it feels human is because it’s imperfect, it’s contradictory, it has gaps…stories are demanding and infuriating because of their perfectibility.” – Junot Díaz