In a previous interview you mentioned that the best piece of writing advice you ever got was the idea of the strong first draft, where you get the majority of the story down over the course of just a few days. Would you explain how one goes about doing that?
Well, the simple answer to that question is discipline. When a short story first comes to you, it's easy to become distracted from it: to pick up the phone and accept an invitation to lunch, or check your email, or decide that it's really about time you mowed the lawn. It's hard to force yourself to sit down at your desk and see the story through from beginning to end, but I've often felt that certain stories have a temporal quality to them and if you don't force yourself to sit down and write them when they first come to you, if you tell yourself that you'll get back to them next week, then they sometimes vanish. Over the years, I've lost enthusiasm for a lot of stories because I allowed too much time to pass between the moment I started writing the story and the moment I returned to it. It's a horrible feeling to look at a story you once felt excited about and suddenly realize that you've forgotten what it was about the story that initially excited you. You try to get yourself back into that state of mind you were in when you first started writing it, but sometimes it's simply too late.
As for the preparation side of doing a strong first draft, I don't prepare a lot before I write my stories. My only goal for a first draft is to get everything down on paper, so they're usually pretty long and unwieldy. The first draft of my short story "Merkin" was about seventy pages long on my computer, but the final is about twenty-five. I knew that a lot of the scenes I was writing would end up getting cut, but I also knew that I needed to write them in order to fully understand the characters. Sometimes I'll write about a certain aspect of a character's life, even though I know that it won't factor into the story in a prominent way. I might write a few pages about a character's job, then only mention it briefly in the story. It's a way of getting to know the characters. Also, I don't write my first drafts in a linear way, so it's hard for me to plan out plot and structure early on. I'm constantly approaching the story from different angles. I guess my theory is that if you write enough pages about a certain group of characters, there's bound to be a story there somewhere, and that's what the second draft is about: finding the story, then giving it a shape and a structure.
Of course, there's always a lot to discover in any new story, and I usually write until I come to a point where I've exhausted my initial curiosity about the characters. That's when I stop generating new content and begin revising. In my second draft of the story, I start cutting. In the example of "Merkin," I cut about fifty percent of the content and kept chiseling away at it from there, condensing and tightening it until I felt that it was done.
You mentioned what you try to do in a first draft. What do you prohibit yourself from doing?
I tell myself not to think too much. For me, writing is a very intuitive process, and if you start thinking too much about what the story is about or what you want to happen in the story too early in the process, then you limit what the story can be. I like to be surprised when I'm writing a story, just as readers like to be surprised when they're reading a story, and I firmly believe that if there's no mystery in the story for me, then there certainly won't be for the readers. So I try to leave myself open to almost any type of turn the story might take, even if that turn goes against my initial ideas about the story.
Also, I force myself to keep my first drafts rough. I don't like to start thinking about crafting a specific paragraph or scene until I've figured out the basic structure of the story. You can waste a lot of time working on scenes or paragraphs that you might later have to cut, so I find it's easier to just deal with the big stuff first, and then go back in later drafts and focus on the language.