Friday, July 27, 2012

How-To ...

Hard-pressed to find a short story idea? Look no further than the How-To genre.  Offering simple directions for accomplishing specific tasks, How-To articles provide an ideal starting point for your next short story.  They begin with a problem and end with a solution – the perfect short story arc. 

A cursory review of How-To articles currently floating around the internet turned up the following:

1) How-To Find Love on Twitter
2) How-To Train Your Cat to Use the Toilet
3) How-To Lose 200 lbs. in 200 Days

Each one of these is a prompt for a story waiting to be told.  The trick to crafting a good How-To story is to select the right article, one that meets the following three criteria:

1) the topic must be interesting
2) the topic must be doable
3) the topic must be somewhat complex

Consider the following ideas:

1) How-To Carve a Potato – this fails the first criterion.  Nobody cares.  Anybody who wants to do this already knows how.
2) How to Make Kittens – this fails the second criterion.  It is not doable, unless you’re a cat, so there’s no point in writing it.  Cats are poor readers.
3) How to Make Orange Soda by Combining Orange Juice and Club Soda - this fails the third criterion.  There is no complexity to it.

So what works?  The following titles are up for grabs.  If you like one or more of them, go for it.  Just remember me come holiday time.

1)    How-To Make Toothpaste from a Mango
2)    How-To Erase Wrinkles Using Just a Crock Pot and a Garage Door Opener
3)    How-To Protect Your Pet from Identity Theft

Here’s an example of a successful How-To piece that meets all three criteria.  It’s interesting, doable, and complex enough in these tough economic times.  It was a story waiting to be told.

How to Buy Vodka in a Recession

“I don’t have a lot of money,” I told the liquor store clerk.  He knows me; we go way back.  “But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to sacrifice on quality.”

“How much do you have?”

I held up a handful of coins.  “$2.34”

He reached for a miniature bottle of Smirnoff.  “This is the best I can do.” 
“No.”  I shook my head.  “It’s really too small.  What else do you have?”
“Nothing, nothing at all, except … no.”
He sighed and pulled a liter bottle from under the counter.  The label was Russian.  “I don’t know if you’re ready.  It’s made from turnips.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s a low-born vodka, sullen with a harrowing finish.  It’s the kind of tipple you’d want along on a cold November morning if you were stripping wallpaper in Minsk.”
“How much?”
I did the math.  “I’ll take two.”


Jewel Amethyst said...

Interesting. hmmmm.....

Charles Gramlich said...

You had me at Vodka.

Liane Spicer said...

My problem is not finding a story idea, it's having too many. But if I'm ever hard-pressed...

William Doonan said...

That's a good point, Liane. I think I probably have enough ideas to last into the next life. But getting the arcs together is always a challenge for me.

John Brantingham said...

Okay, that's fantastic. I'm going to steal that idea and use it in my classroom. It's a good exercise too in the morning when you're just getting up and trying to get the creative momentum started. That's a terrible metaphor, but you get the idea.

john M. Daniel said...

Bill, your idea for a source of short story material is brilliant, and your example is, as I expect from you, hilarious and oddly moving.

Anonymous said...

The how to's are good ideas, and can be added to a site called instructables, where you can get more exposure for your writing if you generate interesting, helpful, or just plain funny content.

Just don't get carried away. Keep in mind that in this day and age people have become lazy to think that the generalized how to's (as in self-help books) have lead people to think that those are the ONLY 7 habits to be effective, and completely forget to do things like ... wipe, and oh yeah, be good at anything, ha ha.

deadpaintersgallery said...


William Doonan said...

Thanks guys, it helps me get the creative juices flowing -- I mean the prompts, not the vodka.

Eugenia O'Neal said...

We hand an abundance of mangoes this season. Who wants to make mango jam when they can make mango toothpaste instead?

Eugenia O'Neal said...

and, of course, that should have been *had* or perhaps we had in hand?

Sally Carpenter said...

One of my cats already uses the toilet--as a drinking fountain. Seriously, William, some clever ideas here on re-filling the creative well.

William Doonan said...

Thanks, Sally. My cats will drink out of nearly anything, just for sport.

marta chausée said...

That was lovely. Short, to the point, strong finish. And a story about a bargain. Who can resist a story with a bargain in it?

Eileen Obser said...

You've gotta check out the Sunday New York Times Book Review (July 29). Essays include: How to Write; How to Write Great; How to
Write How-To; How to Cook a Clam; etc.

Thanks for the ideas in your blog!