On extracting stories

I’ve been thinking about  something Darren Groth, Aussie author www.darrengroth.com said recently about Stephen King’s views regarding that sometimes elusive component to writing – extracting the story.

Stephen King likens the stories and the ideas upon which they are founded as ‘fossils’ and writers as ‘archaeologists’ (correct term should be ‘palaeontologists’ if we’re talking about fossils, but let’s not quibble over this often confused term). He goes on to say our job as writers is to extract the story – using everything from jackhammer to toothbrush – to reach its pristine form.

This terminology of locating and extracting ancient fossil treasures in the earthstruck a chord with me (I’ve worked on a fossil dig in Western Queensland) – this is exactly what finding a story is like. And you must sense whether it is time to get down and dirty with the jackhammer and too bad about the damage inflicted. For me, this is the dreaded, mental agony of the first-draft stage.

But the reward is the toothbrush, paintbrush, dental pick, rewriting stage – just like on a fossil dig when the tiniest, most fragile imprint of an ancient pine cone waits to see the light of day. You tease it with the dental tool, you coax it with your toothbrush, you brush away the layers until its there in its pristine form. Ahhhh.

Looking for plant fossils - Elliot Dinosaur Dig camp, Winton, Australia

Well, almost pristine. There is always room for improvement – which is why I appreciate my writing friends – the ones I trust to read my writing drafts and be honest in their opinion; who will pick up inconsistencies or notice when a bit of ‘telling not showing’ creeps in; who share the frustrations, the rejections, the successes of a writer’s life.

Then, there’s the joy of digging through history, researching …. but that is another story.


12 thoughts on “On extracting stories

  1. Hi Sheryl,

    How are you?

    i’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve recently started up a community forum for writers called the The Writer’s Chronicle(mainly for those who blog) where we can meet and discuss all that is writing with other ‘online’ writers. Also with the recent addition of some published author members we have decided to set up a section to support published writers and help them promote themselves and their books – as we all know how hard it is to get published and how its even harder to get a large readership!

    I know this email is out of the blue, but i was hoping that you might drop in and take a look around and perhaps join if your interested?

    I’d greatly appreciate it,


    Emily Cross

    Here is the link: http://thewriterschronicle.forumotion.net/


  2. Sheryl. Love the analogy. And yes, it suits you in particular.
    I also like the idea of a thread unravelling. Often I just get a first line coming into my head and then it really is like an ‘unravelling’. As I write each line, the next one appears.
    I love writing when it comes like that.
    Meryl 🙂


  3. Recently,I was speaking to Peter Bishop from Varuna Writer’s House about my current WIP, ‘The Mountain’. He said something similar – finding the narrative is like spinning a thread and you must let it gradually unroll into a real story.
    I just have to get over my impatience.
    And yes, Kath, I’ve been jack-hammering away and in the process getting a better sense of that particular mountain.


  4. Hi Sheryl,

    I enjoyed your post and yes the fossil analogy is a great one. It has been used by my lecturers at Maquarie Uni.

    Jelli-beanz Book Corner


  5. Hi Sheryl – don’t you love that part with the brush?! So exciting to uncover some exquisite little detail you didn’t know was there. Ah – the fossil dig. It really is.

    Carole P


  6. Great post Sheryl. I can imagine a fossil analogy would have connected with you! I love King’s ‘On Writing’, and often re-read it before starting a new project (especially if it’s a novel I feel daunted by). I personally love wielding around the jack-hammer, but just got some incredibly astute comments from Andrew about the first draft of my latest project, and I’m really looking forward to going in with a brush.

    I hope you’ve been out jack-hammering the Mountain 🙂


  7. Hi Sheryl – I use Stephen King’s palaeontology/fossil analogy I lot when talking to students about writing. Particularly how stories can often start off with something small like a tiny fossil sticking out of the ground and how your job as a writer is to carefully unearth what is ‘already there, but hidden’. This is how the process of writing stories has always felt to me.


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