Recently I was trying to explain something in one of my classes that I think of as the “stone soup principle,” something that has helped me quite a bit in writing, and I was casting around for a way to articulate it. Now my friend Emily has come out with this essay that illustrates it perfectly.
“I dare you to write a fifty-thousand word potboiler in the next month,” her husband Tom said to her a couple of years ago.
Remember the story “Stone Soup?” In it, a hungry stranger comes to a village and offers to make a wonderful soup, enough to feed everyone in town, using only his magic stone. “All I need is a big pot and some water,” he says. A huge cauldron is brought to the middle of town, a fire is lit, and he drops in the magic rock. Everyone in town gathers around to watch. “It will be ready soon, and it will be the best soup you've ever had,” he promises. “But you know what would make it even better? If we just added a few onions.” “I can give you onions,” says one villager, and onions are added to the pot. “This will make it almost perfect,” says the stranger. “The only thing that would make it even better is if we had a few potatoes.” “I have potatoes!” says someone else. And so it goes, until every villager has contributed something to the pot. And then the soup is done, enough to feed them all. Made from nothing but one magic stone.
Tom's dare was the stone. Emily started the book, but somehow added a few more than 50,000 words . . . then more. She came up with a potboiler-y plot, but she put in just a little more effort and love than was strictly required . . . then a little more. She worked on it for one month, and then kept working on through the next, and the next. At the end of a year, she had The Book of Esther. Not 50,000 words, not a potboiler, not drafted in a month. But that magic stone is what got it started.
I offer Emily's essay as inspiration for anyone who's trying to start or work their way through a draft of a novel or a story: my short fiction class at the Ferguson Library; my "Year of Your Book" class at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center; and everybody else who's out there trying to make that soup.
“How a Dare Morphed into a Full-Fledged Novel,” by Emily Barton