Safe Cracking, or How to Write Short Stories without Workshops

Adam Ley-Lange shares the similarities between bank robbing and short story writing.


Creative writing workshops were planning meetings for the biggest heist job in history. They were led by someone who’d successfully pulled off a few big jobs in their time, and attended by a group of protégés who were developing some serious loot-grabbing skills of their own. Our target was stories. By pooling our talents we were hoping to walk away with a big enough share of the swag to, if not live out our days in luxury, then at least exist easily for a good long while. Preferably on our own tropical island.

Don’t get me wrong – this wasn’t always an easy alliance. There were plenty of times when we disagreed about strategy. Someone would advocate a bloodless boost, someone else would be in favour of striding in with machine guns and Swiss-cheesing everyone dumb enough to get in our way.

But whilst it was impossible to agree with everybody’s suggestions, what mattered was that each one of our Ocean’s 11, 12 or 13 had a position. If you disagreed with that position, you at least had to work out why. And engaging in such a way meant that you either changed your position, or your original idea won out by proving itself resilient enough.

Post-MA, this is what I find I’m missing the most. After living in a den of thieves for a year, I’ve now got to go it alone. And sure, it was ever thus. The writer is always a lonely thief.

Now that I’m trying to work out how best to proceed, I’ve started imagining myself in a bank vault, standing in front of a safe. It’s one of those black metal strongboxes with a rotary combination lock which you need to manipulate clockwise and anti-clockwise to get it open. Inside the safe is, of course, the story. Open the safe, and bingo, you’ve got your story.

But here’s the rub: there are many different combinations that will crack the safe, and depending on which one you use, the prize inside will change. Prizes range from worthless to priceless.

Chances are you’ll get the safe open pretty quickly, but what’s inside is going to be a disappointment. So you close the safe up again, spin the dial, and start afresh, hoping that this time you might hit on something better.

This is how writing a story seems to work for me now. I’ve got my stethoscope pressed against the metal. I’m straining to listen for the clicks that tell me I’m on my way to opening the door onto something of value. I might have started out listening for clicky paragraphs, but now I’m listening for clicky sentences. When the safe opens this time, the story inside looks a little shinier. On the next run, we’re clicking along with each individual word. The story’s weight in carats increases. The run after that, we’re listening for which syllables make that magic click.

It’s an excruciating process and it takes forever. I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, not quite understanding why the armed guards haven’t rushed into the vault, because surely somebody upstairs must have set off the silent alarm by now? But then I have to remind myself that actually there aren’t any armed guards, because the only person I’m robbing is myself. It’s my safe, something in my own head that I’m trying to crack, and time isn’t important. What’s important is inside, and hopefully, when the door swings open next time, it’ll reveal something priceless.