Olga Zilberbourg, a frequent commenter on this blog, has a post up about some things Jim Shepard said in workshops.
My favorite of her quotes from Shepard -- “Stories always provide their own operating instructions.”
The phrase “secret key of the story” is maybe unfortunate, as it could feed into the misconception that literary fiction is full of puzzles. Which I think is only true of such High Modernists as T. S. Eliot and the later Joyce.
Zilberbourg comments, “Personally, I am convinced that each story contains as many 'secret keys' as there are readers.”
I agree with the sentence as long as the word “secret” is taken out -- the operation instructions are provided in the story, there's nothing secret there. When you play a computer game that's any fun, you generally have to figure out the rules as you go along, and isn't it the same when you're reading?
Zilberbourg tells me what is meant by Shepard's "secret key" is “a way of turning something others might perceive as an inexperience or weakness in a writer's vocabulary into the first step of a revision process.”