Short Story Writing Process, Part 2

Last week I posted about the first-draft process for writing my short stories.  But the first draft is quite literally just the beginning.  The initial two to eight hour time investment tends to take another twenty or thirty hours to turn into something I’d even consider shopping around.

Before I start my second draft, I outline.  I place the story as it exists in an outline, and I break out the settings, the characters (in short stories there are almost always only one or two major characters), and the plot.  I think about things like where the beginning, middle, pinch points, and end are, what the themes are.  I write a little more about the characters, what are their backgrounds and motivations, what do they want out of the situation.  I spend about five or six sentences fully describing each setting, including nonvisual details like sounds, smells, and tactile feelings.

From there I move onto my second draft.  The second draft is usually based on the first; I have only once entirely rewritten a new story after the first draft.  As I go back through the first draft, I add in setting descriptions so that it isn’t so white-roomy.  I change dialogue to better reflect the characters.  I restructure the story, sometimes moving entire sections around to better fit my outline and the pinch points.  I change parts of scenes, adding in new parts and subtracting old parts to fit the themes and make the story more round.  The second draft is usually where the hardest work comes in, and I’m rarely able to do it in one sitting.  Usually it’s a three or four day process.

For the third draft, I print out the story and focus on the tiny details.  Do the paragraphs flow from beginning to end, does the dialogue sound natural and fit the characters, are any of the sentence structures repetitive.  How does the pacing of the story flow overall.  Where are the spelling and grammar mistakes.  This usually takes about two days.

Then I do my final read.  The final read I try to do as if I’m reading the story for the first time, so I’ve usually set the story aside for a while before I pick it back up again.  If it doesn’t speak to me, I’ll go back to the second draft stage and rework it again.  If it feels complete to me, I’ll start trying to shop it around.  But shopping a short story around is an entirely different process that I’ll get into in another post.

NaNoWriMo Prep Progress

In the past two weeks I’ve gone from an idea/synopsis and a test chapter, to four half completed character workups, a world overview, two specific setting overviews, a plots and conflicts sheet with bullet pointed try/fail cycles, an outline, a timeline, and a bunch of pages of research (including a text interview with a friend from high school on a subject on which I previously knew very little about, but which is going to be very important to my characters).  I’ve also been writing up my substantive Monday blog posts.  I’m trying to fill my buffer so that you aren’t all left without serious writing thoughts while I’m trying to write 50k words in 30 days.

Tonight, I’m going to attempt to reconcile the plot sheet I did tonight with the outline I did yesterday and break it out into chapters.  In between stabs at that, I’ll be fleshing out character and setting workups, doing research as the need hits me, and generating extra names for my shortlist so I don’t have to get sidetracked by making them up on the fly as I need secondary characters.  I have all morning tomorrow, but I’m going to try to use that to finish up the final draft of my Greed short story so I can rotate that into my submissions spreadsheet.

I’m serious about NaNoWriMo this year.  The more work I get done in advance, the more I can do actual writing in November.

Short Story Writing Process, Part 1

Since I’ve been working on my short stories a lot lately, I wanted to break down a bit how I work on them from beginning to end.  This has changed for me as I’ve been writing more, and I imagine the process will change in the future as well.  Since this post ended up running very long when I wrote it, I broke it into three parts.

Usually the very kernel of my short story is an image or concept.  Often these come to me in dreams, but I might also pull them out of the lyrics of a song or out of something I see in my daily life.  Then I start structuring a story around that image or concept.  The image throws me immediately into a scene: for instance, with my Sister story, the image was of one little girl leaning over the bed of another little girl.  The girl in bed is absolutely terrified, and the girl leaning has a wicked grin and says, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”  This image came to me when I was listening to the Nevermore song And The Maiden Spoke.  My mind immediately started wondering why I was seeing this image, what the story behind it was.  I knew that meant I had a story on my hands.

I never outline the first draft of a short story; I start writing right away.  The first draft tends to almost be more of an outline of a story based around the image than the story itself.  It’s very situational. There is the image, so why are we there?  What happens from there?  The story plays out like a movie in my head, and I jot down the action and dialogue as it’s happening.  I try not to stop and think about any of the technical aspects of writing.  Usually the first draft takes me anywhere from two to eight hours, and I try to do it in one sitting.  For a short story, the first draft tends to run anywhere from 1,500 to 4,500 words.

My writing groups and other people who have read my first drafts tell me that they are compelling, but they need a lot of work.  They are very sparse.  They tend to be a bit white-roomy (because I’m trying to catch the action, rather than focusing on the descriptions), the pacing tends to be off, and the characters tend to be under-developed.  But that’s fine.  I have the scaffold on which I’m going to build the rest of the structure.

Horrible Endings

It seems like most of my short stories are some sort of horror mix.  Setting aside what that says about me, it means I’ve run into a problem with my endings.

The main character dies at the end.  It’s usually just the way the story plays out in my head. And I feel that if you are playing with big bad enemies of whatever stripe, the chances of you living through are really low.  Especially if you’re a character over your head in a horror-based fiction.  But maybe that’s just my love of old noir films and novels coming through.

And I’ve occasionally thought that to be realistic, more characters should die in fiction.  But a friend recently told me that just because something is realistic doesn’t mean that someone wants to read it.  Even though it was a comment about something else, that really resonated with me.  People usually read for escapism, not realism, after all.

I’m thinking about redrafting a few things so that the main character didn’t die, and seeing if that’s received better.  Or maybe I should just start trying to sell my stories in France.

Progress Update

While I’m waiting on Plague Novel feedback from my beta readers, I’ve been working on short stories.  This is what I’ve accomplished this week:

Reviewing my existing short stories to decide whether to market, redraft, or scrap.  The decisions I’ve made are hopefully fair.

Tattoo Magic story: retire but keep underlying ideas and world building for use in other stories or novels. Why? Because it’s a not the best short story, I’ve really grown as a writer since I wrote it, and I’ve marketed it everywhere I’ve wanted to. It’s decent and it’s served it’s purpose, but I can do better.

Bread Sacrifice: continue to market, maybe re-read and lightly edit. I’ve only shopped it around to 4 or 5 places. I despair of its chances because it’s not fitting into any standard sci-fi subgenre and it’s pretty dark, but I’m not giving up on it yet.

Greed: re-draft, market. I love the ideas. The character is weak. The ending needs work.

Slice: put in the maybe later bin. It’s not very original. Maybe use the good ideas and character in another story.

Sister: this has a lot of potential, but it needs a better ending and some plot hole paste. Work on this one seriously.

Lost and Found: I love this idea and it has a good character arc, but it needs a better opening and ending. And I need to pick a consistent style. Even though I love the way the writing reflects the character’s decline, I could do it better.

Those are the decisions I’ve made. As well as that, I’ve outlined a “lawyer story” that doesn’t yet have any working title, I’ve been researching the second plague novel book, and I’ve been mentally percolating my airship story/novella/novel/whatever. And doing a lot of reading.

Most of the work will have to wait until I get back from my vacation on the Atlantic Coast, though! I don’t expect to get much writing done next week, but hopefully I’ll do a lot of recharging.

Happy Anniversary To Me

I’ve passed my second-year anniversary of writing regularly, and I’m approaching my first-year anniversary of starting this blog.  While I have been writing stories casually off and on since I was in grade school, I finished writing the first draft of Soul Eater, the first short story that I decided to submit, on June 14, 2013.  I consider that the beginning of my decision to be a “real” writer, instead of just someone that would maybe one day like to try to write something one day.

My writing has improved a lot since then, and writing has become a part of who I am.  There is really something to be said for practice.  I don’t manage to write every single day, but I try to get at least an hour in on the weekdays and a couple hours in on the weekends.  And even when I don’t write, I think about writing, or read about writing, or imagine new plots and new stories.  It’s simply part of my life.

I look back on that first story and I can’t believe that I submitted it.  But I’m glad that I decided to break that barrier and decide to start submitting.  Receiving rejections and getting over them has been very valuable.  The rejections are hard, but they’ve taught me that I can finish things and take rejection and keep on going.  The point isn’t selling something, the point is writing.  I enjoy writing, and if I manage to make some money off of it (or maybe even a living, some day) then that’s fine.  But if I don’t, that’s fine too.  The important thing is that I write.

Trimming

As I’m progressing with my revisions on the plague novel, I’ve found myself deleting a lot of exposition.  Writing the middle chapters, I would sometimes have to write myself into the chapter by explaining what was going on elsewhere in the story.  My schedule was a chapter a week.  This meant that sometimes I would have to sit down and write even though I didn’t really feel like writing.  And despite having an outline, and knowing what was supposed to be happening, I would sometimes find myself with no idea of what to write.  Writing my way into the chapters was a way to at least do some writing.

Most of my writing-in was explanations about what was happening elsewhere in the world, through the perspective of whatever character the chapter belonged to.  Most of these explanations are things that should have stayed in my head and don’t really do anything for the story.  They served a purpose.  But now they’re on their way out.  Much of it isn’t even good enough to make it into my scraps file, though of course I do have the full original unrevised manuscript backed up in case I ever decide for some crazy reason that I’ve deleted something I really need.

I also think for the final draft, which won’t happen until after I get my beta reader feedback, that I will try to do a 10% trimming revision.  I might not make it the full 10%, since I’m already doing a lot of trimming as I’m going along, but I can’t think of any reason not to try to tighten everything up a little further.  When I get around to doing that, I will of course post about how it goes.

Retreat

I can now completely understand why some writers go on retreats or walk through the mountains or stay out in cabins and just… do writing.  There is something profoundly relaxing and not at all stressful about writing while out in nature.  Well, except the part where my pages kept trying to blow away.  I eventually found a rock that solved that problem, though.  The sunburn I had the next day also was not all that wonderful.  Apparently my pale self needs to get outside more.

cabinwriting

One of the upsides about taking my tablet up to my parents’ cabin and doing some writing over Fathers’ Day weekend was that I was almost entirely cut off from distracting things, like easy access to the internet.  One of the downsides was that I’m still easily distracted.  I was just distracted by other things, like my adorable niece, my adorable dog, sunlight, shiny things, trees moving, squirrels, birds, and my parents (also known as those people I was trying to visit).

Overall, I would say that there were more upsides than downsides.  I managed to get the two additional chapters for the plague novel written–a chapter from scratch that I needed to insert to establish a relationship between two characters that it turned out was entirely in my head, and a redraft of a chapter that I could have sworn I wrote but that I couldn’t find in my files anywhere.  That means I should be able to push right along with the rest of the revisions.

I may try this sabbatical thing again, except next time I would like to just go alone, leave the dog with the husband, and try to survive an entire weekend on writing alone.  That could be fun.

Project Breaks

One of the things I have learned writing in my professional life as a legal writer is that sometimes, it’s extremely valuable to set a project aside for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes.  That is what I intend to do with my plague novel whike I have people beta reading it for me. I don’t intend to even open the outline while I am taking a break from that story.

One of the things the human brain does very well is insert information to complete patterns. This is very valuable in many ways, such as making it so that your blind spot is not visible all the time. however, it can also alter your perceptions about what is actually there. It is the phenomenon where, when you come home from a funeral, you see your coffee table out of the corner of your eye and for a moment think somebody has put a coffin there.

It’s the same thing that happens when you are reading your own novel. Your brain thinks about things that are associated with it, and insert them into the story even when they aren’t there. I have definitely noticed this as I have worked on revisions. There are things I thought about writing into the story that did not actually make it in. Sometimes, my brain tricks itself into thinking they are actually there. Because I have been living and breathing this setting and these characters, I am NOT in the best position to assess whether information is missing that would make the story confusing.

I hope that my beta readers are going to be able to tell me if there are any spots where they were confused or unable to follow a thread. But I can’t rely on them entirely. I think I will have a much better and product if I take a break and read the novel with fresh eyes.

Maybe this is just the part of my brain talking that is sick of these characters and the setting. But somehow, I doubt that.

Changing Gears

I’m excited that my plague novel revisions are quickly moving to the point where I can give the manuscript to beta readers, but maybe not for the reasons you would expect. I’m mostly excited that I’ll be able to work on other things while I’m waiting for them to read it and give me feedback.

I have about six short stories in various states of completion that I would really like to get ready to submit. I have two more that are submission-ready, but I haven’t put the time and energy into trying to find somewhere new to submit them after I got my last set of rejections. Every now and then I have to take a break from rejections or I start to get discouraged. Now I have reached the point where I am ready to give it another go. What better time to work on submissions than when I am trying to take a break from my novel?

Fortunately or unfortunately, revising a novel and writing short fiction are entirely different creatures. I am going to have to get my brain back in the mindset for short fiction. Normally how I do this is… reading short fiction. Not only does it get my brain in gear, it lets me know what is currently being read. Not that I write to the market, really, but when I have 200 ideas it helps me to decide which to focus on. So during my novel break, I predict there will be visits to the library and short fiction websites. That will feel a lot less like work then nitpicking over aspects of pacing and character.

I also have a story that has been percolating in my head since November and that I have started working on for my writing group. I only have the first chapter and the vaguest of sketch outlines. At this point, I’m writing myself into that story to see if I would be interested in writing it fully. It’s exciting to have an entirely new project.

Yes.  This is my idea of a writing break: writing other things. If I ever thought for a minute that I could go back to just being a reader, this fact should really set my head straight.