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.
What I have recently discovered about working on a single writing project for a long period is that it’s really difficult to just jump right in to a new project. I even have something that I briefly worked on for a new writing group that is already started. I’m having three major problems right now: 1) letting the plague novel go, 2) finding the motivation to do something new, and 3) the “shoulds.”
First, letting the plague novel go is the most major of the major problems. My natural inclination is to finish the project that I started. While I have practiced multitasking, which is necessary in my day job, it’s just not the way I’m wired. I know that getting the plague novel out of my head before I pick it back up will be good for me. Stephen King said so, and I practiced it with short stories and found it to be true. Coming back to something with fresh eyes just helps. That doesn’t make it easy to tell my brain to stop making improvements as I get feedback on, though.
Second, I pushed really hard on my second revision (the putting the hand-written revisions in the computer revision), and the result is burn out. I don’t want to write. Compounded with only wanting to write on the plague novel, this is a serious issue.
And third, none of the things that I “should” do are appealing. I should fix up some of my old short stories and try to sell them again now that I have more practice, I should work on the story that I wrote the first chapter of and do important things like outline it and scrap the first chapter because it’s cool but it sets the wrong tone for the rest of the story, I should list some other ideas and find one that appeals to me, etc. etc. I know what I should do. I just don’t want to do it.
Leaving me in a quandary. In know that the solution is to just sit down and write. But I don’t want to. It’s writers’ block to the Nth degree. But if I can’t get through this, I can’t be a writer.
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.
As I have previously mentioned, I keep a file with story ideas in it. There are probably enough ideas in that file for thirty stories, and I just keep on adding to it. Some of my ideas aren’t particularly original, but that doesn’t really matter. They all go into the file.
I have a couple of reasons why I’m not very discerning about what goes into the file. First, pretty much every idea has already been written about by someone somewhere. Second, I think it’s the way the ideas combine that are interesting, not necessarily this idea or that idea. So I’m not too concerned about whether every idea in my ideas file is original or not. They all have potential.
When I was a child, I did not understand how authors come up with ideas. Now I’ve realized that it’s just about looking at the world around you and trying to find the stories in it. The ideas are going to constantly be there. In one way, that’s reassuring. But in another way, it means that I am never going to be able to write all of the stories that I want to write. There are just too many of them. This is probably a good problem to have, as a writer.
I don’t understand or sympathize with people that claim that they can’t come up with any ideas for stories. My problem is usually that I have too many ideas, not too few. That’s the main reason why I never finished anything when I was a teen and in my early twenties. I used to get a flashy new idea and then put down whatever I was working on to start immediately working on the new idea that I was excited about.
One way that I’ve grown as a writer is that I no longer do that. As I’ve been working on revising my plague novel, ideas about other things to write keep popping into my head. Usually these are just disparate ideas–a plot point or a setting point or a character that really doesn’t have anything attached to it. I have a big Word document for these ideas where I just throw them until a couple of them stick to each other and turn into a story idea. A lot of these ideas happen when I’m driving and now that I have a phone I can control with voice commands, I can voice-to-text my ideas down for me so that I can put them into my file later.
In November, an idea that I had when I was driving coalesced around an idea that I had when I was sitting in the woods waiting for some deer to happen by. I got very excited about it, but it has nothing to do with my plague novel. It’s a completely different story in a completely different setting. I’m very excited about it. But for now, I need to see the plague novel through to the end. I need to finish my plague novel and then I can turn this new idea into something amazing and wonderful.
I wrote this with my thumbs in a tree stand while the deer weren’t biting. It’s less of a story, and more the kernel of a story, but I’m posting it here (in all its raw glory) because I don’t want to lose it. This is the kind of stuff that happens in my head when I’m sitting quietly in the woods.
We walk side by side through the ankle deep ash of the ruined city.
“We could have ruled here together,” Mishia says. Her resonant voice mourns the destruction. Her angelic face is a lie. I think her regret is as well.
I gesture to the blasted stone houses, the taupe colored sky from which ash falls like snow. “This says otherwise.”
“It could have been glorious.”
“Whenever we touch, we spread death.”
The ash we stir as we pass does not mar my white dress, her pale bare feet. My dress is as much a lie as her childlike features. If not more.
“It doesn’t always have to be so,” she says.
“It does.” I sound resigned.
The silence of the place envelopes us . That, at least, is real.
We go to the center, the temple where it all began, where plastered stairs rose toward the sky. They had been white once. Now they are the color of fear and death. There is only one brightness left in this world.
In the heart of our temple, the orb is still the color of flame and blood, the sound of childrens screams, the texture of new murder, at least to my eyes. I am beginning to fear that I will never know what Mishia sees. I can see in her eyes that it is something else, something joyous. It lies as much to us as we lie to each other, I think.
“Shall we try again?” Mishia reaches for the orb in her excitement, but looks to me before she touches it.
“We might as well,” I say.
This, at least, we do together. When we touch the orb, everything is destroyed, and everything is remade.
Anyway, consider that my apology for letting the holiday season get in the way of my posting schedule.