The idea for my first short story came to me in December, during an Alter Bridge concert at the O2 that I was attending with my dad and a close friend. A weird time for inspiration to strike, I know.
Ghost of Days Gone By had just started pummelling my eardrums when, out of nowhere, an image coloured my mind: a middle-aged woman driving a steamer (my fantasy version of a traction engine) towards the edge of a cliff, the world blurred by tears and alcohol. I even had an opening line:
The world was a rainy windowpane blur, and for two very good reasons.
I began to wonder why this unnamed woman was trying to deliberately end her own life. Obviously, I couldn’t let her succeed. Otherwise that would be a very short, and likely unpublishable, story. Before the song had finished, two or three loosely sketched scenes had followed, along with the basis for a short story.
It was the weekend before Christmas and both my brothers and their wives were home from Sydney and Texas respectively. Over the next week my time to write would be non-existent. Yet the scene of the middle-aged woman hurtling towards the cliff edge stayed with me.
I didn’t know what would happen after those vague initial scenes. All I had was a character and an inciting incident. (The moment when an event, usually conflict or an opportunity, propels the protagonist into the main action of the story, e.g. Frodo inherits The Ring from Bilbo and leaves The Shire; Luke Skywalker hears R2-D2’s message recorded by Princess Leia, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”; Bond is sent to the Casino Royale in Montenegro to win a high stakes poker game.)
But I liked that I didn’t know what would happen next. It made me want to find out.
While the scenes were still fresh (or a week stale, depending on your view) I decided I would develop them into my first short story. I had been considering another more fleshed out story idea to begin with; I even had a rough 2,000 words to get me started. But I worried that if I didn’t follow those vague initial scenes soon then I would lose them and never be able to catch up with them.
What I had was less than an idea for a short story. It was more of a feeling for one.
This short story, I also decided, would therefore be a bit of an experiment. Considering how the seed for this story had germinated, it seemed rather fitting: I would forgo a plan and instead choose to discovery write, to see where the story would take me.
After all, the decision to attempt these short stories was based on a three-pronged approach, the tip of the first prong being to discover who I was as a writer.
HOW I GOT ON
Following the Christmas break and the traditional gluttony of excessive sugar consumption, I—excuse the pun—went cold turkey by cutting out all sugar for the next fortnight. I took the opposite approach with my writing, instead choosing to ease myself into the short story.
I wrote slowly and paid little attention to how long (rather: short) I was writing for. I took time to build the new world around me. (While the short story is set in the same world as my novel, the setting is completely different. It is a new, unexplored country.)
I thought carefully about my unnamed character. I gave her a name. Elmer. I worked out what Elmer wanted and what was stopping her from having it. I discovered the cause of her grief. I thought about the deepest loss I have experienced and how I felt at the time, then asked myself what I would have been least capable of doing in that state of mind. Vulnerable and barely able to look after herself, the last thing Elmer would want would be to care for someone more vulnerable than herself. I forced her into that situation. I gave Elmer a reason to live, to tell her story.
I returned to that first sentence, again and again, until I had shaped it into something more to my liking:
The world was a blur, oozing globes of oil paint scraped over canvas by some unseen creator. There were three reasons for this, none good.
I obsessed over the image, the words. Did across sound better than over? Was the oil paint in globes or pearls or streams? Would it be better to instead have fingers raked through oils fresh on the canvas? Or should I return to the image of the windowpane? (These are the kind of debates, decisions and changes I like to remind myself a reader isn’t aware of when reading a book, the effort that goes into producing the final print. If you forget this as an aspiring writer, it’s easy to feel despair at your own work when you read something that’s so well written. You think I can’t do this! forgetting your own work is still in progress.)
[If you would like to know how I settled on this opening: I thought the image should focus on the oil paint, not the fingers; that globes was a nice echo of the world, especially as Elmer’s private world and, although she’s currently unaware, the wider world has been destroyed; Elmer has recently lost someone she loves, an artist, and can’t stop thinking about her, therefore she is seeing the world through a lens where everything reminds her of this loss, hence the image of oil paints and the mention of an unseen creator (though this could also suggest her lack of faith, which becomes an important part of the story); a rainy windowpane also seemed a bit too easy, even clichéd, for an image of sadness; as for the debate over across versus over, I’m still having it.]
From there I moved on (and returned, regularly), using those initial vague scenes to guide me as I discovered more about Elmer’s character and the story she had to tell.
I may have moved more slowly than I should have, perhaps (read: definitely) pondering on the quality of my prose for too long. Though I suspected I needed to do that, to let my thoughts percolate, to understand Elmer’s voice, to find confidence within the story before I could follow it any further.
Eventually I began to write for longer, then faster. I used the details I had taken time to add to propel me forward. (That’s how I decided the person she had lost was an artist; it wasn’t planned, it just came out of the opening image.) Perhaps it was because I was writing something new, but writing seemed to be going a lot better than it had done towards the end of last year.
After a couple of weeks I was pleased with what I had written but disappointed with how much I had written. So I set myself a deadline to reach 17,000 words. (That is the maximum word length for entries into the Writers of the Future contest.)
I both exceeded and missed this deadline. How, you ask?
Well, come the deadline I had achieved 17,936 words but only half the short story. How, you ask?
Well, this was a problem that had been niggling me with the novel. But I will come that in a moment.
I was hoping to say in this post that I had finished my first short story. But the best-laid plans… So I set myself another deadline with a final word count of no more than 34,000 words. I reasoned I may need another 17,000 to finish the story. (In retrospect, I probably should have aimed for the low 20,000s with my first deadline, in order to allow for cuts during later edits.)
That’s the only thing I could do*, along with one other thing. As it would turn out that one other thing was a mistake.
*I could be disappointed but a) what would that achieve? and b) it was hard to be disappointed when I had achieved what I had set myself.
One of the things that had been niggling me—growing from a snuffling within the walls to a nip on my ear—as I was writing the novel was that I seem to write twice the amount of words I need. Come deadline day for my short story and I was presented with exactly the same issue.
Since I had written the short story by discovery writing, this wasn’t too surprising. One of the drawbacks of discovery writing is generating a large amount of redundant words. However, for me at least, the redundant words help me to discover (hence the term) the words that make the story.
As with light and shadow, Jedi and Sith, good writing days and bad writing days, job-hunting and despair, you can’t have one without the other.
Here’s an example: I became interested in the steamer Elmer was driving. I wanted to know exactly what type of steamer it was. I don’t just mean the colour of its metalwork. I mean its age, the model (and if it’s popular), its history, and so on. If Elmer were driving a car, there would be a huge difference if it was an old, cratered banger held together by rust and black tape or a sleek Aston Martin, fresh from the factory, the kind James Bond would drive (and destroy). Within a paragraph of exploring the steamer’s history, I discovered:
- The model was a Puffing Rudnick.
- This particular Puffing Rudnick was number thirty-two in a seventy-five production run, as indicated by the metal plate bolted below the pressure gauge.
- It used to belong to Elmer’s father.
- Elmer refers to the steamer fondly as the “old gal“, even though Rudnick is a male-given name (“Only a fool would trust a male to take them in the right direction“).
- The Puffing Rudnick was ordered as part of the celebration of a queen, with one steamer built for every year of her reign.
- The Crimson Quarrels made the Puffing Rudnick arguably the most popular model of steamer ever made when they were used to break the siege of Trispire and hunt down the surviving maunder pirates. (Pirates that roam the land on steamers, plundering isolated towns and villages. Until I discovered this fact, I didn’t know maunder pirates even existed in my world.)
- Apart from a few dents, Elmer’s old gal is in good condition. Combining this with the above, it puts the steamer’s price at an unfathomable amount of money.
If it wasn’t for this paragraph then Trispire wouldn’t have later become the location Elmer was trying to get to and the maunder pirates wouldn’t have become the antagonists trying to prevent her from getting there. That means they wouldn’t have appeared at the first pinch point. (The moment in the story when the central drama or conflict flares into life, e.g. the four hobbits arrive in Bree, only to discover Gandalf isn’t there and the mysterious Strider waiting instead; Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, and escape Tatooine on the Millennium Falcon; a break in the high stakes poker game leads to Bond fighting two terrorists who he spots (or, should I say, spies) leaving Le Chiffre’s hotel room.)
I don’t yet know if any or all of those details will survive the next draft of the short story. However, had I not written them, I wouldn’t have ended up writing the story I did. Had I planned the story beforehand, I’m certain the maunder pirates wouldn’t have appeared. In fact, I’m certain I wouldn’t be aware of their roaming, plundering existence.
When I put it like that, redundant words shouldn’t niggle me. Ed McDonald, the author of The Raven’s Mark series, has admitted he writes in this uneconomical way. And I’m sure there are plenty of other professional writers just like him. Yet I still found it frustrating. It’s not because I then have to remove more words when drafting (I enjoy being ruthless, carving my burly trunk to find the sculpture within) but rather I have to spend twice the amount of time writing them.
For a short story, that might mean an extra few weeks. But for my novel with its expected final draft word count of 180 to 200,000 words…? (And thus the dreaded question echoes: How far are you now with the book?…book?…book?)
You can understand why I might want to fix this niggle with a short story, before applying what I learnt to the novel. But it was in trying to fix this niggle that I made my mistake.
I tried to plan the rest of the short story.
Having written the beginning (and already worked out how to reshape it in the next draft) I thought I could work out the end. From quite early on I’d had a vague idea of what might happen to Elmer. So I sat down the next morning, pen in hand, and scribbled out the second half of my short story, forcing those vague ideas into focus and trapping them in blue ink. It only took me a few hours. It even felt good.
But when I sat down the next day to write it was a struggle.
At first I thought it was just one of those days. An Off Day, as it were. When the ability to write has left me and I am left feeling like a falconer searching the low cloud for the return of his peregrine falcon.
It was the same for the rest of the week. The peregrine wouldn’t answer my call. As I said above, you can’t have the good writing days without the bad writing days. Good or bad, it’s not uncommon to have them group together. But I’ve learnt from experience that a week’s worth of Off Days can indicate something underlying might be wrong.
Come Saturday, I sat down to write a short description of Trispire, something which I hadn’t yet planned. An hour in and the peregrine seemed to find her way back to me, fresh words clenched in her claws. I wasn’t surprised, not after how the story had first come to me.
WHAT I HAVE DISCOVERED ABOUT MYSELF AS A WRITER
This made me realise I work best when I have a rough idea of the story and where it is going—or could go. I like to unearth the fossil, brushstroke by brushstroke, instead of seeing it restored and exhibited beside wall-mounted facts.
Knowing potential future plot points is helpful, but actually plotting to get to them isn’t. I like to know just enough to guide me along but not too much that it leads me by the hand. Intermittent signposts, not the continuous narration of a Sat Nav.
If I know beforehand that my character needs to get from A to B, I leave the how she gets there until I turn up to the blank page. I enjoy discovering what happens, bringing those vague ideas into focus, as I write them. It’s the thrill of being the very first reader.
I understood the only way to fix my niggle was to accept it and to be patient.
Between the story’s conception and writing to its middle (and, except for the added words/time, being happy with the result) I hadn’t forced anything, so why should getting to the end be any different?
My writing process during the first draft might be unproductive in terms of the amount of words used in relation to the amount of story told, but that process is far more productive than when I write following a plan. Those additional, destined-for-the-cross-through words achieve what a plan can’t: they help me find the story, including the words to tell it.
Perhaps this is something I will improve on once I have more experience of writing stories, short and novel-length. For now I have accepted this isn’t just a part but a crucial part of my writing process. At least if I know I can write a short story in this way then I know a novel will be no different. (He says…)
It could be worse. I could be producing three times the amount of words. And twice the amount of words is far better than no words at all.
Once I have reached my new deadline of 34,000 words I will move on to the next short story. This will allow my thoughts for improvements to bubble away in the back of my mind. It will also give me the time I need to grow less attached to the story and, more importantly, the words telling it. When I return to draft it, I can have a fresh mind and a more surgical eye.
I wouldn’t gain much by giving it to alpha readers before then. They will notice things I’m already aware of: dangling plot lines, redundant scenes, missing characters, and so on. I need the alpha readers to tell me the things I’m unaware of: my main character is unlikable, how she resolves a certain issue is unrealistic, her relationship with another character is unclear, and so on.
For the alpha readers to be able to do that, the story needs to be cleaned up first. I don’t want to hand them a perfect draft. (There would be little point asking for advice if I thought the short story was finished; I would also find the advice much harder to listen to. It is much better to hand over a draft containing my own uncertainties and questions in order to see what others think of them, then I can make improvements.) But some changes will need to be made.
Scenes will need to be re-written, even added. The structure will need to be reshaped, tightened. The words will need to be reduced (if someone is kind enough to give up their time to help me I don’t want to take up more than is necessary). The list goes on.
Though I can’t do any of that until I have all the words in place. Or twice the amount.
[I suppose this photo of the four of us (from left: Adam, Becky, Emily, me) doesn’t relate much to the post, unless I was to make the comparison between solving an escape room in the allotted time and writing the first draft of a short story to a deadline…]