As the title suggests, I discovered more than five things writing the first draft of my short story. No, I didn’t discover these later on. As with the original intention for the Hobbit films, it made sense to split the post in two.
1. PLANNING SHOULD BE ORGANIC
“No matter how much planning you do beforehand, it is in the writing itself that you work out character, theme and plot.”
—Scarlett Thomas, Monkeys With Typewriters
Although I discovery-wrote my way through the first draft of my short story, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do any planning.
Just like with writing, planning should be organic. A plan should develop naturally, gradually, alongside the writing, with one always influencing the other. A plan shouldn’t be treated as a static set of instructs that must be adhered to—this is something I have come to feel very strongly about.
For me, a plan is little more than (dis)ordered notes. Others might not consider this a plan, more a scant list of ingredients for a recipe for disaster. Either way, note-taking is the basis of my planning.
The idea behind this short story (which I talked about in more depth in a previous post) came from a handful of vague scenes that sprang to mind midway through an Alter Bridge concert at the O2. What turned into hastily thumbed notes on my phone became slightly padded out in a Google Doc a few weeks later. This contained things like possible characters, possible plot points, possible scenes, possible settings. (No more than a few for each.) All the possibilities I might explore when I came to write—if I came to write (this remained a strong possibility for those weeks).
When I did start writing, what I followed most was that sense of where the story might go. I treated my notes like thoughts you keep in the back of your mind. It was through discovery writing that I learnt where those initial scenes lead to and, eventually, what the story was about—though I only truly learnt that once I had written the ending.
My notes snowballed the more I wrote. I recorded everything from ideas of what I could include (and a lot of contradictions about what that might be) to changes to make for what I’d so far written and was yet to write (if a character suddenly swapped age, gender or attitude, or all three, then I would continue writing as if I’d already made the corrections—the aim with the first draft is to move the story forward, not backward, and it’s easier to make these changes once I’ve reached the end, especially as I will only gain more changes like them in getting there).
By the end of the first draft the notes totalled almost 23,000 words, nearly half the total word count of the first draft. (I continue to add to them while I leave the draft well alone, though I have yet to come up with the title.) But there’s no way I could have made those notes without that draft. If I’d had almost 23,000 words of notes beforehand they would’ve looked very different (certainly much better ordered), as would the story that would have evolved from them. Though that story wouldn’t have been as good—and that’s if I could even write it. In fact, I’m certain of what would have happened…
2. TOO MUCH PLANNING CAN BE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
“I try to plot as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”
—Stephen King, On Writing
During the first draft I became stuck twice. In truth, I became stuck more than this, though those other occasions were much easier to overcome. The first sticking point was near the middle, the second was towards the end.
When I became stuck near the middle I gave myself the weekend off from writing so I could think the story over, both consciously and unconsciously. It also gave me enough time to hope I would become miraculously unstuck. This has happened before. All it takes is a single thought, as sudden as the small stone that wakes the avalanche.
There was no avalanche this time, however.
So on Monday morning I sat down with a pen and pad of paper, and I tried to plot out the remaining story. I drew a fish bone timeline, with scenes and plot points sprouting in the place of the bones. I worked out the following:
- The midpoint. The point in the story (which, as you may have guessed, happens at the halfway mark) where the hero goes from response to attack, or where new knowledge or change is imparted.
e.g. Frodo decides to take The Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it; Luke Skywalker and his friends aboard the Millennium Falcon discover the Death Star; Bond goes all in during the high stakes poker game, believing Le Chiffre is bluffing, only to lose everything.
- The second pinch point. The moment in the story when there is an increased risk or threat, or something major goes wrong.
e.g. Gandalf defeats the Balrog at the cost of his own life; Obi-wan allows Darth Vader to strike him down; Bond and Vesper are captured and tortured by Le Chiffre.
- The second plot point. This is the final confrontation in the story.
e.g. Frodo decides to leave the Fellowship, which is then broken during the battle of Amon Hen; the Rebels attempt an assault on the Death Star; Bond escapes to Venice with Vesper, only to discover the truth about her.
- All the scenes connecting them together.
By midday I was unstuck. The plan had renewed my confidence and I was energised! Now that I knew what would happen in the second half of the story, writing it would be easy—after all, I had done the hard part.
I drove home from my parents’ house in the early afternoon to resume writing. Two hours later and still fuelled by the morning’s achievement, I folded into my chair, opened my laptop, set my handwritten outline beside me, and struggled with writing for the rest of the day.
Then I struggled all week.
Instead of gaining a better grasp of my story, the plan had made me lose my grip on it altogether. The plot outline was so firmly set in my mind that it was suffocating.
On Saturday, frustrated by the results of the last four days, I set the plan aside. According to my handwritten timeline, my trio of characters were about to flee the abandoned city of Trispire, pursued by unknown assailants, and hurtle towards the second pinch point. Instead I decided to focus on something I hadn’t planned at all, let alone considered: a description of Trispire.
I looked at how Patrick Rothfuss described the city of Severen in A Wise Man’s Fear to help kindle my own imagination. Then I wrote ponderously, taking care to build up my confidence and the city, one imaginary brick at a time.
I didn’t write pages and pages. By the end of the writing day (a much-shorter-than-usual writing day), I had several paragraphs of passable writing. I gave myself the rest of the weekend off and went back to these on the following Monday. After tweaking some of the sentences, I continued with the description.
At this point in the story, my characters were approaching Trispire by river. I decided to let them ashore and explore the city further. This gave me a realisation, the small stone that wakes the avalanche. (See, it does happen.)
Planning the second half of my story almost killed it. The plot outline said for my trio of characters to sweep through the city and rush into the raised stakes of the next scene. However, by taking the time to describe the city and by allowing my characters to explore its silent streets, I understood my mistake had been in trying to force them to leave the city before they were ready to.
By having the characters explore Trispire, I was able to build suspense and raise further narrative questions by having them wander (and wonder) through the abandoned city. This is a huge event in my story, one my protagonist has only become aware of. I couldn’t skip over it because the plot demanded it. She would be too curious.
I was too curious, as reader and writer.
By trying to surprise the reader in me, I let my protagonist ask the questions the reader would ask (and, of course, not reveal the answers to them). I drew attention to small details that I hand’t—and couldn’t have—planned. These details first enriched the world, then propelled the story forward.
I discarded the plan for the rest of the story and relied upon discovery writing to get me to the end. I arrived at each new scene naturally, which is something a plot outline obliterates for me, and was able to write the type of story I wanted to tell.
When I came stuck towards the end, I took a short pause in my writing to jot down some notes by hand. Mostly questions to myself and reminders of what needed tying up. I didn’t dare think in terms of plot. I did this mostly in the hope of loosening some thoughts that would be freed by the act of writing, though part of me wonders if I should have just continued on writing.
3. DON’T FORCE IDEAS
“Be ready to revise anything at all. Nothing should be set in stone. You’re looking for a feeling of ‘Yes! That feels right.’”
—Harry Bingham, How To Write
The ending you have in mind, no matter how great, might not be the ending your story needs. As I neared the end of my first draft, I remembered something the god of discovery writing, Stephen King, said (probably in On Writing) about the process behind writing Misery. King had an idea early on for how his novel would end but when he came to writing the ending it turned out quite different (and, in my opinion, much better).
Writing towards an ending can (sometimes) make writing a lot easier. It gives you something to build towards and can help you feel like you’re being pointed in the right direction. But, as we all know, feelings can be misleading.
Keeping what King said in mind helped me with writing my own ending. I suspect through the process of writing King discovered that his original ending no longer fit the story he had written. No matter how thorough a planner you are, you will discover new ideas through your writing. If the ideas you had before you started (and even those you had soon after) change and develop with the more words you amass, then how can that original ending possibly stay the same?
As for me, I ended up writing the wrong ending in order to work out the right one.
But this doesn’t only apply to endings (though they are, perhaps, the biggest culprits). No idea should be forced. Ideas are meant to evolve. Some ideas are meant to be used in the same way that others are meant to be discarded. Not all of them are good, while others lead you onto those that are. Sometimes an idea just isn’t right.
That’s what the first draft is for. The act of writing allows you to sieve through the quality of your ideas, separating the bad from the good. (The second draft is for turning the good into the great.)
It’s why I believe all plans should be organic. Fixed ideas can be misleading. They are like signposts with arms pointed in the opposite direction. It’s why I find plots to be dangerous: if a scene is already written down you feel more committed to it. It’s why I try to keep my notes in the back of my mind, so I can reserve the front for what’s happening on the page I’m currently working on.
The way I tell the difference between an idea that is working and one that isn’t is by feeling. I know. Feelings can be misleading. It’s part of what makes writing a story so damn tricky. But if I’m finding writing particularly difficult (there can be a number of reasons behind this, thus adding to the trickiness) and it doesn’t feel quite right, if it feels stiff and unnatural, I’ve learnt to listen to this.
It means something isn’t working.
To move beyond this I might stop to think about why something doesn’t feel right and how I might fix it, though this can be hard as my awareness is on a level beyond the need for words. (I don’t know if I have gained enough experience yet to call it intuition.) Often I try writing a different scene, or changing something pivotal about the one that isn’t working, or focusing on a description for a character or setting. There’s no sure way of working it out, other than remaining flexible and to keep on writing.
4. HOW FINITE THE WORD COUNT REALLY IS
“You have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture the editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story.”
—Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles, & Ends
While this may be the most obvious lesson, writing a short story isn’t about writing shorter. A short story still has to tick a lot of the same boxes a novel does.
It didn’t take me long to realise every word, sentence, paragraph and scene needs to be vital to the story. While that’s the same for a novel, a thousand words of a novel doesn’t have to achieve as much as a thousand words of a short story. From character development to scene progression to managing information, everything needs to be more concise.
I’m certain this awareness influenced my decision to plot out the second half of my story. I was trying to be more precise with the scenes I would write, forgetting that a first draft isn’t about precision. But this mistake allowed me to understand that writing what you don’t need in order to discover what you do can mean the same as writing the scenes you don’t need in order to discover those you do.
I expect my awareness of economy will deepen throughout the drafting process. The word count for the final draft of my short story is intended to be around 17,000 words, since my aim is to submit it to the Writers of the Future contest and that is the maximum length of submission.
The final word count of the first draft is 41,000 words(!). When it comes to redrafting, I’ll need to remove more words (24,000) than I will keep. I’m confident I can do this. A lot of the excess words comes from scenes that are written multiple times, or scenes that I know (now that I’ve finished the story) can be shortened, combined or removed. I also have the tendency to over-describe. Fortunately, my editorial eye is much more surgical.
I intend to redraft the story three or four times and I expect the word count will reduce each time, as opposed to a single straight leap. (There’s always the possibility that my story is destined to be longer, though I’ll find this out through drafting.)
The bloated word count wasn’t a surprise. I’m aware I overwrite during a first draft—a first draft is meant to be overwritten; it gives you more to tinker with—but one of the reasons I wanted to write short stories was in the hope of reducing the amount I overwrite by (if possible).
By writing more short stories, I hope to learn what is (and isn’t) needed in a first draft. That may mean learning to write them more quickly. This will help me when I return to tackling the vastly longer word count of my epic novel, which has an expected final word count of 180,000—200,000 words.
5. LISTENING TO MUSIC
“I like to have music on playing softly in the background. For each project or scene, I’ll create a new playlist to get me in the right mood.”
All my writing life, from handwritten stories about my hamster Candyfloss to school assignments, then university assignments, to working on my novel, I’ve always worked in absolute silence. I’m talking a graveyard hush, the ear-aching vacuum of a library. However, during the first few weeks of writing the first draft I found that I benefited from listening to music on a low volume.
It was rather fitting, considering my go-to playlist consisted mostly of songs by Alter Bridge and Shinedown, the two bands I saw at the O2 when the idea for the short story first came to me. No other playlist seemed to work so well.
I can’t remember what brought this change on. I may have unconsciously stolen the idea from Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive playlist on Spotify. Though I suspect it was an attempt to help me relax, to make the silence less severe, the task ahead seem less daunting. When I became fully immersed in the writing I no longer heard what was playing; it was as if I was working in silence again.
In the past I’ve relied on a good night’s sleep, reading and exercise to help me find a good headspace for writing. This first draft helped me find another. I’m not surprised I stopped listening to music after a few weeks, once I’d found my confidence in the story, my own melody.
[Emily, Monty and I enjoying a lockdown walk in Chidham—and missing Cassie’s company, of course!]