For a year that has been spent mostly indoors, baking various revamped banana breads, quizzing virtually with friends, spurring across sweeping vistas in Red Dead Redemption 2 (I was late to the game, literally) and, of course, writing short stories, time certainly seems to be going fast. Here’s what I’ve been up to recently.
MY SECOND SHORT STORY
The first draft is now finished and I’m super pleased with it. The short story*, which is tentatively titled An Investigation of the Most Sensitive Order, took me nearly three months to write. The current word count is a whopping 47,506 words, a smidgen over the 17,500 words I hope the final draft to be. . .
*Technically it’s a novelette. These days the publishing industry seems to categorise stories as either short stories, novellas and novels.
I had hoped to write AIotMSO in two months. However, I’m in the exceedingly fortunate position to be working at the moment. Along with the unpredictable ebb and flow of good and bad writing days*, it took me some adjustment to balance a thirty-plus hour work week with twenty hours of writing, and that’s not including weekends.
*Fortunately, the good far outweighed the bad.
The word count is far longer than I would like. My target, which I handsomely missed, had been around 34,000 words. Much of the excess is owed to my tendency to rewrite scenes and overwrite others. I’m also a discovery writer. The act of discovering the story through writing leads to excess words and scenes that become redundant or, like my pre-lockdown curls, in need of a good trim. Another 5,000 words came from what I’d written at the end of last year, and I rewrote most of those, too. All in all I’m not too worried about trimming the story. (That’s Future Tom’s worry.)
Despite this, I found writing AIotMSO much easier than my first short story. This also has a tentative title: The Sea of False Stars. Although I had a much clearer idea of AIotMSO from the outset, this ease is largely owed to what I learnt from writing the first short story.
Both stories are written in the first person. I’ve enjoyed putting a facet of myself into each character. As vain as this may sound, it connects me with the character, helps me to understand their view of the world, and aids me with developing them into their own unique selves, which are (hopefully) unrecognisable from myself. I found the character perspective of Mila far more relatable than that of Elmer, which made writing him easier. His facet was my love of dogs.
I have developed a Marmite relationship with word counts. When I was approaching my second month of writing AIotMSO, I decided to stop keeping a daily count. In the past, I’ve found it helps gauge my productivity*. Though I’ve also found it far too tempting to splurge paragraphs destined for the delete button just so I can meet the daily count, or to prevent my sense of achievement from being undermined. However, neither of those reasons are why I stopped keeping count.
*Though this is a grey area. How can you gauge what is more productive, 100 good words or 1000 bad words?
Since establishing a better understanding of story structure, I find it hard to write without thinking in terms of structure. While this has its benefits, it can be distracting. The story not only starts to feel less organic, but I begin to focus more on the word count than the words themselves. The first draft isn’t the time to be worrying about the technical bits and how to best shape the story.
For example, if I know a particular event is going to be the midpoint* of the story and I’ve not reached it by 10,000 words (or, in the more likely case, 20,000 words) I begin to despair. I worry, among other things, that I’m overwriting (which I probably am). This can stop the flow of writing and, before I know it, I’m being dragged into the mental whirlpool that is self-doubt.
*The midpoint is 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.
Going blind on the word count allowed me to focus better on the story. I ended up writing over 20,000 words in the last five weeks, and they felt like the most productive out of the almost-three months.
Having said that, I’ve learnt that writing the first half of the story is usually the uphill stretch of the mountain trek and the second half is the easier homeward descent. I start off slow and cautious. It’s when I near the halfway mark that I find I’ve gained enough confidence in the story and the characters that I can tread with surer, quicker steps towards the finish.
My current view is AIotMSO will be the short story I submit to The Writers of the Future contest—once it’s been redrafted numerous times, of course. Having read Volume 34 at the start of the year (I’m still yet to read Volumes 35 and 36), I believe it’s a better fit for the intended readership than TSoFS. I also think it’s the stronger of the two stories. This may change, especially once I’ve drafted them both and handed them out to my alpha readers and received feedback.
AIotMSO will also be the story that will start my short story collection.
THE COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES
I say ‘collection of short stories’, but I really mean ‘novel’. Or, as I like to think of it, ‘a collection of short stories disguised as a novel’, since some readers turn their noses up unfairly at short stories. Having almost exclusively read short stories for the past seven months, I really can’t understand why.
Before I began writing these short stories, my intention had been to submit them to The Writers of the Future contest. But my hope had been to write enough for a collection that I would try to get published. I hoped each individual, complete story could be slotted together to tell an overall story, like Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, or The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, or The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.
In the past couple of months, I’ve decided that I will write a novel/collection that is going to be structured around a what-if situation: What if aliens invaded a fantasy world? The plan is for the novel/collection of stories to focus on the event and the immediate aftermath, with each story telling a different phase and from a different perspective. Events from one story will affect those of another, characters will pop up across stories, and so on.
I am currently loving this idea. I believe the concept is much stronger than the novel I was originally writing (which is set twenty years after the event). When I first hoped this novel/collection would be a possibility, I thought I’d need a minimum of six stories and had a rough idea for about half of them.
I now have ideas for over twenty short stories.
The more short stories I write, the more ideas I get for others. My idea for the overall collection also becomes clearer. I even hope (and intend) for the novel/collection to be the first in a trilogy, which would tell an overarching story. Though I’m probably getting ahead of myself… Either way, the novel I was originally working on would appear later on in the series.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH WRITING
Writing short stories has reignited my confidence, passion and motivation for writing. I haven’t felt this good about my writing since I first began almost four years ago. I’m enjoying everything about it, from coming up with new ideas to sitting down and actually writing. Working late nights and weekends has become much less of a struggle. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I could get to where I want to go. (Writing this almost feels like I’m begging the universe to sabotage me. Please don’t, universe.)
I’m proud to have gotten myself to this point. At the start of the year, I was in a very different place with my writing (by ‘different’ I mean ‘worse’) and it’s taken a lot of hard work and determination to get here.
I don’t always recognise the good work I do. Often I’m too hard on myself. So it’s nice to look back and see how far I’ve come. I hope I can keep on going.
With the first draft of AIotMSO written, I will set it aside for at least six weeks before returning to draft it. In that time I will draft TSoFS, which I’ve not looked at it since finishing the first draft.
I’m not sure how long this will take—three weeks, maybe longer—but afterwards I will write the third short story. There are two I would like to begin next. The first is a shorter ‘bridge’ story that connects AIotMSO with the short story afterwards. The second is that short story. However, I’ve yet to decide. I might choose to write them chronologically, or in the order in which I’m keenest (or most confident) to write them.
I was very tempted not to redraft TSoFS and to continue with the next short story. Part of me is apprehensive about redrafting TSoFS, since it was redrafting the unfinished manuscript of my original novel that crippled my confidence and heaped me with self-doubt.
Although TSoFS is part of a larger manuscript, it is a complete story on its own. I therefore feel it’s appropriate to draft it. If I hope to keep on going, then I need to ensure I overcome my past failings and not let myself fall into despair.
I learnt a lot about writing the first draft of TSoFS and I expect to learn a lot from drafting it. Even if I don’t submit TSoFS to The Writers of the Future contest, drafting TSoFS before AIotMSO may help continue to strengthen it. It will also give me two short stories to choose from—I might later decide TSoFS is in fact the stronger of the two!
I’m also expecting the drafting process to strengthen my writing process. I’m hoping it will help me to reduce the lengths of my first drafts, or to at least understand what makes a stronger first draft.
Once I’ve drafted TSoFS I may wait and give it another lighter draft before sending it out to my alpha readers. I’m excited (and apprehensive) for friends and family to finally read something I’ve been working on.
[Dad, Cassie and Emily on our first socially distanced walk in over three months. Wonderful, windy and surreal!]