Writing Report August 31, 2016

Recently I’ve been asked by several people (at Nerd Con and on Knowing Is Half The Podcast and other places) how I write my stories. Good question.

Excellent question.

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Wish I had a fnckin’ clue…

Truth is, I’ve used every imaginable system / non-system in / on / outside of the book.[1] I’ve spent weeks carefully detailing a plot outline, I’ve whipped stuff up on the fly without any idea where I was going or what I’d find when I got there.

Generally, for any length work I need some idea of what my story is, where it starts, and where it’s going.[2]

For novels and longer stories I need to have at least the basic story arc in my head, who the main characters are, etc., etc., and of course, etc. It doesn’t have to be written out but I do need to know what the story is.[3]

I typically do a lot of polishing and rewriting on my lengthier stories. I’ll print up the first draft on 3-hole punch paper and stick it in a notebook along with several pages of lined school notebook paper, then wait 4 to 6 weeks before looking at it again.[4]

I do my rewriting and copyediting in red ink; extensive rewrites / new scenes / etc. are written on the lined notebook paper and dropped into the printed text where appropriate. I then enter those corrections & changes into my master text (actually, into a copy of the master text; never overwrite or throw anything away) and, depending on how I feel about the manuscript & story at that point, either print up yet another copy and repeat the process or do my final copy edit by reading the manuscript sdrawkcab.

Yes, you read that right: Sdrawkcab.

It’s an old editing trick taught to me by a tricky old editor: It forces you to look at everything word-by-word and helps you catch errors.

Assuming everything passes the smell test, I prep it for submission (if I’m sending it to a magazine or publisher) or e-book sale.

That’s for long form.

For short form -- particularly those short-short stories & quasi-poems I refer to as “fictoids” or to poetry itself -- the process starts the same but generally tends to be much, much more streamlined.

This is because I find the virtue of short stories and fictoids and poems to be their quick “get in / get out / quit muckin’ about” impact.

Few things annoy me more than a three thousand word short story that tells a story that could have been delivered in 800 words or less. It’s just padding, and padding is something I hate.

As with longer forms, I need to know what my story is, where I’m going with it, etc., but as a rough rule of thumb, once I have the opening and closing lines of a short story, everything else falls into place between them.[5]

I do very little rewriting of short works.[6] Once the idea is locked then it’s just a matter of conveying it in as streamlined a manner as possible.

How long does it take to write a story? A waitress once saw animation artist Wendell Washer doodling a cartoon of me as a story telling bear and asked him, “How long does it take to draw a sketch like that?”

“Forty years,” was Wendell’s reply.

His point being that it’s all your experience of your lifetime up to that point that makes any drawing or story or creative work possible.

But from concept to execution, well, that can go pretty fast.

Case in point: Last week I was shopping with my wife at the Nordstrom’s in Topanga Mall.[7]

Suddenly, and with no preamble or spur to my imagination, the following line popped into me widdle head:

“He was 19 years old when he killed his first German.”

Hmmm, sez I to meself. That’s nice. Sums up the gist of the story right up front even though I have no idea where that story may take me.

I jotted the opening line down on the phone and went back to browsing, intending to pursue the matter further when I got home that evening.

45 minutes later my wife was finished. I told her I needed to use the restroom and went into the gents’ facility.

While there the closing line of the story popped into said widdle head[8] and instantly the whole story laid itself out for me.

I mean everything in the story.

As soon as I washed up[9] I dashed out to Soon-ok and asked if she had any paper with her.

She had a small note pad, not much larger than a PostIt note, but no pen.

I dragged her across the mall to the target store and bought a pen, then we went out to our car and in the space of 35 minutes I wrote the first draft of “War Trophy” by hand.

I transcribed it that night, making a few very minor changes and tightening it up, then had it ready to go.

But go where…?

Ah, that’s a topic for my next writing report: Where & Why I select various venues for various stories.

Suffice it to say, for a wide variety of reasons I decided ”War Trophy” would be better served immediately and on my own blog than in submitting it elsewhere.

So enjoy.

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[1] I enjoy reading other people’s “rules” or formulas for writing. Lester Dent is the go to guy for writing slam back action packed short stories, Michael Moorcock knows how to whip out a psychedelic slice of sensational sci-fi surrealism in just 72 hours. As good as their advice is, however, it’s also deadly; follow it too closely and you end up writing clichéd pastiches of other authors’ earlier / better work. Use it for inspiration and hints / tips, not a blueprint.

[2] Of all the various formats I write in, I like comic book scripting best. You are bound by a specific page length; unless you’re doing something for a very specific reason you are risking readability by going more than 4 – 6 panels per page or more that 25 words per panel (including all dialog / captions / footnotes / sound effects / signage that contributes to the story). I find it forces me to think very, very clearly about my story and characters, to pace out the flow of events.

[3] Or at least what I intend the story to be. More than once I find things swinging off in an unanticipated direction once I get the story up on its feet but that’s okay, I still have my original idea and if I end up going down a blind alley I can always backtrack to the point where things went astray and re-start from there.

[4] Actually I’m skipping two steps here: Spell and grammar checks in my computer, then run it through a program or website like Expresso to look for weak verbs / repetitive phrases / other weak writing. Spell checks and Expresso are not -- repeat NOT -- substitutes for human eyes & brains but they sure speed the process up by pointing out the most egregious mistakes quickly. Once I’ve done that then I’m ready to print.

[5] This is the primary difference between the longer works and the short stories; I can futz around with openings & closing of longer works all the way up to completion, but short stories tend to be very precise in how they start and end.

[6] Yeah, I know, you can tell…

[7] Well, she was shopping; I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair browsing on my cell phone.

[8] Go read the story to see what it was.

[9] I’m an artist, not a fnckin’ barbarian.

 

Sir Robert Peel's Nine Principles of Policing

War Trophy