Countdown to October: From an idea to a story
So how do I take the germ of an idea and turn it into a story?
My relationship to the process of writing a short story hasn't really changed much over the ten years since I started Writing Short Stories for real. Once I get an idea that really interests me, I need to get to the keyboard or my journal and get it all down, preferably in one hit. Sometimes the idea itself might have been obsessing me for a time, but if the spark of the idea is not enough to sustain a writing session all the way through to the end of about 3000 words, often the story will never get finished. If I can't be bothered writing it in one sitting, it didn't interest me enough.
How long does that usually take? Who knows. Anyone who writes knows how great-- and tricky-- it is to get into that trance-like state that comes with deep immersion.
Often I'll put it aside, or I'll send it to one of my writer friends for feedback. I've got to a point now where my stories come out at around 3000 words naturally, which is great because that seems to be a standard length for Australian magazines and competitions. But for someone who reads a lot of novels and has been trying to write one, it didn't start out that way, and I had to learn to reign it in when I got too wordy, or over explained things. (Perhaps a post about the features of a short story as compared to a novel is to come?)
I may have spoken about this before, but when I rewrite things, I completely rewrite them. As in I open up a brand new word document and I start typing out the whole thing again, usually with a printed and marked up copy of the story next to me. It's like I'm both reading and redrafting at the same time. So as I come across bits that don't flow or don't make sense, I rewrite them completely, move them around, cut out whole swathes. I like to think I'm ruthless, but now as I begin the nitty gritty editing of the pieces for the collection, I am finding sentences that both make me cringe, and remember how proud I was of them in previous rounds. The darlings that should have been killed. (As a side note, having lunch with my wonderful Grandma on Tuesday, she mentioned that over time she'd noticed my short story writing was getting tighter. Oh how my heart sung with that praise! I know she's probably reading this, so hello and thanks!)
The re-typing method works when the work is very rough, but when it's close, it tends to be a waste of time. That's where I'm at with some of them now. I have about twenty stories to go through and not that long to go through them. I'd like to go through them all on my own before I start working with my mentor in March but at the rate I am going, I think I'll get through 75% of them. (Still good!) What I've been doing instead is arming myself with notes and a strong coffee or tea (tonight it's water because it is HUMID) and opening the document. I read it through once as a reader, and allow myself to judge it like I would something I was reviewing. There have been a few that I cringed at, but also a few that I can see are almost there. Then I go back to the start and I start to finesse. What am I looking for? It depends on the story, but three things I am trying to eliminate are: telling rather than showing, particularly when it comes to my characters' emotions; yucky, overblown descriptions that are trying to be literary and just come off as blergh; and filler words. You know the ones. Just, even, very, almost. My mentor, Laurie, calls them gatecrashers, which I love.
The best part of this process is I am looking at a catalogue of stories that represent ten years worth of work. I am looking at the archive of Emily Paull. It's sometimes awkward, but mostly, it's a little bit cool, because I can see the evolution of my ideas and my skills and my style...
As a side note:
I said before that some of my stories are autobiographical. There are going to be settings and situations in stories that people will probably recognise. But the characters, even if they start off as people I know, always end up a long way from where they start. Some of them are amalgams of people. A lot of them reflect facets of myself. And this is something that only comes out over many subsequent drafts. When they say write what you know, they don't mean that fiction needs to be entirely ripped from real life. But they mean that you need to write from a place of authenticity, whether that means trying to apply empathy to a situation and seeing yourself inside it, through thorough research, or through using things from your own experience and then relating them outward to the world.
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