Where did that story come from?

[June 2012] The perennial question writers get is (altogether now): Where do you get your ideas? Everyone has addressed this question at one time or another, I’m sure.

Of course, there’s no one answer that covers everything. However, if you limit the question to “Where did you get the idea for this story?” then it’s a different ball game. In many cases, the question is easily answered. Sometimes the answer might be convoluted and make sense only to the author, but there is usually an answer.

This month, I thought I’d give you a glimpse into how I came up with a short story that I finished a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been working on a non-fiction project for most of 2012 so once I shipped it off to my editor, I decided to switch gears and write a short story. I didn’t have any concrete ideas burning to get out, just a vague desire to write something.

When I’m in that situation, I either pull up a document that has a bunch of random story ideas or observations that I’ve gathered over the years, or I leaf through the anthology guidelines that have come to my attention lately. In this case, I did the latter. The anthology had a vague theme: the weird west. Western stories with something weird happening. There’s a lot to play around with there. What I generally do given a theme is to first consider the question: what are most of the stories people write going to be about? If I can see that, I can then possibly come up with something sufficiently different to catch the editor’s attention.

In this case, instead of going with zombies or vampires or other monsters, I decided to go with aliens. I know it’s not an original idea, especially with that recent movie, but it’s where my mind went, so I decided to follow. I did a little bit of Internet research and found a couple of things from that past that I could make use of. One is a fairly famous incident where a space ship supposedly crashed in this Judge’s backyard. I took the gist of this incident and relocated it elsewhere, because I had a plan. A plan is good.

What I didn’t have, though, was a character to tell the story. Until that happens, all I have is an idea and a plan. And not a lot of time, because the submission deadline was in about two weeks. I let things rattle around and percolate in my head for a while. Then I woke up one morning with the opening scene in my head. I knew who was telling the story and what he saw. I made a few false starts, though. I started in first person, but I found that limiting after a page or two, because my protagonist is young. I wanted to be able to use words he wouldn’t necessarily know in my narrative, so I rewrote everything in third person limited.

After writing that scene, though, I stalled. I had a general idea of what would transpire as a result of the incident in the first scene, but none of it really seemed to matter. There was nothing at stake. Then I came up with the notion that this small Western town was dying. More people were leaving than were coming because the rail line ended up being built 25 miles to the south instead of through town. It had suffered a couple of other injuries, too. So that upped the ante a little. Still, I was having trouble. Then I realized that not only was the town dying, the family of my protagonist was, in a way, too. They had suffered a terrible loss and it was destroying them a day at a time.

Now I had my stake. This incident would rouse both the town and the family out of its doldrums. And, of course, since this was a Western, there had to be a stranger in town. Or, at least, I felt like there needed to be one. He had to come in response to what had happened, but he had to get there a lot faster than he should have been able to do in that era. He would take the bull by the horns, start handing out orders, and seem to have everything under control.

But the story wasn’t about him, so I realized that the stranger had to fail—or be on the verge of failing. The fractured family couldn’t sit passively by while this dude fixed things. As the ideas flooded in, I kept going back to the beginning to revise and rewrite to lay the foundation for what came later. By the end, I was very pleased with how it all became internally consistent—that something mentioned in the opening paragraphs came into play symbolically at the end.

The story came in at something like 6200 words, which was well within the guidelines’ limit, but only half the work was done. Though I had done some revision along the way, it was time to look at the story as a whole and every single word and sentence and paragraph individually. I can get quite ruthless at this stage. One of the most important things to me is flow. From one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next. I move sentences and paragraphs around to find the best order so that one idea flows logically into the next. This is where reading out loud helps a lot. Awkward transitions really stick out that way. I can feel them in my bones.

When I started editing, I only had two or three days to get the story polished because it was a postal submission. During that weekend, I probably created a dozen drafts of the story, though none of them survive. I save the first draft as a separate document, but each incremental revision overwrites the duplicate document. At least three of my editing passes were done on hardcopy—I tend to alternate back and forth because I do different kinds of editing on-screen and on paper. I can feel the story converging, so that there are fewer changes on each subsequent pass, but then all of a sudden I’ll upend the whole thing and make some radical change on the next pass. The honing process can reveal problems if you can mentally sit back and look at the bigger picture while concentrating on the individual words.

When I was done, the story came in at about 5400 words. That’s pretty typical—I usually lose about 10% of the length of the first draft upon revision. But it’s more than simply taking away words. Probably half the sentences didn’t bear much resemblance to the original version.

Then away it went in the mail and I had a chance to think about where my mind had taken me during those two weeks. A few snapshots turned into a movie in my mind and when I consider the story now, I feel like I was there watching everything unfold, even though I had to micromanage every bit of movement along the way.

The process for the next short story will probably be completely different.

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