Anatomy of a short story

[February 2007] An online acquaintance e-mailed me recently to offer congratulations on one of my stories he’d just read. In his message he said, “I’m not a short story guy—I don’t understand the mechanics, so I never write them myself.”

That got me thinking, so I though I’d spend my time this month talking about the genesis of a story I recently finished. Everyone’s creative process is different, so I doubt there’s a take-home message here, just a peek under the hood.

I recently acquired a medium-sized whiteboard to track deadlines. The primary contents are anthology deadlines and other due dates, such as the 17th of each month for this essay. I currently have deadlines for February and March on it, as well as a list of projects without specific deadlines that I want to keep in mind.

Few of these dates are absolutes for me. If I come up with an idea for an anthology, I’ll take a stab at it, but sometimes a deadline sails on by and I have to erase it. I do so with a twinge of regret at a missed opportunity, but that’s life, and there are only so many hours in the day.

A couple of weeks ago I submitted a story, then wiped it off the board and looked at what was next. A loosely themed anthology, small press, pro rates, and one where the editors had sent me a congenially scolding e-mail asking why I hadn’t yet sent them anything.

As I sometimes do when trying to come up with an idea for a themed anthology—a project I think of as being akin to homework for a creative writing class—I pulled out from my top left-hand desk drawer a file where I keep clippings, hand-written notes and web-page printouts. My idea file. As I’ve said before, ideas are a dime a dozen. Cheaper, probably. Here’s one: mayor of small French town outlaws dying because the cemetery is full. Neat, eh? Just an idea, though, and not a story. Story is what characters do when presented with a situation.

I leafed through the pages. Three paper-clipped printouts caught my eye. It happens that way. I’d had those pages in the file for three years and had looked at them dozens of times before without any stirring. For no explainable reason, the idea seemed like its time might have come.

The anthology had a theme—one of the major characters had to be of a particular profession. As many other writers have said, stories often come not from an idea, but from the confluence of two ideas. I wondered what might happen to an as-yet-defined character of the specified profession encountering something related to my research idea.

Clearly, I wasn’t yet ready to start writing. I can’t remember what I did next. Maybe my morning writing time had run out and I left for work. Did my mind explore story possibilities the rest of that day? If so, it was on a deeply subconscious level. How about while I read and watched television that evening? I doubt it, but perhaps.

The real work started when I went to bed. At some point, I envisioned a scene. Not an entire story, just a vignette that put my character (who was now becoming clearer in my mind) in the situation. It was a very good opening, I thought. Moody, atmospheric, and it quickly got both to the core of my character and into the action.

The next morning I did some online research into any developments or details about my story situation and found some good material. I didn’t have much time left to write, so I jotted down the elements from my dream in shorthand notation. No more than a hundred words.

The scene came back to me again that night. The next morning I wrote it, trying to capture in words the essence of what I’d envisioned. I had some useful background details from my research, and I was growing to understand my character’s personality and plight—a plight that existed before the situation arose. I like it when a character who already has problems encounters a new problem that surpasses the others, or perhaps amplifies them.

All I had time for that morning was that scene, perhaps 1200 words. Just as well—I couldn’t see any farther into the story yet. In the shower afterward, I realized that, given this situation, the main character would logically go for help. That put me on the road to the next scene, and by the time the following morning rolled around, I was ready to introduce the secondary characters she would go to for assistance. Another set piece. A new location, a different atmosphere, and some interesting new people to sketch in.

Another day passes. Character has a problem, character goes for help. What next? Return to the scene of the problem, of course. I chose two of my favorite new people to accompany the main character to investigate the situation. Their dialog as they returned gave me an opportunity to fill in details of character and situation. By the end of the third morning, I was back at the scene of the crime, so to speak, without a clue what would happen next.

The following morning, I still had no idea, so I fell back on a reliable strategy when I’m not ready to write new material: I edited what I already had. It’s a stalling tactic, but at least I feel like I’ve accomplished something at the end of the session.

I had another problem—I had already passed 60% of the anthology’s hard upper word limit. I know it sounds arbitrary to govern story by word count, but this was my assignment, after all. I had tackled this project because of the prompt the anthology guidelines gave me. If I sit down to write a flash fiction story, I know I’ve only got 500-1000 words to work with. Most anthologies have an upper limit. I’m open to the possibility that a story might outgrow its intended market, but I was going to do my best to come in at length. For one thing, this type of constraint makes me choose my words carefully. I’m a much more ruthless editor when I have to hit a target, and I think that editing makes my work better.

By the end of two more sessions I was getting uncomfortably close to the word limit, and I still didn’t have an ending. Time to whip out the machete again. Some mornings I deleted more words than I wrote—but not the same ones, thankfully. Then I had an idea for how to wrap it up. It required me going back into the story and inserting some signposts, but that gave me an excuse for another editing session. After seven or eight days, I finally had a first draft, which I dutifully sent off to my first reader for overall impressions.

I got back a glowing report on the character, the situation and most of the story—except for the ending, which I was starting to doubt, too. It led to continuity issues and questions. I was going to have to explain away a lot of things if that ending was to persist. Back to the drawing board. For the next few days, all I did was revise the first 85% of the story. I needed to give myself room for a new ending—when one occurred to me.

An interesting thing happened along the way, though. As I carved and shaped and honed the beginning, I really found the story, and it wasn’t what I’d started out with. Same situation, same character, but the “horror story” I’d planned to write wasn’t one at all—or at least I wasn’t sure it was. My original ending was an effort to add a supernatural element to the tale. The backstory had rumblings of the supernatural, but that was all hearsay. No incontrovertible evidence.

I was trying to force myself in one direction when the story—especially my main character—was showing me another way. That happens a lot, which is why I don’t write much of what people consider horror. My tales may be tragic, sad, and possibly even elicit a sense of dread, but they seldom deal with anything beyond the ken.

If this story had started as a diamond in the rough, I would have turned it into grains of powder by the time I was done polishing it. Fortunately, unlike with a precious stone, polishing a story doesn’t always mean removing material. I have the option of building it back up before I start shaping it again. Perhaps it’s more like modeling in clay. Removing everything that isn’t the story and pushing around the rest into the proper form.

I spent more time editing and refining this story than any in recent memory because I believed I was onto something good and I wanted to get it exactly right. An impossible goal, of course, but I wanted to do right by the story.

My main character dictated the outcome, because it was her story. Regardless of the initial situation and its implications, what mattered was what befell her. The opening scene was the catalyst for personal reflection. I like the way the whole process evolved and I’m especially fond of the Mist-like denouement, but I fear it may not be what the editors are looking for.

That’s okay—my writing assignment gave me a chance to get to know a character who is now dear to my heart, and I’m fairly sure I’ll be able to find a home for her. She’s badly in need of one.




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