One of the premium rewards at my Patreon is DRAFT BY DRAFT: ONE SHORT STORY FROM CONCEPT TO COMPLETION, a nonfiction textbook on creative writing in which I walk draft-by-draft through the process of writing my short story “EXPLOSIONS.” I explain every single significant alteration: imagine a 50,000-word case study on a 5000-word short story. Delving deep into the process of writing one single story gives powerful examples of how to write and edit overall, with ultra-specific examples that reveal grander principles for the writer at work. Here is the third section, which covers developing the idea and starting to write. You can jump back and read the Introduction,or you can jump back to read how I developed the idea and started to write.
Tinkering with the Opening and Continuing to Write
I don’t know what to write next, so I sit back and re-read my beginning. I like this opening section, but I haven’t done what I said I’d do (introduce a very specific “you”). This doesn’t seem like a problem in this section, but it would be a problem going forward.
Probably, what I’ve written (127 words) will, with paragraph breaks, take up the first page or half-page of the manuscript when I format it properly (I don’t want to worry about formatting and that sort of nitpicking when I’m drafting). I feel like I should narrow that “you” by the second page, if not on the first. But I don’t have an idea on how to do this yet.
So the next thing I feel I need to do is find that “voice” — the narrative voice that the story is going to be written in. This is something I always need to do before I can really get a solid draft. I spend a lot of time trying to find the narrative voice — the tone and style of HOW the story will be told. WHAT happens in the story is in many ways less important than HOW that story is told. Somebody else could reproduce your plot but fail miserably, whereas you can work with the same plot and succeed — IF your style works. IF you’ve got the right handle on the language. (If you don’t believe me, look at Shakespeare, serial plagiarist and literary Lord.)
In this early stage, I find it helps to let my unconscious work a little on this problem of the narrative voice, while consciously I tinker with the language. For the most part, I try not to tinker with the language in the first draft, because it’s usually wasted time. Why streamline prose that I might delete later? It can even be counterproductive. Once that prose is streamlined, will I allow myself to delete it, even if it should be cut?
Nevertheless, I want to keep working on the story for my allotted writing time (if I’ve schedule an hour to write, I have to write for the full hour), and sometimes it helps to tinker and streamline the language while you’re trying to settle the story’s style. I will give myself a limit — I can only tinker and play for a few sessions before I have to commit to a narrative voice/style and finish the draft before doing more tinkering. Right now, it’s allowed, so I make a handful of changes.
I’ve highlighted my changes in bold below, and numbered them so that I can explain each. Here’s my original again:
First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! It’s the most exciting story of all time, and you’re reading it. Then you stop. All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending is sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.
The explosions are all in caps, when they happen at least. Of course they are. EXPLOSION! That one took you by surprise.
You put the story down. So far the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?
You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.
Now, here’s the revision (pretty minimal, but let’s look at my tinkering closely anyway, just to see how I’m thinking through the revision process):
First there is an EXPLOSION, and then another EXPLOSION! The (1) most exciting story of all time — (2) and you’re reading it. Then you pause (3). All these explosions? A strong beginning, but the ending seems (4) sure to disappoint. But it won’t! And then there is another EXPLOSION.
The explosions appear (5) in caps, when they happen at least. Of course. (6) EXPLOSION! (7)
You put the story down. So far, (8) the author has offered a good deal of excitement, but little in the way of pathos or character development. Should you keep reading?
You keep reading. And happen upon another EXPLOSION. But this one is different. This one is filled (9) with pathos. And the character, who explodes, leads a rich inner life.
I haven’t done much, but I’ve done a few things:
(1) I tend, like most people, to overuse the verb “to be” and the passive voice in my drafts. If I cut the word “It’s” then I will get to cut one instance of “to be” while punching into the “fact” that this is the most exciting story of all time a word sooner. In comedy writing, sometimes this is referred to as “shaving syllables” — that one word or syllable can make all the difference to the comic timing of a piece.
(As an aside, often in comedy you will want to re-order words to put the funniest idea/image at the very end of the sentence, even if now your sentence is ungrammatical, because you always want to end with your punchline or risk spoiling the comic effect.)
(2) If I replace the comma with an em dash, then the introduction of the word “you” and thus the second person narration will be a bit punchier. Coupled with the edit above (1), this changes the rhythm of the second sentence considerably (read the two versions out loud to see what I mean).
It’s more peppy, and more melodramatic, which suits my purpose of satirizing the first sentence as an exaggerated version of the sorts of stereotypical “first lines” that creative writing textbooks offer as strong first lines.
(3) I changed “stop” to “pause” because I am thinking about the reaction I want from “you” (as a character, and as a real reader). I don’t want you to “stop” — if the story’s exciting, you shouldn’t stop. But I do want a pause, some suspense, since “you” are next going to question whether or not this story could meaningfully be better than its first sentence.
(4) Similarly, the ending should not “be” sure to disappoint. It should “seem” that way — but then NOT disappoint. This also lets me lose another weak verb/form of “to be.”
(5) Again, I want to swap a “to be” for a stronger verb. Usually, the better verb option will already appear nearby in the sentence you wrote, and you can just cut words, but here “happen” doesn’t work so I have to do a real rewrite. I’ve settled on “appear.” In addition to this being more vivid, I find the original words “are all” awkward. When I read this out loud, I stumble over them, so they aren’t elegant.
(6) Cutting “they are” reduces repetition (although technically I cut the earlier “are,” and so already cut the repetition in the language) and another “to be” form. The main benefit here is that I have made the following “EXPLOSION” more punchy by virtue of altering the paragraph’s rhythm.
(7) I cut the line because, although I liked the idea, it seemed like it was too much. Besides, I was just talking about explosions, so that one was hardly a surprise.
(8) I just added this comma for the rhythm, to insert a brief pause. Also, it makes grammatical sense.
(9) I didn’t change anything here, but I want to draw attention to it as a moment when I have chosen to use the passive voice, which is technically “weak” writing, to counterbalance the “activity” of explosions. An explosion being filled with pathos is a senseless concept, and so I’m hoping to get some humour out of that, and formally support the idea with the implied oxymoron of a passive explosion.
While this tinkering hasn’t led me to really change the narrative voice here, it’s helped me figure out what I really need out of my narrative voice going forward: less passivity and more specificity.
Next, I will draft a second scene/section and try to really nail down this “You” and thereby settle the story’s voice/style.
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