Short Stories


I’m currently striking a good balance between my novel outlining and my short-story work.  The former excites me, but eventually I itch to simply  write something; and the latter allows me an outlet for that.

There's very little I can add to this.

And in the forest there lived a pair of trousers.

However, as I mentioned, I don’t tend to try and outline my short stories much.  It’s simply not the way I’ve gone about it.  But of course, as soon as I try outlining and then try writing a short story in the same way I’ve been writing them for years, it doesn’t work, and I grind a promising little sci-fi story into the dirt.

The problem isn’t the story, and it isn’t even the conclusion.  In truth, the tale as it’s told feels right, and if I was presenting it in the third-person I think it would have worked fine.  But it’s told in the first person, and at about two thirds of the way in, having completed their task, the narrator is suddenly — and by necessity, within this tale — cut from the action.  The end result is, while the story finishes up quite nicely in theory, I suspect that the experience of reading it will be disappointing, with the build-up and excitement ultimately killed by a “Later, I heard that this happened, and that happened” kind of conclusion.  It falls foul of Telling Instead Of Showing, which is one of the Prime Evils of fiction writing.  As with all the rules, of course, there are times to throw it aside and ignore it, but this isn’t one of them.  In this case, it would absolutely be better if the reader were shown what happened, rather than hearing about it in the aftermath.

I have two options at this point.  One, I can step back and try to outline a new ending to it — something I normally avoid, but it wouldn’t require a great deal of work.  The amount of outlining in a five-thousand word short story doesn’t come close to the outlining required in a hundred-thousand plus word novel.  But the alternative is that I could shift to a secondary narrator at that point, so that the action is again presented from the first person.  If I can forge a believable connection between the two narrators — and now that I’m sitting here writing this out, I think that I can do exactly that — I may well be able to bring the story to its conclusion in the same fashion, but while making the writing altogether more interesting.

Indeed, this approach sounds promising.

Indeed, this approach sounds promising.

This is one of those cases where writing out the blog post has been a help to my actual writing, because I didn’t consider this possibility earlier.  But  I already have the character I need to hand for the transition, a perfect choice for presenting the action, and I have already hinted at the connection within the conclusions of the tale.  And now I know where I’ll be taking this story, which is something I didn’t know when I first began.  Generally speaking I avoid transitions between first-person narrators, as historically I haven’t liked them; but mostly, I think the transitions I’ve seen have seemed frivolous, serving little purpose.  But in the case of this story it feels necessary, and I think it will work.

So that’s where I’m at today.  My first drafts of short stories are often close to what I want; but in this case, while the story feels right, the writing was painfully wrong.  This afternoon, then, I’ll return to this story; and at the point where the narrator is cut from the action, I’ll transition to the second narrator instead.

Hurrah!

But before I get to anything serious, let’s start with what isn’t.

The non-writing bit
I’ve now made it to the end of the first season of Doctor Who.  And I like parts, and dislike others.  I like the broad scope of the ideas that they play with, but I hate the fact that they too often resort to obvious, easy parody when there are much more interesting sci-fi angles that they could have taken.  As a result of that, for all of its ideas, in the end the show very rarely surprised me.  I suppose that will mean the show gains a broader appeal, but I like what like, and I wish they’d taken some of this in a better direction.

That said, I still loved the cult parts.  I love that they can’t shed their old skin, and that they have to keep the Daleks, an alien enemy that has been getting poked fun at for my entire life.  So I’ll keep watching.  However, my enthusiasm for the show is certainly dampened.  Eccleston is the only truly memorable thing here, and he just turned into David Tennant (who I also like, so as much as I liked Eccleston’s Doctor, this may not be entirely a bad thing.)  Aside from him, not one of the episodes has stuck in my memory on its own merits.

Except in the case of "Do you remember that really bad episode?"

Except in the case of “Do you remember that really bad episode?”

And Then, The Writing Bit
There is a point at which you can get caught up in planning and forget to do any actual writing.  Lately I’ve been working on my novel outline, including developing a world-map.  That’s something I’m particularly bad at, but I recently found a freeware program that is pretty helpful.  It’s a little unfriendly to start with, but there are tutorials online, and it becomes familiar quickly enough.

It's called AutoREALM.

AutoREALM is freeware.  Just click the image to go to the download page.

(That’s not my map, by the way.  Mine looks much, much worse.)

Now, I don’t need a world map as much as some writers do, because the geography isn’t critical to the story I’m writing; I just wanted to have a consistent sense of the world around it.  I have the memory of a goldfish with Alzheimer’s, so if I don’t record it I’ll contradict myself a lot.  So the map, like my lists and notes, is part of an Assistant Brain.  But while I was assembling the map, I found the geography suggesting new ideas to me.  That was unexpected, but welcome.

But that’s not the point here, really.  As important as this is to my writing, the point is that I’ve not been doing a lot of actual writing over the last week or so.  And that’s the part I love.  Both getting the ideas down onto the page, and ensuring I’ve done so with the correct words.  (And as much as possible, both in parallel.)  So today, I’m putting this planning to one side, and turning back to some short fiction.  I have a notebook of ideas that I write down when I think of them; I’ll probably pick one and simply run with it.  It may go nowhere, or become nothing of value; but that’s not the point.

The point for today is to write; simply because I love writing.

The Writing Bit
Most of my short stories are fairly concrete, and I set out with a good idea of the entire story arc from the very beginning.  Even when stories need a lot of editing after the first draft (which is often, as I can be tremendously lazy with my word selection in my first drafts) I usually have a good idea of how far a story will run, what its potential is, and at least the essence of what will happen.  Some of the details strike me as I go, of course, but the general shape is there.

But every now and then, there’s something different.  A short story that, despite my initial intent, seems determined to grow like a green-deck’s mana supply.

RampantGrowth

Oh yes, my references are ultra-cool.

Seriously, though, this is exactly how my current novel began.  The short story hit 8.5k words, and I knew then it was too big for its boots, as  the story had barely started at that point.  There was a lot more there than I expected.  The story has changed a lot since then.  The lead character has become about thirty-five years younger, less powerful and more competent, and his world has acquired a massive amount of flesh that it didn’t have in the short version.  Which is all great.  The story’s developed a fair number of side arcs too.

But now I have another one.

This story won’t expand without limits.  The current novel I mentioned above has a whole world to fit itself into, but there’s a definite ceiling in this one for how much story there is to tell.  The environment is much more restricted — counted in feet, not miles — and the story’s escalation inherently means that the protagonists will either succeed or die (and I don’t know which yet).  But what is certainly true is that, from the beginning, I’ve underestimated just how much story is tucked away within the characters and their interactions.

The ongoing novel is a fantasy tale, a mini-epic of irreverent nature; this one is a sci-fi light horror affair that takes itself more seriously.  But like the fantasy tale that preceded it, there are conflicts and allegiances.   They’re all in small-scale, but all nonetheless creating a story that’s richer and with more potential than I’d anticipated.  It may end up as a novella rather than a novel, but I’m already at 12.5k, and there’s a lot more story to be told here.  I love writing when it goes like this, as I’m learning more with every story I write; and in particular, every story that goes differently to how I expected teaches me about how to engineer the originally unexpected effect.  All these things can only make me a better writer in the long run.

The Non-Writing Bit
So, I watched episode two of Doctor Who.  It was better than episode one, but unfortunately not better enough for my wife to have any semblance of interest remaining.  Pursuing it from here will be a slow affair, and almost certainly an on-my-own-time affair.  That means it’s likely to fall behind the Korean espionage drama Iris that I was already watching, as I don’t want to push finishing that to sit behind the eighty-odd episodes of Doctor Who that I can stream.

DoctorWho

If it’s geeky pop culture, someone’s made a Magic card of it.  And a dozen t-shirts.

That said, I’m still inclined to give it a try.  Nonetheless, I’m still bemused by the show’s utter lack of skill in balancing its conflicting elements.  It seems to want to be serious and moody while being irreverent at the same time, and doesn’t seem to know how to do both fluidly.  The contrast between the two so far is jarring.  (Not quite as jarring as Rose, in my opinion, but there we go.  Again, only two episodes.  Hopefully that’ll evolve too.)

The two can be balanced, if it’s done skilfully; even complete nonsense and drama can be balanced.  Fringe did it through the use of a flippant character in the shape of Walter Bishop, set within a world that was itself serious; Eureka, meanwhile, took a world that was at its heart not serious, and put some occasional serious characters in it while ensuring that the others were both well-developed and consistent.  And even the nonsense was, while sometimes foolish and funny, consistent within the world as well.  Thus, in both cases, they managed to achieve balance.  So far, that’s what Doctor Who is lacking for me.

The Doctor’s vacillations make sense, because that’s personality, and it fits past Doctors too.  Flippancy, overconfidence (or, at least, just plenty of confidence) and good humour are part of him, masking the darker side to him.  But the vacillations of the world are nonsensical, because it robs that interesting character of a consistent home with consistent rules that his story can play out in.  And you really can’t expect me to take seriously any tragedy in a storyline where the agents of the enemy are a repeated meme.  Because I’m not taking seriously a world where puns-made-flesh can threaten anything.  Worse, it’s a pun based in a 21st-century element that I strongly doubt will survive to make it to the 22nd, which means I begin from a standpoint of not believing in this world.  

I don’t mind that.  If I did, I wouldn’t be able to watch half the shows that I do.  But don’t put me in a world that ridiculous and then expect to be able to pull on my heart-strings.  And even if you’re going to try that foolish trick, don’t expect to be able to make that transition without — oh, I don’t know — an actual transition between the two.

A probable villain for episode three.

A probable villain for episode three.

Nonetheless, I can see why people would love it.  I know from having watched it before that there will be a great many ideas and stories, and its strength has always been in its variability.  That’s a big part of why I’m sticking with it.  I’m hoping that the series finds its feet more effectively as it goes, because if it can do that — if it can find a way to balance the humour and drama in a way that wouldn’t embarrass a novice fan-fiction writer — then I’m sure it really could be good.  Separately, the humour and the drama are both fine; but for now, they feel like pieces from two different jigsaws.  The writers need to get them to fit into one consistent picture, and I’m optimistic that they figured that out at some point.

If they didn’t, though, my inclination to “give it a try” isn’t likely to be limitless.

The Writing Bit
So, on one level at least, this is being a fun and productive year.  Previously, the highest number of submissions I’ve sent out concurrently is one.  But as of yesterday, I now have four of my stories pending review, approval or rejection.  One of those is a competition entry, and since the deadline forced it to go out when it did, I’m hardly inclined to count it.  However, the other three are simply stories that I’ve sent out to magazines within the last few weeks.

manuscript

One of them is even on actual paper!

It’s been a lot of fun getting them out.  It’s rather less fun when they come back, but having received feedback on one of those few has been extremely encouraging and only makes me want to send out more, in the hopes that even if I don’t get published, perhaps I’ll get some more professional opinions of my work and advice about where I may be going wrong.

But then, there’s the other level — the suspiciously novel-shaped one.  I’ve been enjoying short-story writing so much that my current novel draft has suffered at its hands.  I don’t like the idea of letting it simply fade away, so over the last couple of days, I’ve stoked its fires again.  Hopefully it’ll settle in soon, because at the moment, the words really aren’t coming.

I might have better luck with this advanced typing technique.

I might have better luck with this advanced typing technique.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find a way around this for the time being, working out aspects of the story that aren’t exactly writing — not if you mean adding-words-to-the-manuscript, at least — but it’s important for the story, at the very least to help add depth to it.

The Non-Writing Bit
Aside from writing, I’ve been wasting some of my time on TV and movies lately.  I just finished watching the last series of Fringe, which I mostly enjoyed, and — hoping for some alternative sci-fi to fill the hole, and not feeling in the mood to turn to the final season of Eureka just yet — I turned today to the much-vaunted wonders of Doctor Who.  I like to come to series late, so that if I like them a lot, there’s plenty to watch.  (The exception to this so far is Game of Thrones; but even so, I wait for the series to be finished before watching it, as I hate having to wait a week between episodes for shows I like.  I’d rather wait and watch them all together at once.)

Unfortunately, I forgot what "BBC budget" meant.

Unfortunately, I forgot what “BBC budget” meant.

The word I’m looking for here probably isn’t “disappointed,” as it’s not like Doctor Who ever had a reputation for stellar effects, but I had hoped for more than a badly-animated wheelie-bin.  “Bemused” definitely fits the bill.  I’m prepared to watch another one of these, because I operate on the sound principle of “the pilot episode is probably terrible”, and I did like the old Doctor Who when I was a child.  But honestly, this first episode of Ecclestone’s stint as the Doctor seemed pretty bad to me.  It started so slowly it was annoying, stumbled into a weird transition, and throughout suffered from seemingly poor production values and inexplicably awful sound quality.

I can’t help but think that, without a budget to really make it work, making living plastic into the enemy was a bad idea.  It seemed like they may have attempted to deliberately channel some of the old-fashioned cheese of Doctor Who into the enemies, especially since they somehow magically acquired the ability to shoot, which I can’t imagine any writer tried to justify for even half a second.  But in doing so, they threw away a lot of the idea’s potential, and wasted what seemed like it could have been a much more interesting idea than it ended up becoming.

However, even assuming they had to run with it, and assuming that the script allows for the plastic in question to consist of about a hundred shop dummies and one inexplicable trash-can with the ability to transport the people it chomps half way across London without explanation, it would surely have benefitted more from some creativity and less dependency on the same crappy, low-budget CGI that plagues Sci-Fi channel movies.  I’m sure it can’t be that hard to make some actual stretchy rubber that sticks to the actor instead of relying on crappy effects, for example.  I can live with bad effects, but it annoys me when people resort to CGI when more creative approaches would be both better and, in all probability, actually cheaper.

But I can live with that.  I’ve watched shows with cruddy effects and enjoyed them (Neverwhere being a wonderful example of a great story with great acting that, therefore, overcame the burden of its low budget).   But there’s a further thorn here.  I almost always watch TV with my wife — I have only so much time to watch shows, and so it’s nice to spend that time with her.  This has allowed me to successfully introduce her to a number of good shows, including some quite geeky and nerdy fare.  In return, she’s introduced me to some great shows and movies of her own, ranging from some older American shows to a number of great Korean productions, not to mention a much wider range of horror.

Unfortunately, my wife’s tolerance for crappy and cheesy has limits, and they’re much lower than mine.  She’d have loved the story of Neverwhere, I’m sure of that, but she couldn’t get past the low-budget quality of the show.  And while I’ll sit through things she won’t — which works fine if I have a lot of spare time and can watch things by myself — I rarely have enough spare time to just kick back and watch something by myself for an hour, so if she’s not inclined to watch it, then its boots will soon be taken by another show.  And if it wasn’t for me, I’m pretty sure she’d already have given up on it.  She’s about ninety-nine percent of the way there.

But it’s the pilot, and I’m inclined to be forgiving.  It may have spent far too much of the beginning on “girl goes shopping” and stumbled around a bit with scene-setting, but some of that is presumably because, after so many years off air, it really had to ACT like a pilot episode of sorts, filling in the gaps for people who wouldn’t have seen any of the previous ones.  And it’s in that single fact that I’m placing all my hopes.

I really, really hope the next episode is better than the first one; because if it isn’t, it may take me a very long time to make it as far as episode three.

Although some of my projects are just ideas I like, even those that I send out tend to be things that I simply enjoyed writing, liked the finished result and hoped perhaps someone else would disagree.  But the story I’m working on now is a little different.  From the first moment that I thought it up, I felt protective of it.  There was something about it that I loved, and I felt an urge to live up to what I saw as the potential of the idea.

And, you know, not fall short of the target.  Badabum-tish.

And, you know, not fall short of the target. Badabum-tish.

This is a double-edged sword.  While I’m now working on editing that story, I’m constantly concerned that it may not be all that I think it could be.  I like the story, I like the way it feels, progresses and finishes, and every time I read through it I think I did a good job on it.  But still the doubts remain.  It’s one of those stories that, if I don’t stop myself, I could spend a long time editing and revising, until everything good about it is lost.  Or if everything good is miraculously retained, it could simply sit here, waiting for me to decide it is perfect.

But I’m not convinced I’ll ever achieve perfection with it.  The ending is everything I wanted it to be; the story arc works in exactly the way I’d hoped, and the atmosphere is set the way I wanted.  Only one detail really still needs fixing.  So, again, I’m trying to overcome my personal cynicism about my work and my perfectionistic streak, and allow myself to finish and then actually send out one of these stories for an editor to cast their critical eye over.

Somehow, every time I do this, I feel nervous — as if rejection would, in some way, change the work itself.  I feel stupid for feeling this way sometimes, but I seem to be unable to overcome that sensation.  Oh well.

…that went swiftly.

From four days ago, writing that short story, I ended up today making very minor tweaks and submitting it.  That makes both the fastest process from start to submission that I’ve ever gone through, and also the first time I’ve ever had more than one story out at the same time, and it was great fun, as the first draft ended up surprisingly good.

I believe Stephen King said something once about protecting the first draft.  That’s part of what I tried to do here.

I also have a third that I now need to work on before sending out, though there’ll be no first-draft preservation going on there.  It’s much longer than this story, around triple the length, and needs a little TLC before it’ll be ready to send out.  But it’s next on my radar.

I’m currently working on another short story, and this time it’s one that I’ve tried to write twice before.  I’ve always liked the idea, which (like some other stories I’ve written) has a bit of a Twilight Zone feel to it in the premise, though not in the actual telling.  I’ve never been able to get it the way I wanted, as every attempt to write it has turned out disappointingly.

I kicked off another attempt yesterday, and I think that this time all the pieces are falling into place properly.  Nice when it happens!

Next Page »