Put that story down, you don’t know where it’s been!

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of writing. I have a fairly good instinctive grasp of grammar – which is fortunate, because I don’t recall ever studying formal grammar at school. When it comes to defining components of a sentence, I can’t – but I rarely need correction. Thinking about it – now, for the first time, as I’m writing this – maybe I should look into a class at the community college. It couldn’t hurt. But it wouldn’t be a critical need.

I know even less about what’s needed to make a story work. When it comes to structure, and the naming of the roles of each character, I’ve got a long way to go. Mostly, I think that what works is what works, and that I can tell what’s working in my writing because I know what works in other books I read. Maybe that’s not going to be enough to get published, but I can’t be worrying about it now.

Pretty much everything I do know about writing technique either is what I’ve learned by reading, or came from an excellent teacher (hi, Pooks!).

Anyway, that’s background for the fact that I don’t really have a lot of training in the craft of writing, which leaves me, I think, open to some surprises.

Lately I’ve been spending most of my time working on a short story. One of the surprises is how radically different it is creating a short compared to writing a novel. Not that this is the first short story I’ve written, but it is the first I’ve approached so seriously after spending so much time with The Book.

Where I’m fine with rattling off a page or two for The Book, and I can tell if it’s adequate, I’m examining pretty much every word of the short story for its effect. Sometimes I’ve spent hours just trying to rewrite a single line. A few days ago a friend commented about a stodgy paragraph – it was one that had been nagging at me, too – and fixing it required me to use a word that I’d used in near proximity (“survive”), which led to me reorganizing and finally rewriting about a page. Just to fix one typo and clean up a slightly clumsy paragraph.

What’s really surprised me, though, is how little I understand what I write. Not the mechanics, but the content.

This short story began life as an idea based on another story I’ve read that I don’t think was handled as well as it could be. There was an element of tragedy in the original that the writer glossed over, I felt, and I thought that there would be an interesting story in what he’d left out.

That was then. Although I remember the source, what I’ve written has so little to do with it, that I’m not even sure what my idea was. As I was watching TV and idly musing on the possibility of writing the story, an idea came to me that made the story rewrite itself. It owes so little to its origins that, as I say, I’ve lost track of what I was thinking. The conceptual rewrite took about three seconds flat; after that, it was just a matter of finding the words.

As with a lot of science fiction, this is a story that you can only really understand in hindsight. As I was writing it, though, I wasn’t consciously trying to make it work for multiple readings, yet now that I go back to review it, I see that I’ve phrased many parts in a way that can make sense with different preconceived ideas of what story I’m telling.

So I had a tale that I liked; one where I could see everything from those first three seconds crystallized into something that I’d like to try to publish.

And then I blew it.

It was another of those deceptively simple changes. I didn’t like one phrase. I’d repeated it for emphasis, and I didn’t like what it had done, but I needed something to strengthen the idea. So I came up with something just subtly different – and suddenly realized that it has such huge implications to the earlier part of the story that I no longer am certain what’s happening. I have to make the change, because it makes for a better, more ambiguous and potentially more poignant tale, but it’s no longer the story that I’d planned. Or, at least, that is only one possible interpretation, now. Another one is quite disturbing.

Some movies, or some of the anime series I watch, have endings where there’s a strong implication that one thing happens, but the ambiguity makes it much more powerful. And there’s an ending that you want to have happened, and can believe happened, but it’s not certain. I know what I want for my protagonist from this story, but I can no longer be certain that she gets it.

And I find that completely amazing, that something so simple could have taken my writing and given it a possibility that I hadn’t remotely considered.

Likely experienced writers see effects like that all the time. I’ve definitely had the first version of The Book spin out of control before now, as characters developed themselves, but never yet have I seen such a simple and unlooked-for change have such a fascinating effect.

It remains to be seen whether the story is publishable, of course, but I’m certain that it became much more so by the change of one line.


  1. Posted January 28, 2007 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Well, I don’t write short stories nor do I read them much so I don’t have direct experience, but what you say makes sense — the compressed story makes every single word count in a way very unlike in a novel. So I can imagine how the slightest change can make a bigger difference overall.

    I’ve had that happen in scripts, though. Sometimes a single line of dialogue pops up that suddenly spins everything on its ear, and takes me off on a new, better direction.

    As for grammar, I mentioned that to a few friends who went to school with me, and we all had the same experience as you. We learned a few basics — nouns, verbs, adverbs, ajectives. But not grammar as in gerunds and dangling participles, etc. Some of us pick it up from reading a lot, I think.

    Oh, thanks for the props!

  2. iain
    Posted January 31, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    To read some writers, writing blogs especially, it seems that everything *must* be done according to a formula.

    I mean, I know there are some things that just need to happen in a novel (at least to be accepted by most Western readers), like setting up conflicts, pacing around the midpoint, well-defined climax etc. But then the formula goes into establishing the roles of each character so that they can interact in a predictable way – at that point, if it’s really *necessary*, I’ve lost interest in the process. I didn’t like analyzing stories like that at school, and I certainly don’t feel like creating them to satisfy the analysis.

    The problem I have is what if “what works for me” really isn’t enough, and that I need this re-construction to satisfy a publisher? If that’s the case, I feel like I’m wasting my time.

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  1. […] Pooks made a comment here about my reaction to my short story, and used it to ask whether other writers suffered. […]

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