After successfully avoiding pen and paper during my recent vacation (Thank you, World Cup!) on Sunday I finally grabbed myself by the collar, sat myself down at the deck table, put a pen in my hand and paper before me, and started the short story that has been nipping at my heels like a poorly trained corgi for nearly a month.
I started writing at about 7AM Sunday and finished it at around 11PM. It clocked in at about 3000 words.
For me, that is fast writing. But that wasn’t the interesting bit.
As regular readers already know, I look at short stories as a proving ground. I’ve never excelled at the form, and have used them as a way of trying out new ideas and exercising new methods. When I was just starting out as a “serious” writer, I used short stories (and their publication in professional markets) as an impartial test of my talent. Frankly, I didn’t know if I had any, but figured if I could publish professionally, it was a strong indicator that I didn’t totally suck at it.
So, while for me short stories have always been a means, and never the end, they have always been very instructive. This one was especially so.
What was did I learn? A couple of things.
Writing Without an Outline
The main purpose of this story was twofold: to try out a new setting (old Seattle, circa 1860) and a new style (non-genre, literary/mainstream). I never had any intention of writing a story that was marketable. To that end, I didn’t really care what happened in the story. I just wanted to work on my chops in the new setting/style.
In other words, I didn’t have an outline. I just had an initial conceit about the two main characters, and no idea about what was going to happen.
This. Was. Huge.
I have never written any work greater than 500 words that I hadn’t at least sketched out. I don’t want to trash a week’s worth of writing because of a plot hole, so I like to know where I’m headed at the outset.
This time, though, I just let the story develop, let the side-trails appear on their own, let the subtext grow out of the words as I put them down on paper, and simply didn’t concern myself with what was going to happen.
Was it “freeing?” Yes, a bit, but mostly because I really didn’t care if it was a good story or not. Would I do this for a novel-length work? No way, but I did learn one thing:
For genre work, where action generally drives the plot along, and where there are many more moving parts, I may have over-outlined a tad, but for literary-style pieces, where the characters are usually in the driver’s seat, it’s serious overkill.
There is so much backstory and internal life to this story that knowing each and every move of each and every chapter would quickly become a straitjacket. In character-driven work, I found that it feels better to give the characters their head and let them run.
I still want to know the shape of the track, but I don’t need to choreograph every step they take.
Writing in a Different Style
In the past, I have been given a lot of critical advice from editors, agents, and publishers about my sf/f genre work. In essence, it all boiled down to this:
- Keep it moving; don’t include a lot of detail (especially historical detail)
- Keep it real; don’t get flowery or anthropomorphic
- Keep on target; don’t take any side trips unless directly related to the plot
However, when I read literary-type novels (Marquez, Hoffman, Erdrich, etc.), I regularly find that these guidelines are ignored. The question of whether this advice was good or not I shall leave for others to determine, but as far as I’m concerned, I like the style of these literary-type novels, and I want to use it in my next book so:
Screw them. I’m going to write what I like.
This was freeing, and more so than I imagined it could be. I played with words like I’ve only done in poetry, I animated the inanimate, and built a style that (to me) was both lyrical and spare.
Now, a Problem
Unfortunately, this left me with a short story that (a) I really like and (b) made First Reader very happy. My problem now is, what do I do with it? Do I just post it here on the blog? Or do I try to sell it?
I haven’t been in touch with the short fiction market for ages, and back then it was only for genre markets. Who buys short, non-genre fiction, these days (The New Yorker aside)?
So, is it worth trying to sell it? Well, that’s a whole different question and a topic for a whole other blog post.