Finding the Pony
Okay, so you’ve gone back and read your long ago story. And you’ve decided what you wanted to say with it (I hope) and figured out if you’re staying it properly.
At this point you have three options.
First – your story is perfect. Stop laughing. Sometimes a story is. There are stories that come out all right even when you have clue zero what you’re doing. My first two sold stories were like that. And you might not have noticed it will you read it now, because sometimes being too close also dulls your perception of the good things in a story. Also, sometimes, what you intended to write was different (or longer. Or more complex) but what you have works fine.
If your story is perfect or only needs some very minor polish (which we deal with in one of the next posts) decide how you’re going to market it (which also will be dealt with in future post.)
Second – Your story is a mess. I mean. It’s just… You should have different character. Why does your character spend all his/her time shoveling horse poop in a story about spaceships? And that trick at the end? It just didn’t work.
Take a deep breath. Take the story. Put it in a drawer. Lock the drawer. Resist the need to look in it (I don’t advocate throwing it away or burning it, because even the lamest story will sometimes have a sentence that sparks SOMETHING new and wonderful.)
Now that the story is locked away, remember what you wanted to say. Give it some thought. What is the best way to tell your story? Character? Setting? Problem? Right. Now, write the story completely fresh. This is calling recasting, and it usually turns out much better.
Third… The story is good, but there are these… these things… that… well! They just don’t fit.
There are levels here.
At the first level, you have something like 11k words, that should be maybe 3k words, and it’s time to get out the shovel and start looking for the pony.
Signs that this might be the case (a non-exhaustive list): your characters spend a lot of time doing something that has nothing to do with what the story is about, like shopping, say; your characters have conversations in the middle of the story that have nothing to do with the story; there’s like three action sequences that don’t solve anything. Etc.
At the second level, you have 2k words that should be 11k and it’s time to consider that maybe you wrote the outline of a short story.
Signs this might be the case: you introduce five characters in the first three paragraphs, and we don’t know anything about them except names and maybe hair color. In fact, we’re not sure who is the main one; some of your characters don’t even have names (and we’re not talking the waitress who takes the order.); the rape scene takes exactly three lines and no one who hasn’t read your mind knows a rape happened. (Yeah, I did this. Once. I was young.)
At the third level, you have a whole story there, but the parts are either out of order or bizarrely emphasized. Say, your characters spend most of the story talking over breakfast and only two paragraphs fighting the dragon. (Mind you, this can work for a certain type of story, but if the story is about fighting dragons… it’s probably not right.)
So… it’s time to set about fixing it. This is a complicated process which will extend to next week. So bear with me.
First thing – a story is not necessarily a narrative. Not in fiction. You can tell the entire story of a novel, for instance, in a page. You know this because the story is the blurb with the end tacked on. But that’s not why we read novels. And it certainly isn’t why we read short stories.
Fiction is not a way to convey information but a way to convey experience. And much of that experience consists in sharing the emotions of the character.
Before you think I want you to write weepy, bathos-driven stories, be not afraid. Since you are a fiction writer (my love) you’re in no danger of writing fantasies of dinosaurs ripping out people in an orgy of revenge fantasy and mistake that for a story. Or at least if you are, we’ll learn you better. Ahem.
But if you think about it, even in the most action-driven story, the fear before a fight is an emotion. Triumph or defeat is an emotion. The horror of violent death is an emotion.
And the emotion, that riding-along-with is why people are reading the story. They’re reading for the experience.
So the first thing I want you to decide is what you want your characters to experience and share with the readers.
And then I want you to go in and mark everything that doesn’t belong, and everything that should be there but isn’t.
Next week: Riding Shotgun – taking your reader along for the fun. Parts that need to be expanded; parts that need to be cut; why is your character drinking coffee again; and the anatomy of a story, revisited.
* The ability to count is a tool of the patriarchy. Stop oppressing me.