On crafting a story

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about how I have crafted stories, both the ones that are complete and the ones I’ve been working on. The novel I’m working on was a combination of two things. I began writing it in December of 2014 after the protagonist (name and all) popped into my head. The other thing was a few pages of a story beginning I had written in I think it was 2008. I don’t know what happened to those pages and it still kinda haunts me. The story itself was really just a scene or part of a scene I could never figure out what to do with it. I tried different things and nothing worked.
It is odd how things work themselves out eventually.
The other project I’ve been working on this year is a short story that I started last year, one that I have since abandoned which is partly the reason for this post. It was quite a journey with that short because when I wrote it initially I thought it was very comedic then I read it months later and was stunned to discover the opposite. It’s just weird. And I love the ending. I think a lot of that story has to do with current events and I tried to present something positive. I think on that front it succeeds, on a certain level. But ultimately I decided the story didn’t work because I found upon a few read-throughs that I did not care about the protagonist at all. Even after I tried to give to flesh him out more. I cared even less.
But there was an idea I had about the story that would involve tearing the whole thing apart and rebuild it from essentially nothing and I decided I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t believe in it. I still don’t. I found that what I liked was the ending. That was a lot of what the story always was for me. There are two images that I dreamed up that I loved and I haphazardly put a “story” around it.
That approach has worked for me before but after some thought I have decided I can’t do that anymore. I need to be more intentional. I don’t really want to be someone who creates only popcorn fun entertainment.
I’ve been listening to Brian McDonald’s INK SPOTS which is a collection of blog posts on writing, his other book INVISIBLE INK is probably my favorite book on the craft of writing that I’ve come across. There’s a part in INK SPOTS where he talks about a writing student who was having trouble with an ending for her short story and he asked her:
“What is a story?”
She thought it was a trick question but he wasn’t playing at anything. He just wanted her answer. He believes that every writer should have their own definition of what a story is or rather a definition that fits their writing.
It really helped me and I’ve thought about it a lot. I keep coming back to the word intentional. As I’m making my way through the third draft of my novel I’ve kept that word in my mind. There are things I want from the story and their are things the story wants. It’s fascinating how a certain idea has come out of it that I didn’t see until recently but it has been there since the first draft. I just couldn’t see it and that’s why the previous iterations have had disappointing endings because there was something there but not fully there. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me…
One thing I have learned so far this year is about slowing down. I didn’t have a plan for the novel when I wrote the first draft of my novel and I’ve rebuilt it so many times, it’s been exhausting but also very informative. But going forward, I have other novels to write and I’ve actually been working on those ideas in the background over the past few months. I’m developing these ideas rather than just diving into things headfirst. I’m not sure what I’m going to write first but there are two novels vying for my attention once this one is complete-ish. One is the obvious sequel and the other is something new and exciting. I’ve been careful about crafting and preparing it. I’ve been building the characters and not thinking about the plot much. I have the broad strokes because the character stuff informs that. It all has to work together to form a unified thing. I should be saying I’m building a novel rather than writing one because it’s more like building than just writing.
I don’t want to craft stories based on one or two cool images. I can’t stop my brain from having those cool things pop in and out but those aren’t stories. An arrow isn’t an arrow without a point.

What I learned from my writing in 2017

The biggest thing about 2017 was how I sort of stumbled into a more business mindset when it comes to writing. It can be both serious business and a fleeting art like most things it’s about balance. Constraints can fuel creativity and level it up. For example, writing the first draft of my upcoming novel was not what I would call a fun experience. I mean it was and it wasn’t. I drank way too much coffee, thinking that it would spark something more and so in turn I didn’t sleep very well. Looking back it’s crazy because I was hurting myself for… art? That’s insane. You could argue about musicians and heroin or whatever other drug and that’s fine if you think the drugs did it. A person shouldn’t sacrifice themselves so someone else can enjoy something they made. Fuck that. Art should enhance all life, not a select group.
Wow, this got away from me.
What was I saying? Oh, constraints… I always thought outline was a dirty word because Stephen King says so. That’s what works for him. Advice is just advice, the confusing bit is how everyone presents it as fact. You know, like how I just did with the bit about constraints? Everyone is wrong and everyone is also right. I’ve found that outlining is super important to my process. Early on, the problem I had was HOW THE FUCK DO YOU OUTLINE. No one ever says how really. Some go into index cards and sticky notes but I haven’t done it that way. The way I outlined the first Piece of ACOT was fairly simple, I didn’t really understand what acts were and the whole “it’s the beginning middle and end” answer doesn’t fucking explain anything. What is different between the three? Is the end the last bit like the last frame of a movie? Is the end the bit before the end? Is the beginning this or that? And so what the hell does the middle look like? I listed out the events of that short story. And every time the protagonist (Vike) made a choice, I decided that was an “act turn” or “act break”.
So when he decided to try to save the stranger’s life at the Rift is the end of the first act. It might not be clear in the story but that’s what he was doing. When he decided to listen to what the Moth had to say and really believe he could help was the end of the 2nd act. It’s essentially him realizing he fucked up by “saving the stranger” and the end is when he decides what he really believes which results in… well just read it.
The first outline had all those things as bullet points and like the surrounding story points, so just a list of things. Not all of the Pieces were written in a structured manner, the second Piece was mostly just “more action and more cool things”. I’ve since learned more about structure and I apply a little of it but mostly I like having a dash of structure like having a very strong midpoint of the story that works really hard. I’m still really unsure about endings. That is what I worry about most because when I was first thinking about ending ACOT, I couldn’t think of any endings I really really liked. That series owes a lot to the Matrix and the ending of that is really disappointing. What I tried with ACOT was to have something real to hang onto at the very end. It’s all fairly ambiguous but there was something I really intended to say at the end because that story was about Vike and Amnee and how someone can come into your life and be a surrogate for someone else.
When it came to revisit the novel after two years away from it, I was afraid of editing it, of rebuilding it because I knew I wanted to change so much. It was written in first person and I wanted that to change and I wanted to be more intentional in genre and tone. I couldn’t describe the book until a few months ago when I would talk about the first draft it was: “Well it’s about this and there’s this and oh there’s this and this too!” I was figuring it out as I went. I only just realized what the book really is about this month as I restructure and rework the outline. This will be the third draft but this is the sixth or maybe seventh outline I’ve done for this. I’ve torn it apart multiple times.
I’ve only edited short stories before this, so the novel is a huge learning process and I’ve committed myself to taking it slower and trying things. ACOT may be novel-sized, it’s roughly sixty thousand words but it wasn’t written as a novel. It was written as four long short stories, the 3rd and 4th Pieces were originally one and the final two Pieces were written as one as well. Outlining those made it easy to know what I was writing any given day and I’ve applied that to the novel and to these other short pieces I’ve written.
In 2017, I tracked not only the things I wrote and finished but while I rewrote the novel from May through September, I kept track of the daily word count. I have gotten into the habit of tracking things and taking more notes, it all feeds into the business angle which has been very interesting and rewarding. I didn’t think I had it in me.
I’ve also been experimenting more with deadlines. It’s ongoing, I’m not sure how to make all of it work because I want to be realistic but also challenge myself but at the same time there’s so much to do. Again it’s fear because I am afraid to set hard deadlines and then not meet them and I’ll be really hard on myself and that would crash the writing.
2017 was a big year for my development as a writer and I’m looking forward to growing and evolving more this year.

What I wrote in 2017

I decided to try to be more productive and so I began 2017 with writing down what I wanted to accomplish for the year. Except I did it in smaller chunks, I went quarterly because to plan a whole year out in advance seemed crazy. (Plot twist- I have 2018 all planned out, as far as writing goes and as far as what I can plan on right now)
I wanted to keep track because I wanted to know what I was doing all year. I didn’t realize that the simple act of trying to organize myself would really change my entire mindset on writing.
The first thing I wanted to do was finish A CIRCLE OF TEMPORARIES, which I had originally envisioned as an ongoing thing when it first evolved from a possible idea of separate stories in one world to a focused narrative I had thought of it as a prose answer to TV sensibilities. But along the way it changed again, I realized I had to put those characters and that world away. I couldn’t leave it hanging open for years, I had this vision of it never being finished so I decided to end it and work on something else.
At the start of 2017, that something else was a little novella called THROUGH THE BLUR and I had the idea of going traditional with it and shopping it around with publishers but something happened that changed my life and most importantly my writing life. A little podcast called The Bestseller Experiment, which I found when Joe Hill retweeted his appearance on it. I distinctly remember listening to that episode and laughing at the intro where these two guys tell you what they are trying to do: write, publish and market a novel in under a year. Yeah sure, ‘cause that’s possible, I said to myself. (spoiler- they actually did it!)
Over the course of the first half of the year, as I worked on A CIRCLE OF TEMPORARIES and my short story A VAST EULOGY, I realized something and that was I was afraid. And not just of one thing but a few things. First, I was afraid to have THROUGH THE BLUR be my first professionally published work and put my foot down as a sci-fi author. I love sci-fi but I was afraid of putting that out front because I’m not sure I’m smart enough. The other thing I was afraid of was working on the novel I had started in December 2014 and subsequently finished the first draft in May 2015. I put it aside because I knew it’d need a ton of work and I was scared of that. Because at the time, I hadn’t seen any real advice or anything about actually editing and I was so afraid of looking at that manuscript and diagnosing it.
I don’t remember the episode exactly, but there was a shift in my thinking while I listened along to the two Marks on their Bestseller Experiment writing journey. It really crawled into my head and I began to think, oh this is all wrong. The right way to fully launch my writing career is with this novel, it’s not sci-fi, it’s something else and I really love that and could see a career based in and around that sort of genre mixing. So when I finished A CIRCLE OF TEMPORARIES, I pulled out this novel in April 2017. It’s been quite an adventure since then.
I grew so much in 2017. I finished ACOT and A Vast Eulogy, both of which are available now for you to read FOR FREE!
If you missed the little pop-up, you can subscribe to my mailing list to receive A Vast Eulogy by clicking here.
Also, I wrote two other short stories both of which are unfinished. One is fanfic and will be up for free sometime in 2018, the other is one I hope to sell. I wrote the latter longhand and really loved that experience. Both of those are under five thousand words each. I wrote another short story, perhaps it’s more novella-size, it’s more novella in structure. I’m not sure what’s to come of that just yet. It’s safe and sound in a notebook, marinating.
All in all, I had a really productive writing year and I hope to write even more in 2018. I’m planning to give NaNoWriMo this year, instead of missing it like I have the past few years because I forget to plan for it.
There’s a second part to this post which revolves more around what I learned in 2017 as it pertains to writing. I hope you’ll join me for that one in a few days. Thank you for reading! And if you signed up for my mailing list, THANK YOU.