Or…The Many Stages of Writing
Beginning At The Beginning
For decades, if my writing didn’t start with Chapter One at the top, I thought it wasn’t proper writing. After all, I wrote my first “novel” (well, it had chapters) at nine and got my first publisher’s rejection at eleven. Forty-odd years later (this ship doesn’t turn round very quickly!) I have finally admitted to myself that my definition of writing has been somewhat blinkered and that there is a whole other source of possible writing income out there–either through competitions or magazines or anthologies–and that is via the short story.
And guess what? Writing short stories rocks! What’s more, all those ideas I’ve had over the years and jotted into my notebook, where they then stagnated because I couldn’t work out how to fit them into a full-length novel, can suddenly be re-born in short story form. Put simply, I’m hooked!
How Does A Story Go From Flabby to Fit?
There are loads of blogs out there which will guide you through crafting your stories, so let me just say straight off…this isn’t another of them. I have no interest in telling you how to hone your skills. But I was interested, as I got into my short-story stride, to observe the stages by which a story grew from the merest germ of an idea to flabby first draft and then all the way through to a polished (one hopes) final offering. And to that end I sat down and wrote a story over a period of 8 days, charting all of its changes as I went. In other words, what follows is going to be an embarrassing, warts-and-all look at how my latest story, Code Purple, came into being. I trust anyone who reads the (really quite bad) first draft will stay with it to at least see the final copy….otherwise I shall never get offered another paid writing-gig, ever.
And so it begins with an idea. These can come from anywhere: dreams, snippets of conversations, TV (I hate to say it but Jeremy Kyle has provided a rich fishing pond in the past) and so on. Code Purple was borne out of a conversation I had with a paramedic a couple of years ago when something similar happened to her.
Even works of fiction require facts. Before the opening sentence splatters over the keyboard, I will be seeking out the assistance of my old friend Google, copy-and-pasting all kinds of articles and notes around the subject, learning what is feasible, picking up jargon, checking facts which may or may not come into play in the finished story. And all the while, the story simmers away at the back of your mind…
FILE NAME AND AWAY
Unless you are writing longhand, you’ll need a working title for your computer file. Mine was ‘Lottery Corpse’, which may give some indication as to the nature of the story. Clearly you don’t need to worry too much about the title at this stage as it’s hardly going to be the one you showcase to the world.
And next, of course, you have to actually start writing the thing. Often this is the point at which a wave of self-loathing and doubt crashes down, threatening to thwart you before you have even begun. To that I say, just write anything, however bad. Often I have no idea how I will start until I actually type those first words. You can always delete them later, but for now if you don’t write something, you’re never going to get it started, let alone finished.
Interestingly, the first draft of my story’s opening is almost identical to the final version:
Jessica worked the night-shift. Seven till seven. That meant she got more than her fair share of drunks and addicts, night-shift after night-shift. It didn’t bother her, per se. The abuse and the violence bothered her but the drunks and addicts–at least you knew what you were getting. No grey areas. If they hung in the balance between life and death, you could at least take comfort from it being their choice, however ill informed.
The use of ‘per se’ niggled at me right from the beginning. It was such a pretentious phrase but it wasn’t until Day 7 that I actually got round to ditching it and using ‘particularly’ instead.
By the end of the first day I had written 783 words but had no ending, even though I knew exactly how it was going to wind up, as I was lifting it straight from a real-life anecdote. By the second day I had amassed 3,389 words, along with a weak and cheesy conclusion, but at least the full first draft had been spewed out onto the page in its entirety. Now the fun work could start with the paring back of flabby writing and turning it into something that didn’t make me cringe each time I read it through.
Poor writing falls into many categories and, I’m ashamed to say, my first draft exhibited them all!
CLUMSY UNNECESSARY WORDS
For me there’s a lot of waffle in an early draft as you rush to pin the ideas onto the page. They are lexical clutter and need pruning from subsequent read-throughs. These can be small changes:
“She pulled the black plastic bin liner out of the bin once the contents started to stick…” or changing “But this was what they had all trained so hard for” to “But this was what they had trained for”.
Similarly, when they are checking the ambulance at the start of the shift, compare: “Her colleague, Sharon, came back moments later with a handful of blood-sugar needles.” To “Her colleague, Sharon, handed her a fistful of blood-sugar needles.”
Came back from where? If it’s not relevant to the story, leave it out! And in the same vein:
“Sharon’s nods were the full stop at the end of any sentence.” Fine, but where else is a full stop going to be? “Sharon’s nods were the full stop to any sentence” says the same in three fewer words. Result!
It’s easy to unthinkingly use the same words and expressions over and over, and before long the repetition jars as you read. This may be a repeated sound:
“…after an evening spent playing video games and drinking” just had too many ‘ings’ crammed into it and eventually became “…after an evening of video games and drinking”. Better? I think so.
Or it may be over-use of the same word in close proximity. For example, I had the night bus ‘sailing’ through the empty junction at three in the morning and a paragraph later the ambulance ‘sailed’ through another isolated intersection. Time for a re-phrase!
Definitely one to avoid at all costs, and yet because it is so familiar, so over-used, it’s easy for it to creep in.
My early draft had a paragraph in which Jessica laments not having a life-partner with which to bear children and ends with a reference to procreating using a turkey baster. While that might have been shocking (and funny) twenty years ago, it just seems old-hat today so it rightfully got cropped.
Similarly, the description of night-time London which started out with “The street lights cast their orange hue…” just sounded so clichéd when I read it back that it was immediately changed to the roads being “…orange-washed from the street lights that lit up the billowing emptiness.”
Sometimes you’ll know a paragraph is wrong, yet you can’t initially put your finger on why. I struggled with my second paragraph, which started out life as “Some call-outs were less clearly defined. The worst were pregnancies.” I changed “some” to “other”, as it linked back to the opening better, and substituted “less clearly defined” for “less clear cut” but still it wasn’t right. Finally I realised that the whole concept was wrong: these call-outs were as black-and-white as you could get so the absolute opposite of “less clearly defined”, hence the final draft reading: “The worst call-outs were pregnancies” and suddenly it all made sense.
There was more nonsense halfway through. On their first call-out, with the man dying on his landing under the bare bulb of the landing light, I have the wife watching CPR being done on her now dead husband without killing him off first! I retraced my steps to add “With the tiniest of exhalations he let go of thinking about the shade and went to the light”, a sentence I am still particularly pleased with! Job done.
Details can really enhance a story.
When Jess slithers through Mabel’s bathroom window initially I had her “sending bottles of Radox and shampoo toppling to the lino floor”. But realistically who would keep such items on a window sill that wasn’t right next to the bath? Substituting Radox for Mabel’s Ajax scouring powder felt more believable and served to underline the fact that Mabel was elderly.
Similarly, when Jess gets into Mabel’s front room we go from having a generic silver coin clasped in the old lady’s hand, to a copper coin, and finally a 2-pence piece. The final choice, being the biggest of all the coins, would be more effective in scratching off her winnings, after all. And details stick in the reader’s mind; generalisations slide away.
It’s rather like that 80s game show ‘Catchphrase’ where the host, Roy Walker, would always urge the contestants to “say what you see”. We writers see the story in our heads, we just have to write what we see!
THE FINAL CUT
There comes a point with every piece of writing when you can no longer judge it yourself. You have become too close to it. So, after seven days of chopping and changing, I finally sent the story off to a great friend and invaluable Beta Reader for a fresh pair of eyes. Her final comment?
“Lose the last line.”
And there you have it. All that remains now is to see what you think as you read the finished article and compare it to that early (and deeply embarrassing) first attempt.