I’m stuck on writing. Solution? Random short story.

Yesterday was a real struggle to get something together for my blog, and today’s no different. In search of some material I have opted for a random word generator to produce some kind of guide as to what to write. The story is short – I need to complete by the end of my train journey. That’s little room for planning or organisation or even too much editing, and I’m issuing a caution about language and content, so buckle in kids it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Four words are: band, mould, wriggle, ferry.

Gavin’s eyes roamed the cabin. Not literally of course, that would be insane. Roaming eyes, but the owner still sees out of them. Gavin had a new idea for a song. Being in a band, travelling to Tasmania for a series of gigs, Gavin was desperate for something to fill out their repertoire. Despite assurances to the organisers, they only had a few original songs to play. They needed inspiration.

Returning to the roaming eyes, Gavin caught sight of some mould on the wall, Gavin gave his nose a wriggle. Disgusting. It was bad enough being in a four bed cabin with three other male death metal performers. Good thing it was non-smoking; there was enough methane in the room to power South Australia.

The ferry rocked and vibrated.

“Fuck.” Said Pedro – real name Peter, but, you know, nicknames… – sitting up. “Maybe we hit something.”

“Mmphhh mmmh.” Said Danny, lying prone face down in his bunk. Gavin was inclined to agree.

“What?” Said Pedro. “I can’t understand you doucheface.”

Danny turned his head slightly.

“Stop worrying. Let me sleep.” He uttered.

“This boat isn’t safe.” Said Pedro.

“You’re the one that wanted to come by boat and not fly.” Said Steven, directly below Gavin.

“That would be way more dangerous.” Said Pedro.

The boat shuddered, and for a moment Gavin felt a queasy vibration in his stomach. Sea sick or hungry? Gavin opted for the later, and with a neat twist sat up on the edge of his bunk, legs dangling over the side. He jumped down, stumbling a little with the swaying motion of the boat.

“Any food left?” He said, glancing over at the collection of half-eaten savoury snacks.

“Hear.” Said Steven, passing him a bag of crisps.

“Where were you keeping that?”

“Who knows?” Said Steven. “People go there and never return. But they produce nice crisps.”

“Shit crisps.” Murmured Danny. He was falling asleep again.

Gavin opened the packet and munched a handful. Salt and vinegar. Great, now he’s need something to drink.

“We need some song ideas.” Said Gavin.

“What the fuck?” Said Steven. “Why?”

“I thought we could expand our routine.” 

“We just worked on some” said Pedro.

“Yeah, we need more.” Said Gavin.

“We have enough songs.” Said Steven. “Why do you want more?”

There was just the slightest hint of suspicion in Steven’s voice.

“We have Reguritate Cats Vomit on Your Mother’s Corpse.”

“Yes.”

S”Anal Fisting Angels in Heaven, Hammer Fuck to the Face, Napalm Scrotum, Deep Throat Zombie Jizz.”

At each title, Steven counted off on fingers.

“We’ve got enough dude.”

“We may need more.” Said Gavin. “I made promises.”

“What kind of promises?” Said Pedro, peering up at Gavin. 

A long snore drifted out from Danny’s bunk.

“I promised five gigs.”

“What!?” 

“What fuck you mean?” Said Steven. Gavin always knew when Steven became anxious because he started talking like a Neanderthal. 

“Five gigs in Tasmania?”

“Yeah. Five.” Said Gavin.

“It’s Tasmania. Fuck we’d be lucky to do five in Sydney.”

“Some bikie meet apparently. We’ll get paid more.”

Gavin reflected that he should probably have mentioned that part earlier.

“And you want one more song?”

“Well, let’s start with one and see where it takes us.”

“Any ideas?”

Gavin thought for a moment and looked about the cabin. His eyes rested on the mould. He smiled.

“Mouldy roaming eyes double-p your girlfriend.”

Steven and Pedro looked at each other. Pedro shrugged.

“Okay.” Said Steven. “But you’re writing the lyrics.”

Gavin held up his hands, in a show of acquiescence.

“Cool.” He said. “Now, what was your girlfriends name again?”

Rewriting Dialogue in a short story

I am tantalisingly close to finishing a short story. After going a year without finishing one, it feels good to start getting some completion. 

So the story is about a woman being chased by a mob of men. She flees down a haunted path to escape, but then becomes ensnared by the evil spirit residing there.

I’m happy with the structure of the story, and the general flow. Some of the description needs tidying up, but this is minor polishing now. 

The big thing is the dialogue. The interplay between the two main characters (indeed the only two characters) is a crucial part. It opens up the protagonist (and thus the reader) to the realisation of her situation. 

Unfortunately the dialogue thus far is a little stilted, as I still need to adapt the story to meet the antagonist’s point of view. I’m definitely proceeding from the perspective that the antagonist’s actions fuel the protagonist’s actions. The difficulty is representing that in dialogue.

I’m going to focus on developing the antagonist’s motivations a lot more, so that this will enhance the dialogue and so propel the story. There are three sections of dialogue, so I need to work on tying those together. Separate moments of the same narrative.

I’m confident it will all be done by the weekend, along with some final polishing. Then it’s time to submit it, somewhere, and move onto the next project.

Rewriting the rewrite

Yesterday I was trying to decide which short story to work on at writer’s club. My choice was made, due partly because the story was already drafted, but also on account of not having other stories uploaded to my cloud…ok, I’ll admit it, the second reason was the real reason for my choice.

So my selected story was the Darken Path, a fantasy horror about a woman who flees into a haunted wood.

The story had already been rewritten a few times, but required some work on the dialogue, passive voice and some repetition. 

The dialogue was quite stilted. I’d originally opted to go for a more formal approach, but this had the impact of making the story seem like a costume drama (to quote some feedback). There were a lot of contractions to put in. There was also good opportunity to clean up pov and give some more description about the main character’s thinking.

I was able to scythe large sections of text that went on about the same thing, giving room for me to work on some sections that are underwritten.

I still have my seemingly endless battle with words like ‘suddenly’, ‘very’ and ‘seemed’. No matter how much I chip away, there always seem to be more.

So I think I’m at a point where I can wrap this one up pretty soon. I’d like to start submitting stories this year and force the pace on some unfinished pieces. With luck it’ll be the start of my publishing journey.

Which shirt shall I choose?

Which shirt shall I choose? That’s easy – black…to match my soul…

Ahem! The more pressing question today is, what short story shall I work on tonight?

It’s Writer’s Club (the first rule of Writer’s Club is, you do not write about Writer’s Club…I am a rule breaker). 

Shall I start again? The shirt thing was a ruse, a segway into a wider topic. So, tonight is Writer’s Forum (I just call it Writer’s Club for fun). We just sit and write. No doubt we look a little odd to onlookers. People come with different projects to work on, or sometimes not, winging it as they go. Some faces stay the same, others come and go. Sometimes people come once and we never see them again, often, I think, because they realise that it isn’t a group where we talk about writing, we actually do it. For many faux aspiring writers nothing is scarier than the idea of actually writing something.

Getting back on track, we write. We have a 5 minute warm up – sit ups, press ups, running on the spot, that sort of thing…not really (chortle). We write for five minutes on a random topic. This works. It helps develop creativity (which I think works well under pressure), and gets us into the habit of writing.

The rest of the writing is undertaken in 25 minute chunks of work, taking a break, and then another 25 minutes, and so on.

I can manage a fair whack in an evening.

Tonight though, I need to pick a story to work on. After weeks writing my novel I would like to take a step back and move onto something else. One of my disappointments last year was the long series of unfinished stories. That has to change. 

The stories on selection are:

The Red Door – fantasy genre – a story about a group of strangers who are forced, one by one, through a mysterious red door and return dead with horrific injuries of battle.

The Little Guy – abstract drama? – s story about a couple that find a small man living in their post box. As he starts to grow larger his importance grows, while the husband of the couple diminishes in stature and relevance.

The Darken Path – fantasy horror – a woman flees a mob into a haunted forest but it transpires she is being drawn towards a dark and malevolent spirit.

I’ll no doubt make up my mind by the time I get there, and I might have a couple more options as well. Tomorrow’s blog, I’ll let you know how I go.

The rewrite – dialogue

I realise that I had not continued with my pieces on rewriting. Thus far out of understandability, structure, characters, dialogue, style, and polish, I have only reached halfway. The previous rewrite looked at characters, and in particular the conflict between the two central characters in one of my short stories. This time round I am focusing on a critical means of delivering that conflict – dialogue.

Quick recap on the story. Horror genre in a low fantasy setting. A woman is being chased by men from her village. She flees down a haunted path. She meets a stranger who initially offers to help her leave the forest. It turns out the path is haunted and she is hunted by a dark spirit.

In the original draft the dialogue is a little stilted. It’s not real in the sense of how people talk. In fact, at one point it was described as being akin to a 1970’s BBC period piece. The two characters are not formal aristocracy; they are meant to be just farmers. So one aspect of the dialogue I need to change is how they are talking.

The other problem I noticed is that there is little to distinguish the characters. While there are some sections where the character’s voice comes out, most of the time you swap the speech tags and it wouldn’t read much different. Well, the story might take on a odd twist, but the content is not unique to that person is what I mean.

Imagine you are told a story about two people you know, and the person telling the story mimics some behaviours or wording from what they saw. If you knew those two people well you wouldn’t necessarily need to know who said what at every juncture, because their individual personality would come out. 

This story should do the same, bringing out the distinctive voice so that the dialogue seems plausible to who these people are. 

Apologies for the succinct post, having been caught out by some other things and distractions. Normal service, I hope, tomorrow.

The climate change caper

This is going to be a short post today, possibly for the rest of the week. In addition to setting myself the target of completing a short story this week, I foolishly set myself the additional target of another short story. I would like to pretend that this is the literary equivalent of getting drunk with your best mate and waking up the next day to discover their name tattooed on your butt cheek, but it ain’t.

Truth is, the writing bug is back. I have this yearning to write. Energy, zest, the effects of enforced sobriety from a wine diet lasting two months. Call it what you will, but that urge is returned. 

The first short story is of my own motivation. The second though, is from Chuck Wendig’s Terrribleminds blog. He set a 2000 word limit on a short story, to be completed by this Friday. Foolishly I decided to give it a go. 

I am determined to complete something because this is usually the type of thing I enthusiastically agree to and then back out of after about a day. I want to make a go of this, so 400 words a day should not be insumountable. I’ll have to compete the other story in the evenings (but I managed 3000 words yesterday, so pretty good progress).

So for the 2000 job there was a random story generator using a list of 20 words. The idea is to pick 2 words from the list and write a story based on that. Using a random number generator I got ‘climate change fiction’ and ‘heist/caper’.

Make of that what you will. 400 words a day. On a bus. Piece of cake…

Rewrite – characters

Now I’m onto the third part of the rewrite for my short story – characters. In some respects this should be easier than some stories; there are only two characters (although to the reader there might appear to be more). Nonetheless, their relationship and interactions, to say nothing of their motivations, are critical to the story. A lot hinges on this.

Characters, even minor ones, have goals and motivation. Conflict is the essence of story telling, so there has to be antagonism even for characters that are friends.

Another key element is that the protagonist is motivated in the story by the actions of the antagonist. Even a hero seeking out adventure needs stimuli to start the adventure, and in the interests of story telling and providing conflict this must come from the antagonist.

In my story, all the motivations of the protagonist stem from the actions of the antagonist. I believe I have established this firmly in my own mind. However, since I do not wish to give the game away until the final reveal, the challenge is in the subtlety of providing clues and hints. I want the reader to be in two minds throughout; how much is real, how much isn’t. The risk is being either too ambiguous and frustrating the reader, or too obvious and boring the reader.

When I wrote the first draft of the story I included a fair amount of backstory. This was mainly because I was writing in the moment, so I was trying to establish the chief motivations and intent of the antagonist (a creature called the Darken) in luring the woman (the protagonist) into the forest.

I’ve whittled that away from the current draft, but I still need to find ways to provide insight about the Darken’s motivation and story into the broader narrative. 

Dialogue is the principle way to do this, but that is the next stage of the rewrite. At this point I need to think more what I am trying to do, rather than focus on how I’m going to do it.

Since a key part of the story is that the Darken is not explicit about its intent (kinda gives the game away if it just turns up at the start), I need to consider how conflict is developed with those people explicitly present in the story – the woman and the stranger. It has to be real and meaningful. What I mean is that the conflict has to serve the greater ends of the story. The conflict is meaningless if it happens in isolation (since you could conceivably cut that section and still have the same conflict).

This is the area I need to think about. The stranger is an avatar in essence, so he has a particular role to play, and it has to be consistent with the overall goal of the Darken. For this reason I need to be clear on the Darken’s plan – what was it originally and how those the woman’s own motivation cause conflict. She cannot simply blunder into the trap, she has to do things that offset the antagonist and force him to change and adapt. If she simply does exactly as expected, it robs the story of the principle tension.

Her motivations need to be beyond the simple idea of staying alive. There has to be a deeper sense of what she is seeking and she chooses to respond to the crisis. The last thing I need is a protagonist that becomes a bit part player.

So that’s the idea at this point. Just some of my thoughts about what I bed to consider. Tomorrow it is about the tool of delivery – dialogue.

Rewrite – structure

The next stage of the rewrite. Recapping briefly, I am rewriting a short story. I have selected a set of 6 stages of rewriting – understandability, structure, character, dialogue, style, polish. Yesterday was understandability, so today I focus on structure.

If you search for terms about story structure there are thousands. Story structure at it’s simplest might be attributed to Aristotle’s “whole” having a “beginning, middle and end”. I prefer something slightly less nebulous, so I am using Nigel Watts 8 point guide. There are many other guides, but I had to start somewhere. I won’t describe them in detail but suggest reading the link or making an Internet search.

My short story in this case – woman chased by men, runs down haunted path, meets stranger, attacked by evil spirit – has a limited breadth to cover the 8 points in detail. In terms of ‘Stasis’, my story only suggests the every day life with hindsight. The start of the story, with the woman fleeing, has already initiated the trigger. Her fear, I am hoping, is sufficient to portray that this is not a norm and thus one can extrapolate some broad idea of her every day life not involving being chased in the woods.

So we have moved very quickly to the ‘Trigger’. Indeed, I literally cut to the chase in the first paragraph. The men are chasing her.

The ‘quest’ is partly to escape the men, but it becomes more for the Protagonist as her story goes on. This is one part I definitely need to flesh out in the story, because there is very little to safeguard her return home and I don’t think I successfully articulate her decision making very well in the story.

The ‘surprise’ elements are broadly interlinked, but involve falling into a river, meeting a stranger, and the dark spirit at the end. I was pleased to get feedback that the ending remained obscure, I haven’t telegraphed the conclusion.

The protagonist needs to make a ‘critical choice’ about returning home. As I’ve written, I don’t think I have covered that area very well, so I need to think more about her motivations, and those of the dark spirit and the stranger in counter balance.

The ‘climax’ and ‘reversal’ come very quickly. Again, I think I underplayed the tension for the Protagonist – her decision making is a little too simplistic. Worse still, it reads to me that she simply does an about turn without reference to what has occurred before (there is a lengthy section of dialogue with the stranger). I could have cut that section and it oud make no difference to her train of thought.

The ‘resolution’ is pretty well set, and just needs some tweaking. My original premise was quite vague, but I can flesh this out quite easily. 

Apologies for the succinct nature of this description. As always, this blog is written on the bus, so I am a hostage to a limited timeframe. I might do a follow-up once I’ve completed the 2nd draft, to explore the story in more detail. Tomorrow is characters.

The Rewrite Рunderstandability 

After a brief malaise I have finally got back into the swing of writing. Having set out some targets for the rest of the year, I can now resume in earnest.

My first focus is on a short story. The first draft is done. I have feedback from other writers. Time for the rewrite.

I’ve split the rewrite into two broad sections. The first is more analysing my work. Feedback can support that analysis, but the change has to come from within (excuse the cliche). That is, I have to take ownership for the changes I make. 

The second part is actually crafting the second draft. Having identified the shortcomings or changes needed I focus on actually making those changes. 

I found a reasonable guide about breaking down rewrites into 6 distinct parts: understandability, structure, characters, dialogue, style and polish.
So my first stage is understandability. This I reckon should be at both the macro and micro level. Is the story coherent? Even if you read a draft would you get the premise? Then, are individual passages understandable? Does it make sense it’s writing?

First then, the story. It’s about a woman; she’s running. She’s being chased. She chooses to flee down a haunted path to escape. She falls into a river and is carried away deep into the forest. She meets a mysterious stranger. They wander for a while. She grows suspicious. Her pursuers return. The forest attacks them and the stranger. She is trapped by the forest.

I would say my story has some coherency. It’s deeper meaning comes later.

I then have the job of nit picking every sentence and word. I actually do that as part of my work, albeit in a very different context. I tend to be harsh (but fair, I like to think). I have to exercise the same strictness on my self – quite masochistic. The problem is it is a little subjective. This why you need feedback.

One thing that was highlighted was that I use the passive voice too often (no doubt a product from my more clinical day job). I provide insight by telling rather than showing. There are phrases like ‘She felt…’ Or ‘She was…’. There’s also repetition and duplication – ‘She felt hot. The Sun was bearing down on her…’ (You get the idea).

I also found some strange passages that really don’t mean anything. One particular one is ‘A beauty of haste.’ With some feedback there was the comment ‘poetic, but what does it mean?’

In truth, some of those passages are very much lacking in meaning. I recall the ‘beauty of haste’ one from the very first rough draft. I think I meant to write how she looked beautiful in her haste, but the line stuck. It’s lines like that I need to be most wary of, because they might seem to mean something without meaning anything (at least to the objective reader).

So understandability needs some working on, reshaping each line to be ‘on message’ for the reader. I don’t really want them to stop dead in a stir and left scratching their head about a confusing passage.

Slapped in the face with a fish

Last night I went to a critique group to get feedback on one of my short stories.it’s a necessary part of the writing process. 

I found that there are different kinds of people that give feedback. Some are broader based, focusing on the general thrust of the story, selecting only the minute when it stands out.

Others are quite forensic, sometimes (and unfairly) called ‘grammar nazis’. 

There are those who are forensic on the story itself, not just the writing.

All sorts of critique. All of it is useful. And all of it gave me a Freudian vision of everyone in the group briefly taking on the image of my mother.

To be honest, outside of my work, I am not used to that level of scrutiny. As a social worker I have come to expect critical practice as a necessary norm. I berate myself for what, in retrospect, are glaring errors, but I welcome the process to ensure quality of the work. In social work, particularly child protection, the scrutiny is vital both for the writing of assessments and reports, but also for the writing of the ‘story’ (the analysis of what has actually happened to the child).

So accepting feedback in this vein is vital for my writing, but that doesn’t mean it’s painless. There were some pretty clear errors, ones that shouldn’t have happened or would have been obvious on a quick re-read. It’s a good lesson to me to undergo a process of redrafting before getting feedback, to iron out the obvious flaws.

Why didn’t I do this? Well to be honest it’s because I’m quite new to this writing malarkey. I have a broad idea of producing a story of reasonable quality, but in many respects I am flying blind. I guess I was after some validation that whatever the finer detail of the story I was on the right track in terms of writing one. It’s a confidence thing.

It’s like swimming. It’s one thing to know that you’re swimming to some capacity (by the fact that you’re not drowning), but ultimately you would need outside perspective to give feedback on your technique.

The critique session helped immensely then, not just in terms of this particular story, but also in terms of thinking about the re-writing and drafting process. There were common themes and threads of criticism that have given me a good sense of how to redraft a story in the future.

So yes there were moments it was like being slapped in the face with a fish, but the benefits are huge. It made me think, readjust. I don’t need to agree with all the comments, but I do need to use them to make me think about my writing and whether a particular story works or not.

I’m already looking forward to the rewrite.