Previously, I alluded to the idea of taking a more in-depth look at my writing process vis-à-vis the latest draft of my current short story project, code-named “Story of V”. And hey, you know what, this sounds like a good idea to do in general whenever I finish a draft or a major milestone of a writing project. Take a more critical look at what I wrote and the process that achieved it, and see what I can learn from it to apply to future writing projects. So here goes the first of my probably too infrequent series of Post Script Process Analysis posts.
In my prior post, I started talking about how significantly the wordcount on this story increased from the first draft to the second draft, and what comprised that wordcount. Just so you don’t have to go back and read it, the leap in length was from a little over 5,600 words to just over the 10,000 word line – an increase of nearly 80%, or close enough to doubling in length as makes little difference. So, why the big increase?
So, MS Word has this handy “Compare Documents” feature that allows you to take two DOC files, presumably earlier and later drafts of the same document, and see what changes were made between them. Word creates a new document with the changes conveniently marked in red text. Looking at the latest draft and the first draft of “Story of V” allows me to quickly (-ish) see what changes I made. On page 1, for instance, I added some character description for the POV character, switched some of the descriptive details of the environment and setting around to put character details closer to the beginning, heightened the use of the character’s senses, and made some attempts to improve the flow and the writing style. On page 2, I made the POV character’s immediate goals clearer, provided more details about the character and his state of mind, still more setting and environment description, clearer and fuller descriptions of two additional characters, and made more attempts to improve the style. I could go on like this for the next 30+ pages, but I’ll spare you the minutiae. What I’m really interested in is the bigger picture.
Already in those first two pages, the beginnings of a pattern emerges. Large portions of the added wordcount are devoted to descriptions of both the setting and characters, and to attempts to improve the artistic merit and quality of my writing. Similar large chunks were given to interior dialogue and deeper levels of characterization for both the POV character and the cast of supporting characters. Overall there’s more dialogue, in support of more characterization. Some lesser wordcount was devoted to clarifying and improving the blocking on action and combat scenes as well as clarifying a few minor plot elements. A similarly small number of words covered a few mostly minor changes to the plot and a few additions to the plot.
All of these things are, to my mind, to the betterment of the story. While my original goal for this story was to stay under 6,000 words, it is yet my contention that the 10,000-word version is a superior story. But how do I square that circle? This is where I want to start drawing some conclusions about my writing process for this (and, by extension, other past stories that followed a similar trajectory) and maybe make some education guesses about how to modify my process to achieve different results as desired.
The fifty thousand foot view suggests that something not particularly intuitive for me is going on here: I’m “discovery writing” these short stories. In my first draft, I appear to be largely focused on the details of the plot, and leave character, setting, and so on in largely broad strokes. Between the first and second drafts, both in this story as well as in prior two novelette-length short stories I wrote, I spent a lot of time thinking about the characters: who they are, what they want, what’s in their past. For “Story of V” I wrote up a series of first-person character narratives to help me get a better handle on them – with an additional 1,700 words. I did the same in the last two stories. The result of doing those character studies really shines through in the finished drafts of those prior works, and I think it does here as well.
But spending more time getting to know the characters while simultaneously not spending less time in the plot means that wordcounts go up in the second draft, not down. I don’t have enough experience to say what happens next, in the third draft, but I’d wager there’s a very minimal decrease in wordcount, if any significant change at all. Still, I don’t think that I’m keen to lose what I gain between these two drafts.
Is there anything else I can learn from writing this story? This particular story was written in a Third Person Limited point-of-view, with a slightly unconventional POV-character (nothing earth-shattering, really, but still a little unique). The tense is your standard past-tense. My last story was similarly in a Third Person Limited, past-tense POV (with a very conventional POV character). The story before that was first person, past tense. At first blush, I’m not entirely sure what I can learn from this observation, but I’ll tuck that detail away as I continue to think about this.
What does this all mean for me?
It depends, really. What are my goals? First and foremost, of course, to write the best story that I can. But longer is not always better, n’est-ce pas? I may have additional goals and agendas for a given story as well – in particular, the marketability of a story is an important factor for me to consider, since my mid-level writing goal is to get published in a well-read genre magazine or anthology. There are markets for works longer than 6,000 or 7,000 words, but they’re harder to find and more irregular. Shorter short stories are a more reliable market. This makes hitting a shorter wordcount a more desirable target for me in terms of the story’s marketability.
One fact this all suggests is that I’m a rather poor judge of the length of a story – or at least I am when I’m writing by the seat of my pants. So I need to work on improving my judgment of how much it takes to tell a story properly, and how to identify good ideas at different lengths. The key factor in this quest for improved judgment, I suspect, is more experience. But there may be other things I can do to try to experiment with my process. For instance: in none of these cases did I have an outline of the story before I started writing (a contrast to the book project that I need to bring back to the front burner), although all three were based on long-flash stories in the neighborhood of 1,000 words or so, but with expanded plots. Would outlining the short story, giving me a clearer sense from the very beginning of all of the plot and emotional beats before I start writing, help me get a better grip on the length? Or, what if I did my character profiles before the first draft, so that I didn’t have to wait until the second draft to get most of those details in?
If I want to control the length of the story, these are things I might try to see how they impact my work and my control of the story. And it’s worth seeing if this has any impact on the general quality of the story as well.
So that’s what I’m going to try for the next short story project I do. I’ll report back here, in some future Post Script Process Analysis post, what the results of some of these process experiments are.
Some other things that I’m interested to try in future short story projects is mixing up the Point-of-View and tense that I use, to see how that affects the stories.
For now, in the medium-short term, I have some more simple decisions to make. What do I write next?
There’s several options available to me. One is to take some time off from short stories (or novelettes) for a little while to focus some energy back on my novel project (code-named “Book of M”). Alternately, I have a few different short stories I could take on: one of two or three different ideas for another short story set in the same universe as “Story of V”, one of several ideas for short stories set in the world of “Book of M”, or, lastly, to look away from both of these universes to tell a completely different story (for example, I’m keen to do something new with the world suggested by the flash pieces that I’ve posted here called “Bright Hands” and “Shadow Pilgrim“, not a rewrite of either of those stories, but using some of the ideas from those stories as a basis of inspiration for something completely new). I’m leaning toward giving myself a set amount of time to spend working on the novel – say a month of six weeks or something – and then taking a break to shift gears toward a new short story. And, of course, stuffing final draft revisions of “Story of V” in there somewhere and figuring out how to market it.
So that’s where things stand for now. Share in the comments if you’ve got stories to tell from the writing trenches…