As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been working on another short story project. I started on it roughly near the beginning of August when I ran across an F&SF market listing (which specific market I will not presently disclose) that immediately sparked my imagination. The code-named “Story of K” wasn’t a story I’d intended to write. But here we are: I’ve written the thing, it’s done, and it’s been submitted (barely by the market’s deadline). So that means it’s time for me to do another Post Script Process Analysis.
This time, I’ll be looking at the whole process of writing this one, from start to final draft – which is something I can do since that process was completely contained within a single month. As with “Story of V”, whose final draft I still need to get to, this story was based on a flash-length piece of fiction that I’d posted on this site back a couple years ago when I was participating in a weekly flash fiction writing exercise. When I encountered the aforementioned market and read the theme and requirements, this particular flash piece immediately leapt to my mind: I felt it resonated strongly with the desired theme of the market. Of course, however, said flash piece was really more of a vignette than a full-fledged story, and if I was going to try to submit this to an actual, paying market, I was going to need to delve into it more deeply.
Going in, I was concerned that the fact this was based on a “published” story on my own blog would render the heavily revised story inadmissible. I decided to go ahead with the new story, even knowing that this possibility was out there. If the story were rejected because it’s based on an existing, previously-published story, what’s the worst that could happen? It gets rejected. That’s the most probable fate, anyway, statistically speaking. Time will now tell whether the story’s ultimate fate is acceptance or rejection – and if the latter, there’s little chance I’ll ever actually know if the cause of rejection was the pre-existing version available here. So, not gonna sweat it.
That decision made, here’s how the writing actually went down.
I started with the original story, which I labeled “Draft 0”. I read through it several times. And I started to think about what was missing from the story, and how I’d want to finish it. I started thinking about how long the finished product should look. The market I would be writing for had a firm upper limit of 6,000 words. I’m sure I’ve discussed before how difficult hitting a target like this has been for me, historically. So, I got aggressive: I aimed for 3,000 words – that way, even if I exceeded my target wordcount, I’d still probably be under the upper limit for the target market.
And then, I tried to apply the learning I gained from my previous post script analysis: I wrote an outline. This is not something I have typically done when writing short stories. But I wanted to see if putting the plot structure down on paper before committing draft words would help me control wordcount. And I had a very tight wordcount goal, so that made this even more imperative.
I also wrote a few very short character descriptions. I went into significantly less detail on the character briefs than I have in the post-first-draft briefs I’d written in the last three stories I worked on. Mostly, these character briefs described the role each character plays in the plot. Not sure why I didn’t dig deeper into the characters, here – but it felt acceptable in part because (1) obviously, I wanted to keep the length of the finished product down and (2) the story itself was essentially an extended character study of its main protagonist.
Before writing, I had the following three writing aids: 262 words describing each of seven characters who appear in the story, 379 words defining key SF&F terms that would be used in the story, and 854 words describing the seven scenes of the story, in which I attempted to map out the emotional beats and the key plot points, as well as make some note of the character relationships and interactions that drive some parts of the plot. With that in hand, I started writing Draft 1.0.
That first draft came in at just under 7,500 words. I’d significantly overshot my target. And I’d overshot the hard limit. In fact, this first draft was even longer than the first draft of “Story of V”, which clocked in at about 5,600 words.
The upshot? This story felt complete, in the sense that all the parts were there – as compared to “Story of V” which felt somewhat lacking upon completion of the first draft. In fact… even before I started reading for revision, I already had a sense of where I might be able to make cuts in the story. Here’s where the rubber hits the road.
“Story of V” nearly doubled in length between the first and second drafts. But “Story of K”, went from 7,500 words to 6,400 words from the first draft to the second (actually, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I labeled the second draft “version 1.1” rather than “draft 2”) – a nearly 15% decrease in size. The result of the cuts was clearly a better story, whereas the reverse was true with “Story of V”, where it was additions that led to a better story.
Of course, that was still over the hard limit. But I kept at it. The going got tougher with each new word I cut, but by the time the second round of edits were done – the third draft – I was at 5,993 words. Victory was to be mine!
How I went about those cuts is at least a little interesting to me. In the first round of edits whole chunks of scenery got the axe – one entire scene that was entirely composed of “telling” details revealing some facts that would be rehashed in the very next scene in dialogue was removed. The cuts were largely concentrated in sizable chunks. But the second round of revisions was more subtle. A few snippets of dialogue got cut. A large number of redundancies in the descriptions. But the most interesting of the second round cuts were instances where I tried to take something I’d written and say it better and with fewer words: a handful of words at a time. In many cases, I found I could revise my clunkiest and least effective sentences and bits of prose, improve the language, and make it shorter all at once. Compare, for instance, the following before-and-after shot:
Though the observation deck was abuzz with the commotion of final preparations, the two colleagues stood together in a sea of calm and isolation. There was a strange, tense quiet. But inside of her, the world was a cacophony of conflicting thoughts.
Compare those 40+ words of thud with the following, rather more streamlined and (I hope) improved word-smithing:
The two stood together on an island of calm in a sea of commotion, forming a strange, tense quiet. But inside her thoughts were wild and discordant.
That’s 27 words – 36% shorter than the original. The only missing element was the comment about the “final preparations”, but that’s a fact that’s already clear from the context of the scene in which this snippet occurs. So no meaning is lost. Admittedly, it’s still not 14-carat gold prose, but I’m comfortable in saying it’s much improved. There were many other (and much more spoiler-y) instances of similar processes.My conclusions from “Story of K” are pretty simple. First, I need to continue trying to use outlines before drafting. I want to see if there’s consistency here. It would help me a lot if I found that the first draft already contained all the essential details, so that the subsequent drafts could focus on cutting extraneous words rather than adding missing plot points, character details, and other such story bits. The second is this: I think I can make a noticeable improvement in my writing craft by focusing more closely on finding my clunkiest bits of prose and trying to boil it down to fewer words. So that’s “Story of K”. Now for the long wait… in which I keep my fingers crossed, and hope for some positive feedback (even if I dare not hope that the story will actually be accepted). During which waiting period: I celebrate my crossing the threshold of at last submitting something to a professional fiction market after several long years. (Later in the weekend I celebrated the occasion by playing a bit of Zelda.)