Writing Update and Crafting Story Ideas

At the end of 2017 I organized all the sections of my novel, put them in order, then printed out the whole novel. Then I typed up and printed out all the accompanying notes. I did a run-through on my initial editing process to make sure it would work, then I put the whole thing away.

Then came JB’s birthday (which we celebrate around here rather than Christmas), then the New Year, then Key West. So, now it’s back to work and time to start editing the novel.

Large binder is 400 pages of novel; small binder is 100+ pages of notes

One goal this year is to not get down on myself if i don’t get some writing/editing done every day. Instead, I’m scheduling four hours every Saturday for writing work. I’d like to make it 10 hours a week somehow, but I want to be thoughtful about where those hours come from.

In the sidebar of the blog I have a space to track the first round of edits. Right now it sits at 0/90. We’ll see where it is after the MLK weekend.

My goals for short story writing this year are to select markets and write stories targeted to those markets. My first deadline is January 15. The story I’ve started is stalled. I’m not exactly sure where to go with it. Over the next few days I want to read more stories published by this market to get a better sense of what sort of flavor they prefer.

And, since I’m currently conjuring up a story, I thought I’d take a minute to discuss my own creative process for stories.

I tend to work by a method of accretion or lamination.

Some of you might remember a story I posted last year titled “An Unhaunted House.” The premise is that there is a small town where every house is haunted, and the single unhaunted house is a hard sell. A real estate agent decides she can sell it, but she decides that instead of selling an unhaunted house she will kill someone in the house and then have the easy task of selling a haunted house. Her plans backfire somewhat. She ends up accidentally dying and becomes the ghost that haunts the house.

The initial story idea – ‘an unhaunted house in a town of haunted houses’ went into a notebook. I keep notes like that in google docs and in a tangible notebook I carry with me. Each idea is like detritus in space, floating in isolation. But, sometimes, another piece of space junk runs up against it and sticks. In this case it was the name Country Rose (the real estate agent’s name). Unrelated to the story I jotted down the name Country Rose as a child’s name given by a mom and dad without much foresight. It’s a pretty name, and a sweet concept, but problematic when it comes to diminutives (what do you call her for short?).

What keeping notes like this does is allow the alchemical mystery of the creative process to do its work. I had a sense of what a woman with this name would be like, and she struck me as the perfect person to cast in the role of real estate agent in “Unhaunted House.”

Once this character and this story idea came together I had a stronger sense of what kind of story I wanted to tell, which is common for my process. If I can get a concept and character together a large chunk of the story reveals itself. A large chunk, but not all.

Once I had the concept and character of that story I ran through a lot of “what if” scenarios until I got to the point where I could write a beginning, middle, and end.

Sometimes it takes months to laminate one element on top of another.

In my ideas notebook I recently jotted down the name Croaker, as a character. I had some ideas about who this might be, but it didn’t go anywhere. Then I overheard JB talking about a gift her niece got for Christmas, which is some sort of 3D printing device. “Croaker should 3D print drugs,” I thought. When that idea came a few others followed — he works for a private prison that lets him get away with his shady drug creation work. I asked a few questions about what kind of prison that would be like and realized that his story could be the subplot missing from a draft of a novel I wrote four years ago. (I looked up Croaker when I had the idea as a name and saw that prison physicians are sometimes called croakers.)

The collection of ideas is the seed and soil of the story. Once two or more ideas/characters are pushed together I start the inquisition. Why are they here? What does that world look like? What do they want? What’s stopping them from getting it? Who or what opposes them? Do they have an adversary? Can I make this go in unexpected directions?

Even if a story gets as far as the inquisition stage it often doesn’t get beyond that.

And that’s where I am on the story I want to write by this weekend. I have a scene. And that’s it. I don’t have the next idea to laminate on top. I’ve tested out a variety of ideas to push the scene forward, but nothing’s stuck. Saturday I’ll pore through my cache of notes and see if I can find something that clicks into place and brings the story more into focus.

Ideas come from everywhere. What’s important is getting in the habit of collecting them. This is one reason I like to read book reviews of academic titles. Yesterday on Twitter I pointed to an essay (Wily Ecologies) on the lack of humor in US fiction about environmental catastrophe. Not an easy topic to joke about, perhaps, but the author was pointing out that there is a significant lack of satire in this realm as well. The worst excesses of humanity often attract satirists, but this doesn’t seem to be the case for tales of environmental collapse. I jotted in my notebook – satire about environmental collapse. Then I wondered briefly if VanderMeer’s Borne might be considered a satire. Or, how would it be different if it had been written as a comedy? That’s not enough for a story, but the seed has been planted.

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