Monday, November 22, 2010

Ten Stages of Story Development

This is a totally pretentious, self-referential blog that probably will have little relevance to the manner in which you prefer to write. Nevertheless, I want to get down the method that I have found most useful.

Step 1: Concept.
All stories start with the germ of an idea, a thought, or perhaps just an interesting title,first line, or ending. This germ sometimes forms the basis for a story which, after a few hours or days becomes so strong that I have no choice but to commit it to "paper." This leads me into:

Step 2: Drafting

Drafting is simply noodling with the idea, getting whatever comes to mind regarding the idea down into editable form. This step might produce a bit of characterization, a setting description, an interesting plot point, a pencil sketch of a gadget, or even a bit of the story itself, be it narrative flow or dialogue. The point here is to get whatever you can - a few thousand words, perhaps - into a form that you can review and consider before committing to:

Step 3: Plotting

Plotting is deciding what goes into the story. Have you all the pieces you need yet? What might be missing? Examine what your noodling has produced and decide if all the elements needed for a complete story are there. Do you have the set-up to lead the reader into the story? Do you know what the ending will say? Have you thought of a way to develop the exposition? Do you have an idea for the characters? Do you have all the "facts" you need? If the answer is yes then you are ready to start:

Step 4: Arranging

This step is simply rearranging the scenes you've produced into some semblance of order, hopefully an arrangement that reveals what might be missing e.g. how to get from here to there. There is no simple answer as to how to do this. The final story sequence is not yet important so long as some logical order of the story elements emerges. If you have no idea of what might work then try a simple chronological order. Hopefully, this step will reveal more missing pieces that you'll need to add before you start:

Step 5: Production

Yes, this is more noodling, but this time only to fill in the blanks, be they facts, transitions,or bits of dialogue. While doing this I usually go over earlier material and make necessary changes,additions,etc wherever I see the need. This step produces a rough draft that must then undergo:

Step 6: Polishing and Smoothing

This is where the writer parses the sentences so that they sing, eradicating false notes in the narrative and correcting the "wrong" voices in the dialogue. Grammar and spelling are corrected in this step as well. Once the polishing and smoothing are completed you will have the penultimate draft, one which is mechanically suitable for publication. That is, if you don't want to start:

Step 7: Re-Arranging.

Maybe the best way to tell this story isn't what you originally thought. You might want to play with the time line or move the scenery about to make the epiphany or ending more (or less) profound. Maybe you don't want the murder to take place first but be developed later in the tale. Maybe some plot element would work better as backstory, or maybe a bit of foreshadowing should be added. You should always feel free to play with the story sequence if nothing more than to see what happens. I once committed scenes to cards and the shuffled them to reveal a more interesting order than I was working with. Play around and see what comes before you start:

Step 8: Layering

This is the enjoyable step where you add little bits of detail here and there; adding some symbolism if you wish. Layering is just like decorating the Christmas tree with tinsel. A word of caution: a light touch usually works best.

Step 9: Final Polish

Going over the finished draft with an objective eye is necessary. You have become so familiar with the story by this time that you cannot, will not, be able to see the glaring flaws. Put the printed draft aside for few days so you can return with fresh eyes and make corrections. Reading the story aloud to yourself often helps.

Step 10: Submission

No story is complete until it is published and that will never happen unless it is sent to an editor for consideration. Always assume that the first few submissions will be rejected and be prepared to send it out again the instant a rejection arrives. Persistence is frequently successful but understand that rejection is a fact of the writer's life.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Impressions of World Fantasy 2010

As a hard science fiction writer my attendance at conventions has been limited to those focusing mainly on SF, not Fantasy. After all, what possible benefit could I, a hard SF short story writer, get from a freaking Fantasy - for Gods sake - convention? Nobody in that crowd could possibly know me. Worse yet, I feared that I wouldn't know anyone among all the fey folk who would probably be sporting dragons on their shoulders, wearing fairy wings, and lurking about in capes.

Not my sort of thing at all!

So, much to my surprise when I arrived at Columbus I immediately run into four writer friends, who I vaguely recalled were into this fantasy crap. Then there were two more people I'd spoken to at other cons but who I'd imagined were SF writers, not fairy dusters. Maybe they were local, I thought. Probably got comped as well.

Rising early the next morning I found Ester, the WFC GoH, the only early riser in the hotel restaurant who engaged me in a quick lesson on WFC. "It's a fucking BUSINESS meeting," she ever so charmingly said over coffee. At which point a coven of agents and editors, some of whom I knew, but mostly did not, magically materialized. At registration there were more familiar faces, and then more, and more until it finally dawned on my that most of the attendees were WRITERS. Not a dragon among them, not a pair of fairy wings nor wicked capes polluted the convention center. Staggering away from the registration desk with fifty pounds of free books and assorted paraphernalia I ran into some more friends, and then even more.

The first session was a revelation for it was packed by writers, which made for an interesting dynamic, both from the aspect of demeanor and the types of questions being asked, all far different from the fannish type I so frequently encounter at other conventions. That impression was only strengthened by succeeding panels and readings - OMG, the readings! The readings were wonderful! As a fantasy virgin I was swept away by hearing the words coming from the author's own heart, hearing the voice of the stories unfold the way the writer intended, with emphasis at all the right places. Never had I imagined so much richness and, even though much of it was not to my personal reading taste, I was nevertheless impressed.

At the end of the day the bar area turned into an oriental bazaar of haggling and bargaining. A deafening roar of people excitedly exchanging ideas, passing rumors, making requests, and performing all the business of writing heartily, all of which was enthusiastically lubricated by wicked, eldritch drinks. Subject matter aside, WFC was turning out to be disturbingly like so many regular business conferences I'd attended through my corporate career. To the casual passers-by the crowd would appear to seem like any other gathering of mundanes, while they remained unknowing of the magical spells being cast by agents and editors, publishers and writers. Neither would they be sensitive to the heroic battles being waged to gain the prize of significant attention.

Did I mention parties? Oh lord, emerging from the elevator on the party floor you find yourself immediatly shoulder to shoulder with writers on every level and, in the rooms where liquid refreshment beckons like sirens, you find yourself talking to someone who just made SFWA's qualification and, turning around, enter a conversation with one of the giants of the field who is as excited and interesting as everyone else. Hallway conversations include WFC, Hugo, Nebula, Endevour, etc, etc award winners talking about the business, future, and problems of our singularly hermitic life styles. It is like dying and going to the Valhalla of writers.

I drove away from Columbus too soon, leaving so many ungreeted, so many discussions not concluded, and so little work being done: I usually finish a couple of pages at cons in my spare time, but not here, not where so many tempting distractions lurked at every turn. But every good thing ends and the long drive home gave me an opportunity to recover from the three-day adrenaline rush and sort out the actual business that I'd realized I'd practically accidentally conducted with editors, enough potential work to keep me busy for a few more months.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention it. I really, really, really, really freaking enjoyed WFC!!!