That Way Lieth Dragons
A few months ago I started a short story. It went like this:
Once upon a time, a dragon got a good deal on a modified, split-level
ranch with aluminum siding and a big yard—2.9% APR for a 15 year fixed, no
points, no closing costs. His credit was mighty indeed.
It went a little further than that (by a few pages) until I had a bunch of gossipy neighbors playing poker on the other side of the cul de sac. That’s as far as it got.
There are a lot of jokes inherent in this premise. I think it could make a fun story. Maybe.
If only it would go somewhere.
A friend of mine asked me once why it took so long to write a novel. He wasn’t being facetious – he was honestly curious. “If I were you,” he said, “I’d just write all day long for a couple months and have it finished.” He wanted to know why I didn’t do that; if that was what I wanted to do (write novels), why not put the pedal to the metal and just grind them out.
The idea has merit. Indeed, most writing advice you’ll find involves some variation of ‘write every day’. Not all of us, though, are Isaac Asimov. Even when I do write everyday (and I do whenever I can), much of what I write just doesn’t go anywhere. I have, at last count, six short stories that I’ve started but not finished. It isn’t because I don’t want to, but rather because I don’t have them figured out yet. It’s uncharted territory, as of yet. If I blunder onwards, without notion or care of where I’m going, the story is going to wind up in the trunk – I’m going to have to rewrite the whole damned thing, anyway. Why go through the motions when I can trace this stuff out in my head beforehand? Short Stories are great like that – you can fit them all inside your brain at the same time and weigh each and every paragraph against its neighbors. I can, anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing process, lately, and how it varies when I’m writing short stories as compared to writing novels. When I write a novel, I’m a machine – I churn out pages at a solid rate, week-by-week, month-by-month, until the first draft is in the can. Then I go back and do it again. And again. It’s a sculpting process – chipping away pieces of stone here, chinks of rock there, smoothing and polishing, until the David is revealed from the block of marble that encased it.
Short fiction is a different animal, though. You can’t blunt-force your way through a short story (I can’t, at least). For me, they come out mostly fully-formed. I write it and there it is. I do edit, of course, and I change endings, delete characters, etc. Most of that, though, is less like sculpting and more like smoothing the icing on a cake. Once the cake is baked, it’s baked – you can’t fix it except to start all over again. So, what I do instead is I dump my ingredients out on the counter (dragon, suburban house, cul de sac, etc.) and let them sit there. I stare at them. Sometimes I have the ingredients to five or six metaphorical cakes sitting there at the same time. Occasionally I see new things I can bake from the morass and, in a twinkling, I’ve got a cake I never expected. It isn’t, though, a matter of sweat and blood. Not really. It’s like catching fireflies – not about the running, but about a certain kind of bloodless patience, waiting for the moment to strike where BAM – the story becomes clear.
It’s worked for me thus far. Is it the right way to do it? Hell if I know. I’m not sure I want to know. Perhaps some questions are better left unanswered.