I am editing “My first 6 days in South Korean prison”, a near future story placed in the same alternate universe of Limiters and “Sunrise“. While I wrote about the overall challenges of near-future stories here, this post is about the memorable part of a story.
I find short stories to be an extra challenge. When I sit down and write, 5000 words are easily produced in a days time. I do this using a sort of managed “stream of consciousness“. I define what I want to write about (topics, elements), define the characters (mentality, age, response patterns in certain situations) and start writing.
In general the mix (of which the total is given here) makes most stories almost write itself. I simply run through things and let whatever it is do its work for me. When that is done, I start editing. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot, depending on how bad things have been done. And sometimes bad is really bad. Like: “I am 10 year old and I wrote a story” kind of bad.
This short-story limit has one problem: 5000 words is usually not enough to show all. It required pruning. Delicate and deliberate pruning. It also forces me to be very clear on things where a (short) novel (40.000 words and more) allows me to take more time to describe and put down.
The main question I am now using while doing editing round #4 in: “My first 6 days” is: “why care?”
“Why would I care about this story after I read it?”
What did it do for me? Why would I feel anything for the main topic of the story? (Which is a major data-leak and the imprisonment of the main character in a jail in South Korea.)
It is not enough to write about what happens and about the possible innocence of the main character or the way she deals with the situation (taking care of herself). The one single emotional outburst is nice, but when the ending does not bring everything together, who cares?
“Why care?” focuses on information. Relevant information that makes clear why the situation in the story matters. For the character, for the world in which it plays, for you as a reader. It focuses on the end, the little twist, the final paragraph that has to land it all. “Blam” and in your face.
While the information is in the story, it does not always come out immediately. Sometimes because the wrong angle is used and something else blocks the view. Sometimes because of contrast: blending into the gray.
So today I list the elements for that part: to help myself a bit further on this.
- The right start – The first 50, 100 and 500 words on a short story are very important. It has to grab, hold and twirl the reader into the story. With enough momentum for the next 2000 words.
- The right end – When you close the story, it has to land. It has to be a clear ending where all the important stuff comes together. I usually compare this with “parking the car”. There are many ways to do it, most importantly: make it leave an impression.
- The right angle – Where is the “camera” when we show the main elements? Who is in view, what else do we see? Does it leave the impression we want to make?
- The right contrast – Is it clear? Does it not blend in too much in all the other elements? Is it not standing out too much?
- The right emotional charge – Does it hit me at the right moment? Is it something that triggers something in me?
- The right timing – Do we build up enough things around it to land it properly? Is it in the right place or should it be revealed earlier/later?
- The right dosage – Is it enough to trigger? Or do we overdo it? Or the opposite: are we giving it hardly any attention?
- The right focus – Is it there at all? Or did the story move into a (completely) different direction? Where we started out on trees, the story has suddenly become one about butterflies?
- The right title – The story title is sometimes just a minor element, but always holds a promise. When it points in the wrong direction, the story itself fails. Even if it is just a bit.
While building the story and the characters, the dialogs and scenes are equally important, in this aspect of the writing and editing process, most of them are irrelevant. Fancy background.
Now that the editing on the dialogs and the general story is done, I am sinking my teeth in maybe 5% to 10% of the total amount of words and sentences. I am constantly rewriting certain parts, removing things and adding new parts to “get it right”. To get that focus, that timing, that angle.
It means that specific information is removed. Things that seem relevant from a technical point of view, but take the attention away to the parts that really matter. It is like cleaning a table in such a way that you still think: “hey, that is a messy table”, but you immediately see the knife there.
Short stories versus long stories
Unlike with long stories, I do not have the room and luxury to return to a specific topic and go back in more depth on things. When I have a limit like 2000 to 5000 words (to get it published in a magazine), each scene already is as short as I can make it: stopping at the point where all the relevant events and items are exposed.
I can not get away with a certain swagger. It has to be precise. To the point. There.
So instead of adding extra scenes, I am cutting, cutting and cutting more. Descriptions adding extra atmosphere are removed or shortened. Sentences are moved around. Responses changed. Just to create more space for the trails I have to leave to make everything come together in the end.
Why care? #2
- Because it affects the life of the main character – This is the starting point. If nothing happens to the character itself, why bother?
- Because it affects the world around the character – This is a bonus. It is always nice to see something change or crumble down or getting better in the world, showing that there is more than just the characters.
- Because it triggers something in the reader– This is crucial. When I trigger nothing in you, nothing will be remembered. This can be separated in three parts:
- Interest – It interests the reader, from a mild interest to a deep fascination. It can be something the reader might want for itself, dreams about, likes, lacks, like to nerd about. Spaceships, the ideal murder, love, sex are four regular examples.
- Emotion – It triggers a specific emotion / there is a level of what you might call: sympathetic involvement. For instance: rage, empathy, sympathy, laughing out laud.
- Bonding – Something in the story binds the reader: characters, scenes, specific elements. Fan-art is a good example of where that bond can lead to: where the story or a character suddenly get their own lives, created by fans.
- Because you like the character – Also called: “sympathize with”. If you do not like the character, do not give a shit, you will also not give a shit about the story itself. I immediately stop reading myself when I do not feel anything for the person it is about.
- Because it makes sense – It could happen. Maybe in a different world or a different reality. But it could happen.
I am very aware that my stories have a very specific niche. They are in some ways quite nerdy. There is not a lot of running, shooting and exploding stuff. Instead a lot of talking and sitting and walking and thinking takes place in confined spaces and cities. AND it is SF.
I donot expect everyone who read “50 shades of grey” or “Harry Potter” to read my work and say: “That is awesome! I want more!”
Instead I focus on “people like me” who like heady / brainy stories written with a Pulp-fiction kind of style and approach, with enough background research to make my pseudo-science and my pseudo-“knowledge” plausible and enjoyable as a read. For people who like to read SF about believable characters who could be the kind of friends you never had: adventurous, slightly crazy or strange, smart and still flawed. The kind of people I like to be and the kind of lives I would like live if I could bend reality a bit more.
So from 100 potential readers I have maybe 1 or 2 who would care about my kind of stories.
And when they read it, it has to matter to them. If they read it and feel nothing afterwards, I wrote something just for me. Nice masturbatory stories nobody will care about when they disappear into oblivion.
And then what?
Being the overachiever I can be (when I am not sabotaging that by laziness) I want it to be good! So while “yeah, that was a nice and interesting story” is already something, I want to hit you in your heart. I want you to cry out in protest when I tell you I will take a break or not write one single word anymore the rest of my life.
The only way to achieve this — after the storytelling is at least good — is to rewrite and rewrite the pieces that matter, so that they hit you when they need to hit you and you get the parts I want you to get. To give you just enough so that you want more and not too much so that the things that matter get messed up in the clutter.
Me and my editors
While part of this is my doing, a good editor is crucial in this.
Sure I can write stories and sure I might be able to even write good stories, but I have a limit. I get bored. I forgive myself certain lazy decisions. Like a coach coaches a sports person to go further, faster, better, an editor does this for the writer.
I believe that such a person is many things:
- Brutal – When things do not work (as well as they should) this should be mentioned. And pointed out
- Just – It is easy to sable down a story and be a complete asshole about it, but that is not necessarily just.
- Focusing on your story and your success – Sometimes the person editing your story likes to weave their ideas into it. Like the stories they never wrote but would like to write. Instead: what is it that the writer tries to convey here? What way could that story and story reality be made more solid?
- Knowledgeable – Both on storytelling and on the subjects. At least enough to point out stupid mistakes I make because I am not.
The people I select will play a crucial role to really hit that memorable stage. Where you, the reader, read my story and three years later think: “I want to read that shit again!”
While part of that was me, an even more important part of that: “being memorable” are the selected and special people who read it and gave me valuable feedback on this.
I have this: “want to read again” relationship with many writers, naming only a few: Samuel R. Delany (“Babel 17”, “The Star Pit”), Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira”), Osamu Tezuka (“Buddha”, “Letters to Adolf”), Frank Miller (“Sin city”).