When you make a story of any kind, the beginning isn’t the beginning and the end isn’t the end. Any truly living story is just a slice of something much larger. I learned this lesson lately.
As I’ve begun the final edits of my novel, A Bridge To The Quiet Planet, I had decided to try writing short fiction on the side. I had many ideas, from using random stories to doing more in the setting of my novel. The idea seemed fun, interesting, different, and relaxing – and maybe profitable.
With my first attempt in draft form, I handed it off to some friends to edit, confident that if I could get such good reactions to my novel draft, this was sure to be of equal quality. However, one of my editors was extremely critical – he noted how it was constrained, limited, and it didn’t seem to be like my other work. How could I have gone so wrong?
At first annoyed, I sat down and analyzed his voluminous comments (this person is someone I’m trying to push towards pro writing and editing). Soon I realized that he had a point.
There wasn’t the sense of setting I usually created – I write on Worldbuilding but this world didn’t seem alive. There was little sense of extra details or of things going on around the characters. It was like a studio backlot.
I didn’t do much with character senses or feelings. The tale was limited and scriptlike, minimal on sensations. Even with the rather intellectual cast of my experiment, the focus was too literal.
Characters themselves seemed constrained – only when they really interacted were they characters. They also didn’t interact well with the setting. It was like actors wandering through a soundstage.
My story, in short, wasn’t alive. So I asked myself how did I get here – and the answer became very apparent.
I had taken a break from fiction for awhile, and returned to it with my novel. To do the novel I had used various plotting and outlining techniques, and I tried to do the same for the short story. I had produced a very detailed outlining system for short stories, ensuring I got to the point and didn’t overdo it.
I had built a skeleton for a story. However I’d put very little meat on the bones – the minimal at best. I had created a system, but not created much of a story, at least to my standards and that of my friend.
With this idea in mind, I examined some of my other short story ideas that had been incubating – and they felt much more alive. These were ideas that had been sitting around for some time, that were played with and thought over. Because of this imagining and re-imagining, they were more connected, more alive, more nuanced.
This story I had just attempted was the least thought-over and least nuanced. Too much of it was alienated from itself.
That’s when the lesson of all of this hit me like a thunderbolt – you don’t write a story, you write part of one.
A story should be a slice of your setting, a piece of the history of that setting, a small and interesting part of a much larger potential. It should have characters who are not sprung into being at the start, but are created and written so they feel like they have pasts and futures outside of your story. Everything should feel large, no matter how short the story is.
Now these things may not be immediately apparent – you may have a story idea and need to better realize the world and characters. You may only need so much detail. But you need enough for the story to be alive because it’s part of something larger, at least conceptually and imaginatively.
Based on this idea, I’m back at it. I can’t say what you may or may not see, but if you do see any short fiction from me, I think it’ll be much better.