I write like I cook; no recipe, a lot of mess and not a little noise. One of the interesting parts is how the story changes during the process, the little decisions that totally change the tone and point of the story. The scenes that get cut or moved, the fact that Deckard should be a replic…..oh sorry, sidetracked.
So I thought I’d show how I got a short story from blank page to published story. This isn’t going to be full of any great insights or sage advice, I’m not in a position to be giving out either, but it’s just a look at how I went about it. I’ll be using my recent flash fiction story, which you can still read here.
A while back, we were talking in the break room at DSD towers, as we do. Football. Comics. Gumbo. The usual. McFet has a habit of asking interesting questions, and I have a habit of getting half an idea from them that I then shelve and do nothing with. This time, he asked about fiction that explored the recession, asking whether or not crime fiction was a more natural fit for the subject matter than anything else.
Quick sidestep here; once upon a time I was a bright-eyed young employee for a large company. I was brimming with ideas. I kept making suggestions, “you should do this..” “What needs to be done is…” “This is how that would work…” And I quickly learned that, if you voice a strong idea, people would often give you the room to carry out that idea. And so I learned my lesson. I stopped making suggestions out of fear that I might be expected to follow through on them.
So, yes, anyway. Back to that coffee break. McFet asked the question, and I said, “someone should issue a flash fiction challenge about that.” All eyes turned to me and nodded expectantly. Aww fannybaws. And so the flash challenge was born, 300-1000 words on the theme of the recession. I issued it, and people responded. But all the time there was another problem lurking away at the back of my brain; since It was me who issued the challenge, I really ought to write something.
I’ve been all about economy of writing lately. When I first found my voice in short fiction, it was one that didn’t like endings. I liked to finish my stories at the point when most people would just be starting theirs. With the idea that something was about to happen. I found that more realistic, and I still do. I don’t like neat endings. But the more I work on the craft side of things, the more I try and find the balance; an ending that feels open and real but also provides the cap to a story.
Wendig again enters the story at this point, as he wrote a great piece about story structure. In it, he mentioned one of the problems with flash; it can fail to have a story. It will often be a glimpse of something, a vignette. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. It can be a great way to get to grips with a character, or to try out a new style. It can be very satisfying both to write and read. But, that wasn’t where I was at. I wanted to prove to myself that I could produce a complete story in so few words. Weddle does it very well, so do a number of the regular contributors to these challenges. My previous flash attempt had done it in a very small, muted way. My character never moved from his sofa, but the story had a beginning, middle and an end.
And then I thought of a grand master of crime flash fiction; Bruce Springsteen. To read the lyrics to songs like ‘Highway 29’ or ‘Straight Time’, or back even further to ‘Meeting Across The River’, is to read great flash. They have beginnings, middles and ends. But they did it in small brush strokes. In each of these tales, the story ends either just before something bad happens, or when something ambiguous has happened, yet they still have definite endings, we are left in no doubt as to how things will go, and who will be on the losing end. They are endings that make you do the hard work, and that’s where I wanted to go.
Okay, loser, think. You’ve issued this bloody challenge, and the deadline is in three weeks, where’s your story?
Okay, loser, think. You’ve issued this bloody challenge, and the deadline is in one week, where’s your story?
Okay, loser, think. You’ve issued this bloody challenge, and the deadline is in three days, where’s your story?
All the while, the story is trying to find itself in my head. I have the edges of the plot; I worked in a bookstore and I knew ways to take them down if I’d been that way inclined, I’m a crime writer, it’s how my brain works. I had the rough shape of a character; the flash challenge to me had suggested writing about someone who was in way over his head. And I like to add realism to my stories, so “in over his head” meant getting caught or killed. No miraculous escapes. My guy would be a white collar worker, someone who was forced to do something criminal, and he would then be double crossed by the criminals and left to wait for the police. We wouldn’t see him get arrested, but we’d know that was what was about to happen.
Oh, and I had an opening line; “The thing about committing the perfect crime? You need perfect criminals.” I liked that, and the story started to write itself from that easy introduction. Plot happened. Easy as pie. He stole the money. Half way through I introduced the shady characters he’d bought in on his caper, and at the end they double crossed him. “You’re not one of us,” they say, “you should’ve stayed behind your desk.” And they walk away, leaving him to wait for the police and a ruined life. Full stop.
I sat back and felt contended, full in the knowledge that I was one clever damn bastard.
Then I went and drank some tea, and took a shower. Then I wasn’t so happy. They story was garbage, how could I have not seen it before? Dammit, I was so far from being a clever bastard that I might as well have been named Bon Jovi.
I sat and read it, and it felt forced. I didn’t buy it for a minute. And if I didn’t buy it, then nobody else would. I re-read the ending that I’d been so proud of, and It felt like the ending to a story. I realised that’s the exact opposite of what I want. And then that beginning and middle? Hmmm. Well, I still liked the beginning. But the middle didn’t actually do anything. I didn’t care about the main guy, and I didn’t believe that what he was doing was any kind of challenge.
First thing, how to make the guy real? Step one, I gave him a name. If people read a name, they have something to pin on him. Maybe some baggage of someone they really know, or maybe just a more personal connection. So he became Dave. How to get into his head and make me care about what he was doing? I wrote about the little details that he noticed, and how that felt. Two things I would usually avoid, but they added to the flash.
So, eight PM. The store long closed. He sat in the cash office, in the dark, alone. He lifted the bags out of the safe and felt the weight.
There was a time when he’d have said it was more hassle than his job was worth. There was a time when he would have shut the safe again and walked away. But that time had gone.
So, eight PM. The store long closed. Dave sat in the cash office, in the dark, alone. The only sounds were the clock on the wall and the air conditioning above his head. These sounds, noises that he’d heard every day for years, suddenly seemed vitally important. They were the only thing to distract from the pounding of his heart or the blood in his ears.
He lifted the bags out of the safe and felt the weight.
Was it worth putting it all on the line for seven grand? There was a time when he’d have said it was more hassle than his job was worth. There was a time when he would have shut the safe again and walked away. But that time had gone.
And then the ending. Again. Like I said, it felt like the ending to a story. It had Checkov’s gun elements, and the introduction of characters halfway through who’s only function was to provide an ending. That seemed forced in a way I was uncomfortable with. And here’s the only bit of advice I’ll attempt to impart; if something you’ve written feels wrong then it probably is. If these criminals were only in the story to service the ending, and I didn’t like the ending, what was the point?
So I took the characters out, and the ending fell of quite naturally without their support. And then I was left without an actual end to the story. Dave walks out into the cold night, weighed down with bags full of stolen money, and walks past a couple of cops. Originally he was walking to where he would meet the criminals, but now that wasn’t happening. What to do? I mean, where was the drama in just having this guy walk past a couple of……ho snap.
So that’s where it ended. With be pressing ‘delete’ rather than ‘the end.’ A desperate and guilty man has to luck up the courage to walk past a couple of cops, whilst hoping they don’t somehow smell the money or notice his hands shaking. Cut to black and let the reader decide the rest.
Then I felt a little bit better about the whole thing. So much better that I was willing to publish it.
And I promise, I’ve only re-written it twice since then.
Maybe three times.