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folded dollars in his donated clothes
july 12, 2003
It's not unusual for me to read more than one book at a time, and it's also not unusual for me to write more than one story at a time.
For readers who aren't writers, but are interested in the writing process, and also for fellow writers who might like to have someone else's writing process to compare their own to, I thought I'd use this Lately to discuss what I've been up to recently with my own fiction writing.
A while back, I mentioned I was working on a story that opens with a man hiking in the Montana mountains. Just as he reaches the tree line of the path he's taken (the tree line is the elevation where the forest ends, and bare mountain takes over), a hard rain starts falling. It's nearly night, so he climbs up a rock face to a ledge about twenty feet above the trail, where he unrolls his sleeping bag to spend the night. There's much more to the story, of course-- that's just the opening page.
I intended to write that story, and did the opening scene, which I was pleased with, but I found that each day, during odd times, driving, half-watching TV, making dinner, I would be thinking not of that story, but another unfinished story of mine, It Hurts The City.
The idea for It Hurts the City occurred to me years ago. Basically, it's a variation on what is apparently a sub-theme of mine, interrogation. I say so, because as I thought about the story, I realized I had also explored the idea of interrogation in other stories, such as Big Inches and This Moment of Brilliance.
I had thought I knew the full plot of It Hurts the City, but then, as I started unexpectedly thinking of it more, when I should have been thinking about the mountain-climbing story, I realized the premise could be developed even further, adding more characters and scenes.
Since I was thinking about It Hurts the City so much, I stopped writing the mountain-climbing story, knowing I'd return to it someday, and worked out a scene-by-scene outline, which ended up three pages long, for It Hurts the City. (I always use an outline when writing a novel, to keep track of all the different elements I want to include (specific descriptive phrases, bits of dialogue, foreshadowings), but generally don't use outlines for stories. However, the plot for It Hurts the City was getting complicated, and the cast growing). Once I had the outline done, and could stand back and see the entire structure of the story, I realized the story would actually be novelette length (each story idea has its own length. I really don't care if a story idea of mine turns out to be 5,000 words long, or 15,000 words, or 100,000 words, as long as it's the right length. We've all read short stories that should have been novelettes, and novelettes that should have been short stories).
To me, a novelette is not just a long short story, it's its own form, a hybrid between short story and novel, and as such I decided I wanted to put the outline away for a while, so I would start thinking about it subconsciously, because I knew that doing so would cause me to come up with additional ideas, adding to the story's depth.
During that period, I started yet another story, one in my Recorded Occurrences cycle of stories, this one about a family being harassed as they drive down Las Vegas Boulevard. I wrote enough of the story, the first three pages, to get the tone right, and the general development of the plot, then stopped work on it and went back to It Hurts the City, writing most of the opening scene.
It had been my intention at that point to write the whole novelette straight through, but after a few nights working on that first scene, I came up with an idea for yet another story, which actually intrigued me more. I'll call it the Tornado story. It is in fact the story I've been working on the past few weeks.
(I frequently start and stop stories. Once I'm about 2,000 words into a story, though, I'll tend to write it to the end).
As I first started working on the Tornado story, an additional major idea concerning It Hurts the City occurred to me, one that again takes the story to a whole new level, so it was good I put it down for a while. It Hurts the City, whenever I do get around to writing it, will probably wind up being novella-length, meaning 30,000 words or more. It's got some exciting concepts in it, and plot twists, and strong characters, but I just instinctively feel it's not quite yet at the right point in my imagining of it to put it down on paper.
(My own habit when writing is to get an idea for a story, but then let that idea lay unwritten for anywhere from several months to several years, so I have time to slowly think about the world of that story. I'm much more satisfied with the end result that way. To me, the finished story has greater depth and detail when I let it develop on its own, rather than quickly slapping on a plot).
Here's the opening paragraph of the story I'm working on right now, the Tornado story:
Will the words stay the same? Probably not. I'll pull some out, slide others in, but the basic idea, of opening the story with a man trying to pee as fast as he can, to get back to work, will remain.
I write in different styles, depending on the story. When I first wrote the opening paragraph to the Tornado story, I presented it in less-dense prose, with shorter sentences. Although an uncomplicated, declarative style works well with a lot of tales, once I reread the opening paragraph of this story, I realized I wanted a style that was more crammed with details, to where there's a lot to absorb all at once, much like life. I also decided to start each of the first twenty or so paragraphs with the word "So". Why? For one thing, I wanted to experiment with using "So" to create a rhythm and repetition to the first scenes of the story, for its own stylistic purpose, and also, I was intrigued by the idea of repeating "So" to the point where its use suggests an attitude that is almost dismissive, sort of like, "So we went here, so then we went there, so we see this guy I know…", etc. And then abruptly dropping the "So" when the scope of the story suddenly changes.
Here's a brief summary of the opening pages:
Palmer, the protagonist, is at his office after five o'clock, as usual, when a storm starts, and the power in his building fails. His supervisor, Carol, comes into his office, asking if he'll go to her apartment with her so they can finish work on the department budget, using a laptop she has at home. He agrees, they drive in her car through the downpour, arrive to her apartment, she goes into the kitchen to get them each a beer, he stands at her living room picture window, watching the storm. Let's go back to the draft:
Again, the language at this point is provisional. But our hero has been snatched up by a tornado in Dallas, Texas, and splashed down into a pond on a farm in Oklahoma.
These are only the opening scenes of the story, the plot then veering in a direction I don't think any reader would expect from having read these first few pages.
When I thought up this story, the first thing I thought of was the idea of someone being plucked up by a tornado and thrown down somewhere completely outside his normal life. Originally, I had Palmer hospitalized in Oklahoma to recover from his experience, and then, in my mental outline, had the nurses giving him clothes from the hospital thrift shop, and raising money for bus fare, for him to return to Dallas. He gets to Dallas, and his apartment building is flattened, the office building where he works is flattened. His former life, in other words, is destroyed. He has nowhere to go, only a couple of folded dollars in his donated clothes, no car. He then has an experience I won't go into here.
I enjoyed the drama of him returning to Dallas and finding all of his former life obliterated, but as I started writing the actual story, I kind of liked the characters I created that he meets in Oklahoma, and realized that if I allow him to return to Dallas, I'm going to have to create a whole new group of characters there to continue the story, which seemed like too many characters for what I was writing. So I decided to give up the drama of the return home, and keep him in Oklahoma, letting the rest of the plot develop there.
At this point, I've written a little over 9,000 words of the story, and I think I'm about halfway through it. Once it's finished, it'll be my longest non-novel story.
At least until I get around to writing It Hurts the City.