Yes, I know I’m now three stories behind. And I should be publishing another story, not another “meta” post. But on Tuesday night I went to a short fiction “how-to” event with Thomas Fox Averill, an O. Henry award-winning author and professor at Washburn University, hosted by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. And now I’m ready to get back on track.
I’ve been reading some short fiction “how-to” books, but sitting in a room and being able to make eye contact with someone who knows what he’s talking about is different somehow. I figured out why Bess’s story has been so hard to write, came up with some ideas on how to re-write a second draft from a slightly different perspective, and participated in a writing exercise that gave me a huge jump-start on my fourth short story, Daniella.
Professor Averill’s lecture, at about an hour long, was truly a crash course in short-fiction writing. (I italicized that in part because my assignment at the end was to write a story involving the collapse of the Topeka Avenue bridge.) To cover such a huge amount of territory in such a short time, he framed his lecture around several words all starting with the letter P:
- Person – who is your main character, and what are their strongest/deepest traits?
- Place – where is the story taking place, and does that give your story a narrative frame?
- Problem – “Trouble [is] the backbone of literature.” – Eudora Welty. Testing your character’s character, for example by trying their strongest traits, makes for the most interesting story. (This is essentially the core of Ayn Rand’s theory of the plot-theme.)
- Point-of-view – who is telling the story, and how does that affect the story itself? For example, first-person POV is traditionally the “survivor’s” POV; I don’t think it’s an accident that I selected first-person POV for the first two sections of Adam.
- Plot – in addition to the generic “what structure does this story take?” we also talked about plotting, for example is a story based on a traditional narrative (like “the hero’s journey”), or are you starting with the end (or the beginning) and making up the rest as you go?
- Parameter – I didn’t write anything down next to this while taking notes, but I remember thinking about plot-theme again. If I had to guess, I’d say this one means: what are the bounds of your story (number of characters, place, time elapsed) and does each one test your characters and reveal something meaningful about them?
- Practice – this one is obvious: “writer’s write.” How can you be a writer if you don’t sit down and write?
The only thing we didn’t really cover was outlining; Professor Averill seems to be the type of author who starts writing and then lets the characters give him the story. Here’s what that looks like for me:
I don’t really like writing like that, because it leads to what I call reiterative editing. That is to say, I keep going around and around making little nips and tucks and tiny changes and improvements to the point where nothing ever actually gets written. (For example, in the first paragraph, two consecutive clauses use the word “problem” – yes, homework problems are called “problems,” but I would find another word or find another way to describe the action; like “rewriting the equation using the arctangent formula” or “transforming it into the arctangent formula.”)
That works well enough, but it doesn’t help me fill in the blanks (helpfully set off in brackets in the image above). I like to outline. I’m a planner. If I had outlined Bess, I could have taken each bracketed idea, compared it to my goals for each character, and put something in there that would have moved the story forward.
I don’t have to hew too closely to my outline, but I find that constraints promote creativity and that I work better when I have a sense of where I am going with a story. Adam started out with four scenes that mirrored the first four stages of grief, with a planned denouement that implied acceptance not only of losing his father-figure but also his acceptance of the android version of “the human condition” at the very end.
About halfway through, I realized that the first two scenes had a lot of thematic overlap, the third and fourth scenes were a little slow, and the fifth scene wasn’t going to have the right tone if the reader got too far into Adam’s head. So I rewrote it as three scenes, with a change of POV in the third scene that looped back around into the narrative so the first two scenes, told in the first person, could be read as Adam telling his story to the technician; the third-person POV in the final scene pulls the reader out of Adam’s head so they can experience his final narrative section in the form of a confession and come to their own conclusions about what happens next. Is the final line hopeful? I think so. But it’s not unreasonable to think that line is tragic, that Adam will never be able to feel anything but only continue parroting human emotions.
I’m going to try outlining more, starting with Daniella. I already have an outline for her and the beginnings of one for Eb, so if I can catch up with Bess and Charlie next week, I should be able to stay more-or-less on schedule from now on. Keep your fingers crossed!