The first steps

I’ve just recently finished my first short story and it has been an incredible learning experience.

The story, which I hope to share here at some point, was originally inspired by a documentary on the Crusades. I began sketching out ideas (by sketching I mean just writing things down) and came up with an early concept. I began to think about the character, his motivation, his mission as such, then commenced free-writing to try and find a story in the idea.

I would write about 1 page worth then stop. I would then start over, re-writing this first page again, and stopping. I did this so often I lost count, but this character would keep taking the first steps then stopping, almost as if each time I was hitting a brick wall.

I began to polish what I’d written in between the actual writing, and discovered early on that this was a terrible idea. I gradually made it past those early scenes but was continually finding myself running out of steam. I simply couldn’t get any further.

I shelved this idea for a while until finally I took it into a new setting – from historical fiction/fantasy forward into science fiction. Once I did this, I started to write out the story again, but slowly began to apply the things I had learned about writing craft to the plot. I sat down and plotted my story out, mindful that I should also work out how it ends before I begin, so I had something to aim at.

I began to write and instinctively, continued to die at the end of the first page so I took a different tact. Having the basic plot written, I forced myself to not only write utter crap, but do whatever I had to in order to get past that first page. The next day, I would write page 2, and then page 3, until I got deep into the story – only floundering a bit when I got near the ending with no idea how to conclude it. And after much deliberation, I also ended it (although the ending was terrible!).

As I got to the end of the approximate 5000 word draft, I realised that this was only the beginning. I was excited about continuing as it meant that for once, rather than wrestling with the words, I could focus on editing – a skill which at the time, I thought I was quite good at. Not so!

The editing became so much more than simply identifying poor grammar and finding better ways to say things, it became considerably more work than that first draft itself. Here I had two sides contending with each other – good writing, and good story. I had to examine the characters, making sure they were consistent, had proper motives, active rather than passive, and were suitably conflicted and sympathetic.

I had to look at the plot, to ensure it was interesting, not contrived, and entertaining. There were so many elements that began to reveal themselves, but I worked through it, and after considerable work polishing the absolute crap out of it, I sent it out to someone to read and offer feedback. This was a gigantic step for me, as the notion of putting yourself out there, the risk of looking like a completely terrible writer…it was stressful to say the least. But I had to do it. I had reached a point where I couldn’t possibly continue unless someone else had looked at my work. I was so close to it that I couldn’t see it anymore.

And his feedback? He said it was good…but – riddled with issues. For a start, it was choc full of adjectives and adverbs. It had several cringeworthy overt sci-fi terms. There were complete scenes that were not relevant to the main plot, and only served the purpose of being infodumps. The characters were not consistent, and worse, after the build up of tension…nothing happened before it concluded.

I couldn’t believe it – he was so right! All of these things, I simply couldn’t see them. Having been informally studying the writing craft for the 2 or so years previous, I knew all of these things, yet couldn’t see them in my piece. The thing that I found most interesting from this experience was that I was specifically trying to avoid some of these problems, but they still made it in there! I suppose it’s a positive that having studied these things, I was able to recognise the problems he raised, and more importantly, rectify them.

From that point I was able to hit the work again, this time with new purpose. I cut irrelevant scenes that were info dumps and re-wrote new scenes that included that same information but as part of the story. I made sure the characters were consistent throughout, and suitably motivated. I made sure the tension escalated, but then resulted in something actually happening. I culled the overt sci-fi references, nuked as many adverbs as I could from orbit, and ensured that the only pieces of text left in the story, was in fact relevant to the plot.

There were so many things, but in the end, I felt really happy with the story. So happy in fact that I have begun the process of trying to submit it. It’ll likely be rejected, but if that is so, I hope that it is at least rejected with comments.

Ultimately, the writing of this story has been such a good learning process for me, that I am excited about writing my next one. My current problem is coming up with a new idea. I have several – some basic plot beginnings, some just settings, but I need to find those elusive antagonists and counter purposes which really form the backbone of the story. As I said earlier, I’d love to share this story I’ve just finished at some point, and really break it down to illustrate just how I learned from it.

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