Sticking With a Story

This week I finished two short stories that took me a much longer time to write than they really should have.  But I’m glad I stuck with them, because I think they’re both strong stories and I think the second one (if my betas end up liking it) will be the strongest one I’ve written to-date.

The reasons I struggled with them are very different.

The first one is the one I’ve mentioned before where I actually had a draft of the story that was a fictitious rule filing.  The problem with this one was that I was in love with the concept behind it and I wanted to explore that more than I wanted to tell a story.  So, I wrote a story that was flat and emotionless.  Then I wrote the rule version, which was like a regulatory filing.  (Ugh.)  There were some funny bits in the rule filing, but not enough to make it a good read.

Next I wrote a television interview format, but it was basically the rule filing with talking heads.  Finally (thanks to some great advice from one of my betas), I went back to that first story version and expanded it and made the characters more real and showed the issues with the concept through their eyes.

I think it works now.  It took me five separate versions and probably 15,000 words of writing to get to a 2,500 word short story, but it finally got there.

Lesson learned: If you like something and it’s not working keep trying it from different angles.

I often see the advice to change POV or tense (and changing tense did work with one of my earlier stories), but I would also say to change format.  I almost wrote that story as a magazine article as well.  Whatever it takes to mix things up enough to get a good story.

And just because you write it in one format, doesn’t mean you have to stick with that format for the final version.

Now, the second one I fought.  That’s because it was another one of these concept stories, but I decided from the outset to make it personal.  And there is nothing more personal for me than something that deals with my family.  So, I wrote this story with a main character who was loosely based on my father.

And I put him through some pain and suffering, which means I spent about half of the time I was writing it crying.  (I don’t expect readers to cry, but I hope they feel the emotional depth behind the words.)

So, I wrote the first 3,600 words back in March.  And then I didn’t touch it again.

I thought about it.

I wanted to finish it.

I printed it out and read it, but I couldn’t bring myself to work on it again.

I told myself it was because I was editing the novel, but it wasn’t.  It was because it hurt to write.  And I didn’t know quite where to take it.  I had some ideas, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.  Not with this story.

I think there’s such a thing as putting too much of yourself on the page to the point that you forget the craft of writing and I didn’t want to do that.  (I was already right on that line…)

But I wanted a twisty ending.  The wonderful personal I received in March said that the denouement of my last story was too predictable, so I didn’t want that to happen with this one, too.

So I thought about it a lot.  But thinking isn’t writing.

Finally, yesterday, I sat down and finished it.  And I’m very pleased with the final version. (I had to go for a hike afterward to clear away all those emotions, but I’m glad I stuck with it because I think it’s my strongest story yet.)

I hope it’ll sell, but even if it doesn’t I still really like it and that’s all that counts.  (I’m holding off sending it to betas for a few days just so I can have a few days of feeling warm and fuzzy before they throw the cold water of reality at me.)

As a side note: Last night I told my mom I wasn’t going to have her beta my latest story.  I didn’t tell her why, just that I wasn’t going to send it to her.  She reads like a hawk, so if I’ve misspelled a word she’ll catch it every time.  But she would not appreciate just how much of her and my father are in this story.

Her response? “Thank you.”  She further explained that it exhausts her to read my stories.  (I send her one about every two months…)  OUCH.  Not surprising.  And one of the reasons I often miss my father.  But, still.  That hurt.

This is why an author has to pull that motivation to write from inside.  Writing cannot be about external validation, because people will tell you your story sucks or they’ll criticize you for what you write about or how you write or any number of things.

Writing has to be about something you want to tell the world and to hell with what anyone thinks of it.  Including your own mother.  Or maybe especially your own mother.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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