Composing a Story – Part 3 of ?

Part 1

Part 2

After my own first and second drafts, I sent my story to my writing peers for commentary. I also sent it to a loyal reader (Thanks, E!) who volunteered to comment. I received valuable feedback from them and incorporated it.

Sometimes commentary can be good. Sometimes not. I once submitted a story to an online critique group and got about 500 words of “you need a comma here, you need a comma there, you need a comma over in that other place”. Dude, that was a style. It was intended to be run-on, because my character didn’t really think in logical structure that we’re all used to. So that critique didn’t do me any good. Had he said, once, “I don’t understand it without commas,” and then also gone on to give me 200 words explaining that he didn’t get why the character chose to eat his own shoe, I would have gotten at least something out of it. As it was, repeating over and over his insistence on proper grammar achieved nothing.

For this story, though, I was fortunate that my reviewers provided valuable feedback. Such as, “I can’t tell if this story is intended to be omniscient or close third-person.” This kind of thing I appreciate and can use when revising. And “as a reader, I would have liked a little more connection between Marcus’s decision at the end and the two major problems:”. These comments allow me, as an author, to understand where my readers are confused, or bored, or annoyed, or simply tired of reading about something. These are the places where I need to decide, as an author, if I want to make a change or leave it as it is.

Because I, as the author, may want you to be bored in a scene. I may need you to feel the impatience my characters feel, as they wait for the coming storm. I may be leading you towards greater tension later, and a more emotionally satisfying resolution of that tension, because you’re feeling uninspired now and I’m going to use that to escalate the experience for the reader as the story progresses.

One of my more successful story edits based on feedback was to add a whole scene at the start, and when I did it clearly became a better experience. But sometimes, I’m just going to read all those comments and say, “Hell, I like it as it is!” and move on. I’ve done it both ways.

Back to the point at hand. This story had a style that, I thought, kept the reader distant from the main character Marcus. And while that worked to make him somewhat unlikable, it also slowed the pace of the story. Here’s the opening paragraph. I’ve highlighted where words will change:

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

And here it is, re-written.

Had he been paying attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky might be transforming into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and could have aided his resistance.

These may be small changes. But they make the scene more active: “been able to pay attention” is simply “been paying attention”, and actually gives Marcus more authority in the moment. We know a sky is “overhead”, this word is redundant. The sky wasn’t “attempting” anything, it actually was transforming, and so making it more active brings more immediacy to the scene. The final phrase is clunky, too. Why use 5 words, “attempt to fight back”, when one, “resistance”, does the same thing?

A second example, from later in the story

He looked up to see her standing tall above him. She held her scythe in one hand, and an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said.

She thrust the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor. Like rotten fruit and rotten milk, it made him want to gag.

Re-written:

She stood tall above him. Scythe in one hand, an extra robe in the other. “Up,” she said, thrusting the robe at him. “This will help.”

“What does it do?”

She ignored the question and strode out the door. Marcus slipped the robe over his head, and while the stench she exuded was hers alone, this too had an odor of rotting fruit and milk. He gagged.

And that’s how a lot of this editing went this round. Making action stronger. Making dialogue more tightly bound to the action it complements. Ensuring Marcus has action, like gagging, rather than a lot of desires, like wanting to gag.

Version 2 was 10,200 words. I liked the plot and the characters. The action was not active enough, though, and overall it was bloated and wordy. Critiques helped that.

Version 3, as a result, was 9,700 words. Kept all the same plot points and characters and backstory and eliminated a lot of the fluff. The good thing about that is, too, it’s now under a 10,000 word limit that some markets have. So there may be more opportunities to publish this than before.

I finished all the re-writes and edits about 8:30 pm on a Saturday night and formatted it according to the Writers of the Future guidelines. Submitted before the midnight deadline, and now I wait.

But not passively. While waiting for the result (expectation: no award), I’ll also build a list of next markets for submission. I hope to get at least 15, so that when a rejection comes in I can turn it around quickly and have it back out. And if I get all 15 of those rejections, it’s probably time to re-consider the story.

Composing a Story – Part 2 of (?)

It’s been enough time since the first draft of a story I wrote, and now it’s time to start refining. This week I read through again, made some notes about things I’d like to see different or changed, and made some revisions.

A couple of times I’ve seen this (Stephen King comes to mind):

2nd Draft = First Draft (minus) 10%

So I often target at least cutting out 10% of the words. This usually makes the prose tighter, removes a scene or two, and generally moves things a long a little faster.

Here’s an example paragraph.

Before

It stood silently in the hallway, apparently staring at the number 17 screwed tightly to the frame. As Marcus watched, it raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and what looked like actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward, then, poised, and grasped the handle of the — what –-sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

After

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

A bit tighter, a bit smoother. Most of the words remain, just the fluff taken out. And I did remove a few whole paragraphs, because they just didn’t make sense.

Overall, first draft: 11,420 words. Second draft: 10,200 words (10.7% cut) So I managed to meet that baseline.

There are some markets where 10,000 words would be the limit. Should I wish to submit to those, I’d have to cut just a bit more. Which, at this point, would be a scene or some action, rather than just words here and there. But I don’t think I’ll have to do that. I’m now going to ask for some feedback from readers and writers. Based on those comments, I may change again. This might be cutting a few scenes, or adding something necessary. So the fact that I’m close to an arbitrary limit doesn’t mean a whole lot at this point. We’re still in development.

Okay, here it is, the first scene. If anyone would be interested in reading the whole thing and making a critique (which is, by the way, not just saying, “I like it,” or “I hated it,”), then please let me know.

Oh, by the way – I don’t have a title yet. So we’re working with “Untitled” for now

Untitled

by Stephan James

Had he been able to pay attention, he would have noticed the semi-darkness descending upon him. For as much as the sky overhead might be attempting to transform into an overbearing, oppressive presence, the fluorescent lights along the city sidewalks pushed back against the intrusion, and would have aided his attempt to fight back.

But he was preoccupied, and could not take the moments to look up, look around, and notice the gloom slowly settling over his environment as he walked home from his office, late, on a Tuesday evening.

It was only seven blocks. Not really worth the time and money to go out of his way a block to the subway, then backtrack two more. So a nothing man walked home from a nothing job in a nothing city to a nothing apartment, listening to his now-grown-up brother whining about said brother’s wife and daughter spending too much of said brother’s money on spa trips, and all Marcus could think was At least you have someone.

As soon as he thought it, he was reminded of his counselor, a mid-fifties woman who’d been divorced and remarried, who tried to tell him that he wasn’t washed up at forty-seven, who continued to push him to see the good in his life, who would have said, “Well, Marcus, why do you continue to berate yourself like that? It’s been fifteen years. You have to let her go.”

He found the door handle and pulled, automatic, thoughts swirling through his head as they always did, overwhelming, overpowering, a tidal wave of the past and all that had been taken from him. His feet moved of their own accord, his hand pressing his cell phone to his ear, into and out of the elevator, eighteenth floor, well-trod floorboards and empty picture hangers on the wall, down the hall and turn left, voice droning on and on. He couldn’t stop thinking that maybe he’d –-

There was someone at his door.

No, something.

Some thing.

It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the long handle and ridiculously curved blade slung over its shoulder?

Was that Death at the door to his apartment?

Waiting?

Waiting for him?

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm/appendage. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the — what –- sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

It put two hands on the scythe and stood waiting. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.

But today that phone call had distracted him, had made him stop in his office building lobby instead of heading out into the night so he could concentrate before the traffic sounds overwhelmed the conversation, had slowed his walk on the way home, had kept him from his usual routine enough so that he was now on the outside when he would have normally been on the inside, on the outside here where he could take a look at this ridiculously stereotypical picture of Death waiting to claim him, Marcus Jeffries, for the underworld or the afterlife or Heaven or Valhalla, he was outside the door and not inside and his brother’s voice came again through the phone and it startled him, startled him into movement, startled him into action, startled him into saying “I’ll call you back,” sliding the phone into his jacket pocket and taking two steps towards the monstrosity.

At the sound Death turned and pointed its hood towards him, four apartment doors away. He couldn’t see a face buried under there. The hands were veined, strong. Useful hands. Hands that did an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He admired that. His “career” had been spent updating electronic spreadsheets to meet another’s goals. Hardly anything to be proud of, other than that he had no debts outstanding and he’d never really hurt anyone, never really done anything wrong.

Death stepped towards him and spoke. “Marcus,” and the voice was female, surprising him. Deep, and raspy like a smoker, but definitely female. “You’re late. It’s time to go.”

Marcus held up his hands in front of him. “Uh, seriously? Do you know how ridiculous this seems?”

She moved even closer and now he could see the outline of a chin in the shadows of the hood. It moved up and down. “I have little time to play, Marcus. You’re on my list, let us be done.” She was now just a few feet away. She raised the scythe above her head.

“Wait, what?” He retreated, hands still in front, and felt his pulse spike. Adrenaline flooded his system. “I’m too young to die!”

“That’s not my issue,” she said, and swung the scythe at his neck. As it moved, the blade screamed into the hallway, the sounds echoing off the corridor walls with a banshee wail. He ducked and felt the whoosh of air as the blade swooped through the space where he’d recently been. The hairs on his arms stood out, at the sound, and at his proximity to his own demise.

“Holy hell!” he shouted, surprised at the emotion. He felt so alive! He hadn’t felt like this in twenty years or more. She cocked her weapon again and approached even closer. Two more steps and he could have grabbed her robe.

She swung again, the blade howling, and this time he dropped to the floor. The point passed within inches of his face and buried itself deep into the plaster wall of the hallway, scattering white dust into the stale air. Marcus scrambled back, crablike, and around the corner, while she struggled to release the blade from its new sheath. He got to his feet and sprinted to the elevator. He felt sweat beading on his forehead, and all those fight-or-flight chemicals had him hyped up so much he thought he might levitate.

He glanced back the way he’d been, but saw nothing, heard nothing. When the door finally opened he threw himself inside, landing against a handful of people, and grasped his jacket tight to his chest. Finding his breath coming hard, he stabbed the lobby button.

And prayed for the first time in a decade.

#

The Deepest Cuts are the Worst

I entered a contest run by the Barefoot Writer (a monthly publication for copywriters). The assignment was to respond to the following prompt: “If a holiday were to take place in your honor, what would it be called and why?”

I first answered with about 975 words in this essay:

The following was discovered in 16-year-old Zane’s journal, by his snooping sister and posted on Instagram:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” My dad shouted. It’s his holiday. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” My mom shouted back. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

He muttered something under his breath. “What?” I asked.

“I said, ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, it is, you said so yourself last year,” Mom replied. “Now you have to take the Ceremonial First Drink!”

He shook his head. “Fine.” He held out a hand. By this time there were at least a dozen of us crowded around in the small kitchen. You never celebrate Nick Name Night with just a few people – always a big group.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – one had egg nog, my little brother dumped in orange juice. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine. Nowadays it’s a penalty for anyone who swears twice in the night.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Everyone laughed. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up onto the counter and she giggled.

“No, daddy, I can’t go first. I went first last year. You said we have to do things different each time.”

“When will I ever learn not to take my rules from Calvinball?” He smiled. “Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.” So we stomped outside in the 2 inches of snow for a quick run.

I lost. Sort of on purpose, but also so Katie would feel good. Making others happy is what this night is about. Back inside I hopped up on the counter for my “Naming Ceremony”.

Dad said he got this idea because he’d had so many nicknames in his life. Like, 10 before he got out of college. And he liked that. Because it reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better. I suggested “Baldy” last year, but he used his veto.

Anyway – everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname that might be yours for the year. Last year mine was “Specs”, because I got new glasses. That wasn’t so bad, but I was looking forward to a new one.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” She said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I just shook my head and held my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten really into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie, which was so obviously bad that I didn’t have to worry about it. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because you’re becoming a real man.” I liked that.

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. When the final vote was counted my family finally came through. Z-man it would be, and I would have a whole month to decide whether I liked it or not.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other potential new nicknames. Dad ended up actually getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Speedy”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”, and so on.

Anyway, we finished it off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages, and a lot of laughter. I can’t wait for next year. I plan to have a job and be saving up for my own car. I wonder if I can convince Katie to suggest “Moneybags” for me?

***

Unfortunately, that was waaaaaay over the contest’s 500-word limit. So I had to start cutting. I got down to 800 words, then 700. Finally, after taking out a bunch of stuff I really liked, I ended up at 498. See for yourself how it just loses the character it had before.

Zane’s snooping sister discovered the following in his journal:

January 2

“All right, everybody!” my dad shouted. “Get your asses into the kitchen! It’s time for nicknames!”

“That’s your one!” Mom said. “No more swear words for you tonight!”

“Ass isn’t a swear word.”

“Well, last year you said it is!” she replied. “Now you have to Suffer the Double Swear Penalty!”

“Fine.” By this time there were at least a dozen of us crammed in the small kitchen. You always celebrate Nick Name Night with a crowd.

My sister put a glass into his hand, and then everyone poured a little bit of their own drinks in – egg nog, orange juice, beer. Dad called this a “tornado” when he did it at the soft drink machine.

He sniffed it and shuddered. Finally he swallowed it all in one big gulp, wiped his mustache with the back of his hand, and slammed the glass on the table. We all applauded.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s get down to business. It’s Nick Name Night, and I, for one, am ready to hear what you all have in store for us.” He pointed at Katie. “Katie, youngest first. You’re up!” He lifted her up on the counter and she giggled.

“No, Daddy, I can’t go first. That was last year. You said we have to do things different, like Calvinball.”

“Okay, then, how do you want to do it?”

She said, “Race around the house! Last one back here has to go first.”

I lost. On purpose, so Katie would feel good.

Dad said he invented this holiday because he’d had 10 nicknames before he got out of college. And he liked that. It reminded him he was always changing. Always getting better.

Everyone goes around and gives you a new trial nickname, then we all vote.

Dad started. “Slim,” he said. I’d grown about three inches but weighed the same as last year. Mom went next. “Hot stuff,” she said, and I blushed. Everyone laughed. “What?” she said. “I think he’s a very handsome boy.” I bit my tongue.

They went around the group. “WC”, from Tyler, who knew I had gotten into Warcraft. “Stupid”, from Katie. A few others, and finally my aunt, who suggested “Z-man”. “Because a driver’s license makes you a real man.”

I used my veto on Hot Stuff. I just couldn’t take the chance of either of my sisters calling me that when a girl came over, or of hearing my mom say it at the dinner table. In the vote my family finally came through. Z-man it would be.

Then we went around the rest of the group, everyone giving each other new nicknames. Dad ended up getting “Baldy” this year, because he used his veto on “Fatty McGee”. Mom is going to be “Jeff Gordon”, after three tickets. Katie is “K-K”, Tyler is “Cupid”. See?

We finished off each round with a toast of our favorite beverages. I can’t wait for next year.

***

This version, while meeting the maximum word requirement, feels rather stilted and tense. It’s as if someone is just reading the story to us, rather than experiencing, which was the feel I got when writing it the first time.

I would really like to align these in 2 columns, to be able to have you visually see what I mean, but WordPress isn’t playing nice. If I could, you’d see just how much has to be cut in order to meet the limit.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is Write the story however long it needs to be. After this, I’ll probably not try the same thing again. If I have to meet a word guideline, I’ll try to pick something that has less in it to make sure I don’t have to cut so deep. This one ended up sacrificing too much.