(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 24 February. Patrons — even if all they can spare is one thin dollar per month — see my posts first. They also get to see the stories I publish 30 days in advance, plus a FREE .pdf copy, even if I charge for the ebook everywhere else! So you should totally pledge. Seriously. I’m not making a hell of a lot of money doing this (yet!) and the budget is thin, thin, thin — you can see all its ribs, the poor thing. Make my budget happier. Happy, financially secure writers write more writing. Word.)
…so I can put it together better.
I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m wrapping up an MA in English with a fiction writing concentration. I know, I know — what a huge surprise. It sort of made sense, and the bit of the financial aid that doesn’t go to paying for tuition and books goes toward keeping a roof over our (there are 5 of us stuffed into this little trailer) heads so we have a place to store the computer that I tend to school and work on.
So, in any event, it has been a good ride, and I think my writing is considerably better for the experience.
For my thesis, I am putting together a new collection, and I was working on a story that is part of it.
It was a good story. I liked it. My fellow students and professor liked it. And one of them suggested something (kicking myself — I should have thought of it! See the value of having someone to critique you? Not yet? Read on.) good.
Loosely paraphrased: “good story — but why not start where the action is?”
But how many times have I seen that very basic advice in the blogs and similar from writers and editors and readers?
Tons. (Lesson along the way: there’s a big difference between hearing or reading advice and actually taking it OMG I HAVE THE SUDDEN URGE TO CALL MYSELF NAMES) You probably have too. Now, not every story needs to start in the middle of the action. And “action” is a flexible concept. There’s no combat in my story, and we usually think “someone needs to be trying to kill someone” when we think action. There’s a big expedition to somewhere long-lost and mysterious in this story, and instead of having two scenes of lead-in with their own minor conflicts, I chopped them out and relocated them later in the story. So the “action” is just the characters departing from their origin and launching themselves into the unknown. But it’s more interesting than a slow lead-in, by a long shot. Then the structure cried out for another prelude scene buried later in the story, so I wrote one. And that made the characters, situations, the whole damn world of the story a richer and more interesting place.
The moral of this little story isn’t “always, always, always start in the middle of some form of action.” There are wonderful stories that don’t start that way, and maybe you’ve written and/or read some of them. Great.
The moral is, “don’t be afraid to chop up your story and rearrange the bits to see if it’s better off.” We have word processors. We can cut, copy, and paste. We can save multiple revisions in their own handy little folders. We can print if we want and rearrange pages, scribble all over the thing. Some of us (not me — spend money? I don’t have much of that stuff!) even have cool writer-in-mind software that lets us take a story apart digitally and rearrange it at will just to see how it looks.
Look, we’re creative people. Not just those of us that write fiction, but those of us who read it, too. Relatively few of us humans even read fiction. I think it takes a creative spark to read it and love it enough to come back for more without the whip of a teacher behind us and the carrot of a diploma in front of us. Something like a third of us humans never read a work of fiction again after the required reading of whatever level of education we have is behind us. Another third read “rarely.” That’s roughly what I recall, and I’m probably being optimistic about the numbers.
So being creative people, when we create something, we don’t want to change it. We want to think we have it right the first time, that our initial conception is the right one. We’re tempted to make small changes, not big ones. Not even just to see.
Make some big changes. Maybe you’ll waste some time, but you’ll be playing with something you like anyway — and that’s not a bad thing at all if you’re one to voluntarily sit down and write a story. No matter what you do with that story. Even if you write fiction only for yourself in a locked journal with instructions in your will to burn it after you die, even if you “just” write a little fanfic here and there to share with your friends or on a fan forum, even if you never mean to publish a damn thing.
Because sometimes those experiments with big changes pay off.
So is that all I learned? Nah. I learned a lesson I have to learn over and over again, each time a little better — I hope. I’m a hyperactive person, and I’m distractible. I may or may not meet the definition of ADD or ADHD — whatever I am, hyperactive is what they called it when I was a little tyke in rural Wisconsin in the ’70s. I’m impatient as all hell. I really want stories to come out great just the way I first conceive them. And it has taken practice and experience to get to the point where I’m willing to take my time, even sit on a story for days or weeks until I have fresh eyes to take it out and fiddle with it to see if I can make it better. To get to the point where I have found some balance between the humility it takes to listen to advice and/or consider writing a story a different way, and the ego it takes to say, “hey, this is my world, and I think it’s interesting. Come look at it.”
If I can do it, you probably can too.