Monday, April 3, 2017

WIP-Of-The-Month: Building A Short Story

March's WIP: DONE, in spite of 2 weeks of
"no phone/no notes" issues! I AM UNSTOPPABLE!
I used to think I couldn't write a short story to save my life. All of my ideas blossomed into multi-chapter affairs, which in turn spread the story out so far as more and more details filtered in, that I would get burned out and either wind down to a lame finish... or I would end up not being able to finish at all. Even the "flash fiction" one-shots I would attempt consistently ended up longer than the traditional >1,000 words, even if such a thing only took me a couple hours.

Then I invented the Suggestion Box challenge. There would be no way for me to over-plan, because I HAD to get it done in one week. At the same time, having four elements to tie together helped ensure that the story could become a reasonable length. The Suggestion Box taught me a thing or two about story development. And even when I compiled all the lists from that series into a longer, 5-part story for NaNoWriMo, I had plenty of words to use, and I just went for drawing it out as long as I could. It went fairly well, and I had a couple pretty interesting stories to make the word count.
The one story, "The Legacy", told about a girl whose father is a theoretical physicist and her mother is the daughter of a well-known explorer who spent most of her life searching for the Fountain of Youth. The explorer's daughter never quite forgave her mother for being so absent, and so she resolved to keep her own daughter close and to never travel, herself. All that changes when the daughter discovers the Persian silk scarf the explorer sent her, and notices the code that her grandmother had designed into the scarf, and that leads them to a safe deposit box that holds the map to the Fountain, and access to the funds necessary to be able to make the trip. Of course, by the time the mother gives in and agrees to let the daughter pursue the map and the fountain, it's too late for her, and by the time anybody actually finds anything in the location on the map, even the daughter is too old to travel.
The second story, "The Vega Effect", is connected to "The Legacy" because the scientist father ends up being the foremost pioneer in space colonization efforts, so naturally, space colonies and terraformers would regard him quite favorably. This story out of all the others really tapped into my horror side (mild-ish though it may be...) since it involves a Terraforming Investigator tasked with the job of figuring out what killed everybody in one settlement, and he only finds out after the pilot who brought him all this way ends up betraying him and he ends up succumbing to the very same plague without ever getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Of course there are way more details than that, but you get the basic gist: complex, widespread plots, well-populated and definitely not going to fit in less than 10 thousand words apiece.

Four Years Later... (present time)

Sometime about the end of last year (or the beginning of this one), I volunteered to be part of a charity anthology benefiting the International Bipolar Foundation in memory of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. At first, I viewed it as the perfect opportunity to polish up one or the other of these stories I already had written, thereby costing me minimal effort to be published yet again! 

Then I found out that the word count limit was 7,500 words. 

So there went any chance of me just touching up an existing story and calling it good. If I was going to end up rewriting the whole thing anyway, I figured that combining elements of the two stories was the best way to deal with this situation.

But how in the world was I going to do that... with LESS words than even one of those stories??

Breaking It Down

To solve this issue, I had to think of each story as a series of parts, and not one indivisible unit. A few years back, I used The Suggestion Box as my example for a "How To Story" post... now I'm going to try and use "The Starborn Legacy" as the example for "How To Short Story."

The first part was setting: both stories begin on Earth, but the focus in "The Legacy" shifts to an undiscovered "buried city" that is the site of the Fountain of Youth, while "The Vega Effect" centers, of course, on terraformed colonies in another part of the galaxy. I decided that since the anthology would have a "celestial" sort of theme, a far-future space colony would be a good choice for the setting.

From there I needed to move on to the premise: which would I use? The mysterious dying colony and the grumpy, sarcastic pilot with something to hide, or a mother and daughter trying to relate to one another, with emotional baggage from an absentee explorer matriarch in the family? After a bit of deliberation, I picked the mother-daughter story, with the added twist of the scientist father being part of the team investigating this failed colony where everyone just dropped dead all of a sudden. There would be the drive to figure out why they collapsed, and the possibility of an explanation or a cure—on top of the mother/daughter drama.

Which leads us to the conflict: Where would my principal story land? On the one hand, I have a treasure hunt that the mother and daughter embark on together, to show support for one another when they finally come to an understanding. On the other, I have a lone investigator who winds up missing the hints and clues dropped by a character who is revealed to have been somehow the villain all along, and that particular story does not have a happy ending. 
Solution? With the shorter word-count space, I could only build up the relationship conflict so much, before I had to go right into the climax. Then, there was also the dimension of actually bringing the "mysterious virus" to bear on the actual characters, throwing them even closer to the peril. The result of this turned out even better, as instead of the "Fountain of Youth reveal" adapted from "The Legacy" being something cool but irrelevant, I was able to actually figure out a way to make the discovery of Natalys relevant to my characters. I also turned being Starborn into something awesome and positive, instead of freakish and terrible. 

As for what remained of the resolution... well, okay, by that time I had gone over my word limit, so it was just a matter of giving things closure as quickly as possible. It didn't end up as detailed as I would have liked, but I think it will suffice. For now, it is off to Beta readers, and I am optimistic that they will assist me in figuring out what is extraneous verbiage and what I should have been focusing on. 


So there you have it! Everything you need to know about "The Starborn Legacy"! I hope I didn't spoil it too much. And I hope you will consider picking up a copy of the book when it releases! It's a good cause, and the authors and artists involved are great!

In summary: A short story has far less to it than a full-length story. The "3-Act" plan (Intro->Problem->Solution) is still effective, even in the confined space of only a few thousand words. And even long, drawn-out stories can be simplified effectively.

Catch You Further Upstream!