I just finished the first draft and the first cleanup round of “Killing Them Softly” (my fifth Detective Jimmy Delaney story.) I have a process, both planned and not so planned (a method to my madness) for my short fiction, so I thought it might be helpful to share it. Remember – what works for me may not work for you, but it may give you some useful ideas, or perhaps act as a validation that you are NOT the only crazy one out there.
How do I decide what I’m going to write about? There are a number of possible prompts that help me get started. There was a book of exercises that suggested writing down ten different sentences that you didn’t think you would ever start a story with; “B.I.T.” (my second short) was written that way. Similarly, a word or a phrase may start the process. Sometimes a bit of double entendre (“In Robert’s Memory”) will seem like a good title. There might be a personal experience that makes a good starting point (“Cannabis Alienus ‘alien dope’) or an image (the original draft of “Sasq-what?” came from me looking in the mirror.) There might be an idea or a piece of future tech I want to explore (“In a Flash”.)
In most of these cases, it gives me a starting point, but I don’t really know what the story is about. You see, I’m an adherent to a sort of stream-of-consciousness writing I sit down and let the words flow. Characters hit the page, sometimes as “planned”, sometimes they appear without warning or explanation and they carry the story. One of them says something (dialogue drives a lot of my writing – maybe my theatre training), and the story goes off somewhere that I didn’t think of (who’s writing this stuff, anyway?)
I don’t try to regulate the length or direction at first, and so if a story is in the range of a flash fiction (1000 words or less) there’s a chance I’ll finish the first draft without reining it in (the right brain successfully holding the left brain at bay.) As the story gets longer, it becomes harder to keep the left brain out and it starts to exert some SENSE and LOGIC on the process.
Most of my stories (including the base stories for each of my series) start out as stand-alone, one time tales. There is no intention of ever revisiting the characters, or the environment/settings, so the universe is created on the fly. Everything comes out of my hat, although when I venture into the REAL WORLD (such as Philadelphia in “Passed Life”), I try to get at least some of the landmarks, streets, etc. right.
The most organized that I get are in my two series. This is because the main character(s) have a PUBLIC history (that means in previous stories that others have read, not just in my head), and there are minor characters, tech, settings that I try to keep track of for consistency (the Barnstow Bulls’ stadium can’t be across the street from Kaczmarek’s in one story and then at opposite ends of town in the next.) And of course, Jimmy, or Herc Tom have a bit more biography behind them, and as a result more influence on how the story goes than a character who just popped out of my head for a one-timer (most of them, anyway.)
The series also tend to be my longest stories – probably because I have so much more background already sitting there ready to use; supporting cast to bring in as needed (the current draft is over 14000 words.) I know more about WHAT the story will be about (although I can never be sure HOW it will flesh itself out.) For the Detective Jimmy Delaney series, the germ for each story has always been the idea of an interesting bit of tech that might be used to kill or at least commit a crime.
I work in MS Word – I use highlighting if I’m not sure of a word I used, or “<<notes>>” in the middle of text if I just haven’t thought of what to call something/someone yet (I used to use 4 repeated letters – like ZZZZ as name-holders and make notes in a separate notepad document, but I stopped doing that when I ran out of them last year on Swordsmaster’s first draft.) It’s particularly helpful to use the COMMENT feature as the left brain starts kicking in about what it wants to fix later (going back to find the problem spots will destroy the flow of the right brain.)
I write until it seems like I’ve come to a good ending point, (generally, where whatever main conflict I have set up has been resolved.) By this time, chances are very good that I know WHAT the story is really about, and now I go through to try to make the BEGINNING, MIDDLE & END (and all the other parts) work with each other in something close to a logical fashion. I then go back through and find the various notes I’ve made and cleanup what I need to – anything from choosing a character name or a song or a sandwich, finding where to put the supporting information to help the ending make sense. I also go through with an eye to grammatical and punctuation issues.
Then I hand it off to my beta reader(s) and get it out of my head for at least a couple of weeks. It doesn’t take that long with me to pretty much forget everything about a story other than the plot in that time (I have a poor memory), and I always start (and finish a draft on another story before I come back the one I sent out.) If I’m lucky enough to have feedback from my Betas, I decide which of it makes sense and adjust for it.
One of the things that was hardest for me when I started (that would be “Passed Life”) was trying to accommodate everyone’s critiques. I believe I had a half-dozen Betas, and after each gave me feedback I would make changes to satisfy them, but then the next Beta would have their own preferences, and when I found myself writing something back in to satisfy a later reader I realized I could be doing this forever and stopped. Also be aware that the more you rewrite, the harder it will be to keep your voice, and the less unique your story will feel.
I then make a final read-through with my faulty memory to see if it still makes sense to me. When I’m in the throes of writing a story, all sorts of thoughts are going through my head, and those thoughts inform how I think the story reads – it’s even possible to believe that I’ve already put those thoughts down somewhere in the tale when I haven’t. If I didn’t really write it in, then my potential readers will be missing vital information, become confused, and stop. If I read it fresh, there’s a good chance I’ll spot the omissions (because I won’t understand it either) and correct them.
Then I put the story into Shunn’s Manuscript format (which is what’s required by most publishers) and start sending it out to the appropriate markets. From this point on, I do not do further work on the story, whether it sells or not (remember – Heinlein’s rule to never rewrite except to editorial order.) There is a saying that a story is never finished, and it is never perfect. The writer just has to decide to when it’s time to release it to the readers.
It’s very easy to get caught in that rewriting cycle, and you will not grow by writing the same story over and over again. And no matter how good you are, there will always be something wrong with your story. No story is ever perfect, and to pursue this goal is folly; that way madness lies (and I think we writers have quite enough of that, don’t you?)
This week’s Smashwords coupon is for “Cannabis Alienus ‘alien dope’”:
Be careful what you smoke.
L.D. had always been an unapologetic pot-head, but something has gone wrong and he’s fallen off the radar. Eric returns home for what he thinks is going to be a simple intervention, but turns into… something else.
Use coupon code TW56C to get 67% off the cover price at Smashwords (that’s only 99-cents – such a deal!) – it’s good until June 4th. Here’s the link:
“Cannabis Alienus ‘alien dope’” is also available in the collection – Still Even More Things I Could Get Out of My Mind.
The preorder campaign continues (2 days remain) for More, And Yet Still Even More Things I Could Get OUT OF MY MIND (short story collection #7.) It contains the stories:
Dredging Things Up
Behind the 8-Ball
Saturday He Fed the Cat
Release date is June 3rd, but you can preorder now at a REDUCED PROMOTIONAL PRICE at all the usual places, including (but not limited to):
The collection will also be available in paperback form on CreateSpace.
William Mangieri’s writing, including his latest ePub “Solid People”, can be found in many places, including:
• Smashwords: https//www.smashwords.com/profile/view/NoTimeToThink
• His Amazon Author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B008O8CBDY
• Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/william-mangieri?store=book&keyword=william+mangieri
• Createspace (if you prefer physical books): https://www.createspace.com/pub/simplesitesearch.search.do?sitesearch_query=william+mangieri&sitesearch_type=STORE
To CONNECT WITH HIM (and LIKE and FOLLOW), go to
• His site on WordPress: https://williammangieri.wordpress.com
• “William Mangieri’s Writing Page” on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/NoTimeToThink
• His Goodreads author page: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6893616.William_Mangieri
• Or on twitter: @WilliaMangieri