This is not the story you are looking for

Hemingway is famous, after all is said and done, not just for his writing, but for his personality, his point of view. “The first draft of anything is shit.” He is quoted as saying, demonstrating his ability to get right to the point and bring a bit of mean-spirited realism to the table.

Sometimes we need the shit to fertilize the real story, to let it grow, to write it wrong before we write it right. Often, the reason the first draft fails is the story that ends up on the screen isn’t the one we’d thought it would be. It isn’t the one we set out to build.

Perhaps the characters have turned out flat or less interesting than we hoped, or the plot got away from us, as recently happened to me. The story started out as a discovery science fiction piece and ended up a ‘body horror’ slash ‘monster chase’ tale. Either one is fine, but once I realized I was no longer telling the tale I wanted to, that I had lost my way, I was paralyzed. I tried to go back to the start and push the train back onto track by brute force, wrote a whole new outline.

When I sat down to write it, though, to dig out the story I’d meant to tell, I found the words wouldn’t come. I stared at the screen off and on for three days, with the deadline looming, unable to find my fulcrum point to lever the massive machine back where it was meant to be.

Maybe I’m still learning and this was just a failure. Maybe if I was more focused, driven, disciplined, I could have put my nose to the grindstone and made it work. I am, at this point, still a fairly lazy writer, or at least feel like I am. I don’t have much to compare myself to, process-wise. Or maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself to get it right the first time, or quickly enough to hit the deadline.

In the end, though, it just wasn’t the story I’d wanted to tell. I had a vision that the concept itself was novel-worthy. Maybe it is and that’s why it doesn’t work to simplify its core into five thousand words. I had wanted to take the story and create a lead-in, a prologue or maybe first chapter of this grand tale of environmental change and creepy new life forms.

So for now, it’s not the story I was looking for. It will sit in its folder with all attendant notes. When I feel like my mind has crunched the problems subconsciously, or when I’ve decided it’s time to try to write the novel, I’ll look at it again. I came into this knowing not every story would be sold the first time. Now I’m learning that not every story can be written the first time.

I’m still working for myself. Deadlines are arbitrary, and this, like a Lovecraftian piece I didn’t quite finish last month (as well as a handful of others) will have its day. There will be more ocean/sea themed anthologies or magazine issues, just as there will be new themes into which any of these tales may fit.

Today I’m content to have some folders full of shit. When the season is right, I will reap the ripe stories grown in second and third drafts and they will nourish not just me, but all who read them.


If I had a hammer

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” -Abraham


This can apply in so many ways to writing. We get stuck using one approach to outlining, be it the seven point story or the three act approach, one kind of story, or genre, a particular point of view or tense. We have many tools, or at least there are many tools available, even if we haven’t acquired them yet. Certainly building identification with science fiction or fantasy or mystery is all well and good, giving the reader some expectation of the kind of story they’ll read, but it’s also a trap.

Some people denigrate genre fiction as juvenile, simplistic for being caught up in its tropes- being predictable because once you say the word dragon, one assumes giant beast, breathing fire, flying, often with armored scales. While we rely on these tropes, we also need to move beyond them. But really, it’s all about telling stories you couldn’t quite tell about Bob the office worker and Sally the attorney. This is, in part, because ‘mainstream’ fiction comes with its own hammers, its own presets, such as successful businesspeople being underhanded, cutthroat and uncaring, college students being foolish lovebirds or older people having no connection to new technology.

The old argument goes that there are no new stories, but that relies on how far you zoom out the microscope. It might look like the same little green squiggles moving through the same drop of water under the lens, but the more details you can see, the more the real picture emerges. You can see that the green squiggle on the left is actually a fragment of leaf, where the green squiggle on the left is a mass of algae. Saying “It’s all just green stuff.” Is like saying one clump of carbon atoms is the same as the next, when in fact, the first is the graphite from a pencil and the other is a diamond.

Break expectations, mix genre tropes, or throw them out altogether, inventing something entirely new. Put the hammer on the shelf and find a screwdriver, or sewing machine or a paintbrush and see what you can make from that.