FULL BLEED: IT MUST HAVE JUST BEEN A CARDBOARD CUTOUT OF A MAN
Yeah, I didn't do a new content post last week. The Howling Pit went hungry. I'd tell you how many people missed out on something wonderful, but I don't look at my metrics. That's a short path to insanity. I mean, talk about prostrating yourself before the bitch queen Success, right? DH Lawrence was right.
But yeah, I'll try to do better. Summers are weird.
I dunno, am I supposed to talk up things that I worked on that may never see publication? That digs into the whole Success Advice branding I'm supposed to build up here. Hell, nobody wants to hitch their wagon to anything other than a rising star. That's the joke. And I like nothing more than undermining a dominant paradigm, particularly when it's a toxic one. So let's go for it.
Spent the last couple weeks writing a thing called "Cindy Says" for an upcoming anthology of the urban weird. I wasn't asked, so I'm thinking it's maybe 50-50 that it gets in (even though my track record for this particular publisher has been pretty good, all things considered.) Originally, they were asking for a 7500-word short story. Which is fine, but it's about 30% shy of where I usually run short stories out to.
And let's be honest, they're a quirky form. You'd think it's easy to do. Not particularly for me. See, the thing I've learned is that my natural form ends up being a novella, in more ways than one. A short story has to have a conceptual hook, almost feel like a joke in final delivery, everything winding up to a punchline. That's really the essence of it for me. Not necessarily the O. Henry twist that upends everything (although that's certainly a good approach to be remembered and make an impact with.) Even if it's not quite the everything-is-wrong twist, it has to deliver a kind of thing that novels aren't necessarily expected to deliver, except perhaps as an act turn maybe. Maybe.
Short stories aren't novels, or even novellas (novellae?). So they're something I have to actually work at. I know. Oh boo hoo. I still write them because there's outlets for them, but I'm the first to admit that I'm not very good at it. Still, I forge ahead.
As for "Cindy Says," I wanted to break down the process and aims a little bit. Nobody's reading this anyways so I can say whatever I want and let folks look behind the curtain. Seeing the pulsing guts like looking down after the zombies have you pinned down and started doing what they do (nevermind that human teeth and hands aren't made to rip skin and flesh like that.)
First thing? Germ of the story. I imagine this is where most folks would come up with the conceptual twist that they're going to build things on, have every single thing move towards, become an unstoppable juggernaut, an army of warriors all focused on the same point, able to penetrate any armor and triumph.
Yeah, I didn't do that. Whoops.
Instead, I just had the idea (can't tell you what it is because then why would you read the story, duh), so I knew the basic setting and where to start turning over rocks to find stuff. I did this for awhile. Probably too long and we'll get to that later. Suffice it to say that "Cindy Says" takes place in just about the same time and geography as QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS, but about five years before, give or take. Hell, I'm already hip deep in the world, should keep working with it, right? But I did need to nail down a lot of stuff, make sure the geography worked (thanks Google Maps!) and let stuff simmer in the back of my head.
For a couple weeks, while I sifted through my own photos and research photos and websites and the history books within reach. And like any good magpie, pretty soon, I have a very pretty pile of shiny things. But that's just a pile. It's not a house or bridge or any kind of structure you want to name in the service of this particular metaphor. It's just a pile of shiny things. Just like setting isn't a story, you dig?
So after a couple weeks of doing this in an on/off fashion (it is summer after all and the house still needs to be maintained and kids need to be kept from burning it all down) and it's about time to actually write out a synopsis, AKA pulling something from nothing. Sometimes I give myself little graphic design exercises here too, just coming up with logos for things or places, try to help orient myself visually and in time. It's also good for stalling.
(fun fact - the entire sequence that this was designed for was cut: whoops.)
All that done, I sit down and actually write the synopsis. Not think about writing it or pretend I'm writing it or talk to myself about writing it, but putting it down on paper. Yeah, scary, right? Thing is just because it's on paper doesn't mean that it's set in stone. Don't panic. Something might occur to you and you can change it around, just be consistent.
Let's keep in mind that the target length for this story is 7500 words. That may sound daunting, but it's not. It's not a drop in the bucket, there's a little room to work with, but you gotta stay focused.
My synopsis came out at, uh, 1700 words. And that was telegraphing the last two thirds in an ever-sketchier manner.
Yeah, this isn't going to work. And I've run into the dreaded word limit several times before. Like every time I do this.
But I start writing anyways. What am I gonna do? There's no way there's room for this to all unfold. I think about begging for just 1500 more words. Maybe I could make it work.
This is also a dumb idea. Don't do this.
So let's review real quick. Say 7-9 days of research and background plotting, off and on. I couldn't tell you how many hours. But a few. Another maybe three hours if I'm being generous, of writing and unwriting and rewriting various parts of the synopsis. I'd say there's more or less three acts to the thing at this point. Three actual acts.
Sitting down to write, on Friday, I get rolling. A good day on a novel for me is maybe ten pages over 3-4 hours, but if I go past, I'll often start with a low tank the next day unless there's no other goddamn choice. Rolling. Rolling pretty well, actually. Fourteen pages over about six hours with some breaks. Dinner. Go back and do a little more, brings it close to sixteen.
I'm also maybe 45% of the way through the synopsis. I have somewhere around 5000 words, give or take. So yeah, about 30% over length. And let's talk cuts for a moment. I'm lucky if I can cut 5-8% of length, and that's if I was really sloppy. I don't lean on very long descriptive passages (and probably fall short in that regard, honestly). I try not to put in stuff that doesn't need to be there, at least to me. But I'm a weirdo.
I get up the next morning and look at where things are. Not anywhere good, really. I mean, what I've written is pretty solid, at least I think so (that's what they all say, I know.) But there's no way there's going to be space to do what the story needs at this point. And I really should say, what the novella needs. Because that's what it is.
So I do the unthinkable. I adapt. Weird, right?
I look at what I have and say "where do I end this to hit the kind of elegiac note of realization that might make this work as a short story?" And I stop it there. Then I decide that I can do the stuff on Saturday that I was going to have to blow off because I was previously going to be trying to whittle stuff out as I wrote to make the impossible fit into the limit.
Then I come back to things on Sunday and rewrite with the new aim in mind. And I spend probably five hours to add maybe another two or three pages total and rework bits of everything else. Write the cover letter and submit. Fingers crossed.
Does it work? I don't get to decide that. The reader/editor does. Hopefully I'll know soon.
Oh look, out of room for this week. And I didn't even get to the subject I was really going to talk about. I'll leave it here for next time:
"Carcosa but not horrible."
And what does that even mean?