So I’m working on revising the Short Story that Wouldn’t Die, the Thing in the Box story, which has survived 13 rejections (and one acceptance/’zine tank) to date. (The name started out as “Things You Don’t Want but Have to Take” and changed to “Fragile” when I thought it would sell better that way and has now gone back to the original name, but it is, essentially, a Thing in the Box story.)
I’m not very good at short stories. This was the one I liked the most so far – but it’s still hasn’t been published. But I have another short story drafted that I like, and I have another one rumbling around in the back of my head…and I really, really like short stories. Horror shorts, mostly.
I promised myself I could get this one revised and sent out before I got back to Alien Blue, both so I could feel a sense of accomplishment and so I could have more time to ruminate on AB issues before I went back down in the weeds.
Revise, revise, revise. I curse myself for not being able to know whether I’m writing brilliantly or with great sucktitude. Suddenly, this morning, I think, “Why not use my novel writing tools on it and see what I get?”
What are my current novel-writing tools? What ARE novel-writing tools? Versus other writing tools?
Well, writing tools in general are anything that help you write. Improv exercises, character sheets, programs that highlight adverbs, etc.
What I think of as my novel-writing tools are the quick checks I’ve been making before I start something difficult in a novel–either drafting or revising, even just revising a specific scene, to make sure I’m heading where I intend to go (rightly or wrongly).
Here’s the current list, which I can get through in a half-hour when I’m in the middle of a project, longer if I’m trying to work something out:
- Log line. A short (25-word or less) description of the story, in the format of Main character [adverb + verb] tries to ________. Notes: Between the adverb and verb, one of the two must change before the end of the story. Also, the attempted action must reflect the focus of the story–not the ending. Don’t reveal the twist at the end. (Via general PPWC goodness.)
- Character web. Write the names of the characters on a piece of paper and draw lines to show the relationships between them, checking for any missing relationships or characters. Yours truly, writing about mysterious things (although not necessarily mysteries) often finds hidden connections or parallels between characters this way. (My own invention.)
- GMC. Goal, motivation, conflict. Take the main characters and write at least their main goal, their motivation for the goal, and the conflict that stops them from immediately achieving their goal. You can do two versions, one for their internal goal, and one for an external goal. (Got this from Pam McCutcheon.)
- Plot as Joke. Write the ending down. Working backwards, include all the steps needed to set it up. Make sure each unit (story as a whole, each chapter) includes a beginning that sets up the end, all of and only the necessary steps to set up the end, and only the ending necessary. (For some reason, this usually breaks into 4-part sections: Beginning, Thing 1, Thing 2, End-which-leads-to-new-beginning.) (From Daniel Abraham. My hero.)
- The Clue grid. With any mystery, there are red herrings. Make a grid like the game Clue: Character, Method, Opportunity–add a column for motive. Do this for each mystery (subplot). You may want to set up a Joke plot for each red herring, too–Plot A looks like Mrs. White did it in the Conservatory with the lead pipe; Plot B looks like Professor Plum did it in the Library with the Revolver. If you’ve seen the movie Clue, you’ll know what I mean. (Adapted, obviously, from Clue.)
- So what? The most nebulous tool. What was it you had in mind when you sat down to write this particular story? What was the point? “A rollicking good time” is so vague as to be meaningless. (I pulled this out of the general “how to write a story” ether.)
- Log line: An ornery barkeep tries to save his town from alien invasion using a mysterious blue beer.
- Character web: In progress, actually–I’m working out where the Good Doctor fits in, and how everyone has different relationships at the end of the story. Different types of relationships.
- GMC: Goal–Bill Trout wants to save his town from alien invasion. Motivation–A failed ex-cop, Bill wants to keep people safe and prevent his best friend, Jack Stout, from making a fatal mistake. Conflict–Jack’s too !@#$%^& smart for his own good.
- Plot: Not going to give it away here!
- Clue grid: Have to rework this again, re: Good Doctor.
- So what? AB’s about what makes stories–and, by extension, memory–important. I also wanted to mess around with the question of what makes a monster.
So here’s my trying this stuff on the Thing in the Box story (spoilers):
- Log line: Defeated housewife tries to hide a long-lost monster from her lonely husband.
- Character web (as close to the picture as I can get): Madeline (wife)—>David (husband) (relationship: cold, proper, a “good marriage”). Madeline—->Doreen (relationship: sucking the lifeblood, rules, expectations) (phone survey note – adding insult to injury). Joe (delivery man)—>no relationship to anybody, but reminds Madeline of an ex-boyfriend (parallel). Monster—>Madeline. The curiosity that killed the cat. M thinks the monster came because of “who she is really.” Old BF—>Madeline (relationship memory, he found out who she was and left).
- GMC: Madeline G: Hide the monster. M: Husband will leave if he finds out. C: Monster won’t stay hidden. David G: Find out what’s going on. M: Tired of the excuses. C: Hurting Madeline. Monster G: Keep Madeline as she is (i.e., tied to the monster). M: Only way of existing, as parasite. C: Madeline betrayal (punish?).
- Plot as Joke: 1) M tries to hide monster from D but fails. 2) D tries to destroy monster alone. 3) M comes clean to D. 4) M & D face monster together. –Ah, I was missing 3, and 1 needs to be refocused.
- Clue grid: One of the few stories I’ve written that doesn’t need one, although I did write down the clues (what is the monster?) and decided to remove one, because the story (see below) is about something that means I need to keep the monster purposely vague.
- So what? The story is about living with something you can’t live with (but is at least somewhat your own fault), and how you cope. M has coped poorly, hiding the truth and even her personality in order to keep things under control, not asking for or accepting help from outside sources in the fear she’ll be pushed away totally (again). The story shows how that breaks down and what she does about it. People have given me fascinating comments, trying to find out what the monster “really” is. I don’t want to lose that.
Results…well, I’m going to have to read it again tomorrow, but I think I might have it. We shall see.