It’s been a crazy month! But it’s been a month of new experiences.
In my last post, I mentioned that I was doing a lot of research about the writing world. Well, I now have something to show for myself. Red Line Magazine has graciously accepted and short listed my submission to their ‘Conflict’ issue, so
I don’t want to give away the plot – it does, after all, rely very heavily on the reader not knowing what’s going on while they’re reading it – but they described it best as the bedroom of a couple in meltdown, so let’s leave it at that. I look forward to reading what you think of it! I’m incredibly proud of it, and I’m so happy that they thought it was good enough to be short listed. I’m currently reading the other amazing stories on the list – I just read Don’t go, darling boy and it’s so well written, I’m still a little heartbroken by its characters.
Thinking about short stories and what makes a good short story has had me thinking about stories in general. Hank Green, it seems, had the same thing in mind:
I have decided that the thing that sets us apart as people, that makes us capable of air conditioning and hot showers and lunar landings and nuclear war can be summed up in one word, and that word is ‘stories’. If this sounds a little froofy to you, let me remind you that there was a time before email, before phones, before newspapers, before the written word even. When humanity was first benefiting from the massive utility of passing tremendous amounts of information from generation to generation, the vehicle for the passing of that information was the story. Stories were, and I think that they still are, how we define ourselves and our culture and even our technology and science. Every human society that wants to behave differently first has to change the stories that they tell. Stories, in songs, in books, on the stage, on podcasts, around the campfire help us define who we are. We are made of stories.
(do I mention the vlogbrothers too much on this blog? Pff, of course not.)
There’s an amazing weight set on the line Every human society that wants to behave differently first has to change the stories that they tell, but I’ll save that for another post.
I generally write short stories all in one go, so before beginning my writing I go through a very long process – lasting anywhere from a day to three months, in my experience (let’s include fanfiction when talking about short stories, since they’re basically the same thing) – , and it includes a lot of brainstorming, staring moodily out of windows, reciting dialogue at myself in the shower, researching obscure facts, going through a thesaurus to discover the word I’m thinking about, making a general outline for myself, finding pictures and poetry and songs that fit… but I wondered, at which point in all the writing that wasn’t actually writing, did I say “okay, now I’m ready to write this”?
Before I wrote Six, I spent about a month and a half trying to understand what I wanted to put into words. It all started with a friend from the Narnia Fic Exchange mentioning something in a review of another one of my stories that prompted me to think about a relationship between Bacchus and Calypso. I started out with an idea of some sort of romantic, witty conversation – and ended up with something that wasn’t quite different, but was extremely different at the same time. While doing research about the gods and trying to understand their mythology, I spoke to friends from islands in the Pacific about the legends in their own cultures. I discovered that many legends from opposite sides of the world seem to overlap – and I began a hunt through six different cultures to try and find similar characters. But even when I had a list of names, I still didn’t quite know what I wanted.
Six has three different versions, two of them unfinished and one of them the draft that eventually became the final version. The older versions have lines of description and dialogue that are heart-achingly beautiful, but that didn’t fit with what I eventually wrote. But I could have fit them in, I guess, if I had really wanted to. I already understood what their interactions were like, understood the characters, and understood the main elements of the story; it also helped that Columbus day had just passed and had me, as usual, thinking about the conquest of the Americas and all the horrors that followed.
Somewhere along the way, my lighthearted fanfic became the profoundly emotional journey of a god and a goddess through time and through overlapping cultures. But where did it change? When did I decide that I had reached a point where I knew exactly what I was going to write?
I realized that that point came when I finally understood what I wanted it to feel like.
There are stories that you read years ago, but which left a feeling so strong in your heart that you still remember what it feels like to read it even if you don’t even remember the characters or the plot. There are disconnected phrases that you remember , or images – and there’s something about it all that makes it more than just a well-written story; it makes the story yours.
I went to the Old City of Acre last week with the intention of writing. There’s an old wall there that has been there for centuries, in some parts the waves crash against it, while they gently lap at the sand a few feet away in others. I walked beside the sea wall for about three hours, listening to music and just appreciating the sound of the waves. There’s something about the sea, its color and the sheer power of nature that leaves you in awe of it whenever you’re there.
I had already taken notes for the story that I wanted to write, and I didn’t do any writing by the sea wall, even though the story I meant to tell was on my mind almost all the time I was there. I ended my visit with the same amount of information I arrived with – lists of lines I wanted to include, the character interactions involved, the same music to inspire me – but something changed while I looked out at the waves and at the horizon. Something made me understand what I meant to write.
I went back home and sat down for about seven hours to write down the feeling, and somehow, through that feeling came everything else I was trying to say – about the characters, and about myself. I don’t know what it was. I wonder what the story might have been if I hadn’t gone to the sea.
“You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw — but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported. Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of — something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for”. We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Does this happen to you? Do you think that we all feel different things when we read a particular story?
(and yes, I also quote C.S. Lewis too much on this blog. Sorry. You’re going to have to get used to it.)
Again, please check out Rules of the Altar, my new short story! And leave a comment if you enjoyed it.
I’m participating in The Quidditch League Fanfiction Competition – and we’re looking for an extra team member if you’re interested in writing Harry Potter fanfiction – so you can expect plenty of new one-shots during the next few months!
As usual, I’m updating The Malfoy Case semi-regularly, and I’m so thankful for everyone’s kind reviews.