When do I get to read it, you ask?

Detail of man reading “The Three Kingdoms”

After reading my post about finishing the first draft of my novelette Izzy Crow, my brother asked, When do I get to read it? I’m afraid the answer is, not for a while. I think of a story idea, sit down and write it out, and that’s really where things are just getting started. I followed my own advice with this story and wrote fast and let it be a big, bountiful mess, which will need a lot of taming before it resembles a finished story. 

One of my favorite short story writers, George Saunders talks about about his approach to story being an iterative process. He explains that even if he doesn’t know exactly what a story is about when he starts it, if he keeps returning to it over and over again through revisions, the true meaning of the story kind of accretes (Check out the article and listen to the whole interview here). I think this is true. In any creative pursuit, it becomes apparent that while you can work faster, there are no shortcuts.

Here are the steps in my process as it is today. It may change and evolve as I continue to push myself to become a better writer.

    First is the idea of course, usually followed by a little preliminary research. I don’t factor this into the time it takes to produce a finished story. I keep a collection of ideas simmering in my journal, and when I have a spare minute or two I’ll poke around the Internet for information that will help grow a particular idea until I’ve got enough to start writing. For example, for the story I’m working on this week (remember a story a week!): I’m reading about the different kinds of environments tidally locked planets might have. I am actually doing this concurrent with writing the first draft.

    • First draft. “Ground Zero” can mean either the point directly below an exploding nuclear bomb, or a starting point for some activity. In writing, I think both definitions are apt. This set of half formed characters and events have to go from my brain to the page and even when I start with something, it feels like starting from nothing. The process can be quite disfiguring, in that what you end up with can be pretty unrecognizable when compared with the original idea, but that’s not always a bad thing.
    • First read through with notes for big changes. This is where I assess what I got with my first attempt. Theoretically I could abandon a story at this point, but I haven’t done that yet. I usually do a little additional research here, filling in missing information and searching for specific, vivid details to add.
    • Second draft. Here I implement all the stuff I got from the first read, making big changes. Reshaping by cutting big swaths out and chunking in new material including said detail (from a hopefully brief trip to the land of research). At some point around here, my understanding of the themes of the piece usually come into better focus, which may cause another sub-round of cutting and chunking.
    • Third draft. These are smaller adjustments, smoothing it all out, paragraph and sentence level work, style, tone, tweaking metaphors and language to highlight said theme. This can take a long time. Writing a good sentence is hard.
    • Critique. Now I’m ready to let a few people see it. Slugtribe, my in-person critique group meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of every month, or I can send it off to the Online Writing Workshop, crits usually take about a week to come back from that site. I find getting feedback from others essential to the process. This is also a chance for me to step away from this story for a few days. It’s amazing what I’ll see when I look at it after a break. 
    • Final revisions. Assessing all the critiques and incorporating the useful comments AND a final proofing read through (yup, still finding typos).
    first read through

    Each of these six stages can take a week or more, and that’s a minimum, what with hubby and kids and the dog and life intervening and all. Some stories are harder than others, they put up more resistance, require more revisions to really get at the nut of the thing. This year I am trying out drafting a NEW story every week, so I am working on the new thing in the morning and revising older stories in the afternoons and evenings. I expect I will be writing more flash fiction (stories under 1,000 words) and probably some poetry on weeks when I want to devote more time to revising a longer story.

    So, finally the story is finished. Time to start submitting it.

    Notice I didn’t say “time to submit it” I said “time to START SUBMITTING it.” So far, all of my published stories have been submitted to a minimum of 3 markets and a maximum of 15. That’s 15 rejections before an editor said yes. Some markets will respond very quickly, within a week, but many take a month or two or three. Zombie Envy, just published this month, and another one that is forthcoming (which I will get to announce soon!) were finished in EARLY 2012. Maybe as I get more story-writing skillz, I’ll get on a faster track here. But I know that plenty of great stories also get rejected because they don’t fit the theme or aesthetic of a given publication. The only thing to do is send it out, forget it, and get back to work on the current story.

    So, I hope to finish Izzy Crow by the end of February or early March, then I’ll start sending it out. When it gets accepted for publication, believe me, you’ll be the first to know!