Looking for words in the rabbit hole

Queensland Writers Centre CEO Kate Eltham played the white rabbit, and a bunch of we Alices gave chase: the goal, 30,000 words in three days. Some gathered in Brisbane while others of us, the diaspora of Queensland writers and other interested parties, joined in online, sharing totals and motivational mentions of caffeine.

How liberating to be given permission to abandon all but the most major of priorities in order to devote three solid days to wordage. For wordage was the goal; quality could come later. The aim was to get that story down, or at least a solid chunk of it.

My goal was a little different, though. I’d already hammered out a bit over 90K of a novel, but I had to write and insert a second point of view character to help fill in some gaps, add some suspense and provide some contrast. It’s a fairly brutal story, this one; moments of levity are to be grabbed wherever they can be had!

ms pages on a kitchen table

There's a story in there somewhere: grappling with scene progression.

I thought I had eight scenes to write, expecting no more than 1000 to 2000 words for each, and it turned out I had 10 to write, and they amounted to about 11,000 words. It took two days, averaging maybe 500 words an hour. Some of the other rabbit holers did meet their 10,000 words a day quota — w00t!

The third day of the rabbit hole was devoted to smoothing out those new scenes, reconfiguring the existing text to accommodate the new material and ensuring continuity. As is the way of things, a whole new character emerged, with enough legs to play a bigger role in a follow-up should such a thing occur. I’m tempted to call her Alice, in honour of the rabbit hole, but I’ve already got a character with that name tucked away waiting for her chance in the spotlight, so for the moment she’s Felicity because A. she’s felicitous and a felicitator but, ironically, not particularly happy, and B. I still owe two sisters a character named after them after inadvertently slipping an Amanda cameo into The Darkness Within. I have managed to slip in an Alice nod to the rabbit hole, though; I hope it survives to the final cut.

In tribute, here’s a cool clip of the Sisters of Mercy performing Alice, one of my favourite SoM songs and the inspiration for the aforementioned character in waiting. Note: The Sisters are touring with Soundwave Revolution: this is very exciting.

So, three days of fairly solid wordsmithing later, what have I got other than square eyes and a slight case of jetlag?

About 108,000 words of first draft manuscript littered with notes and sporting a most satisfying cross-hatch at the end (the mystical The End only comes when the draft is ready to be subbed — that is truly The End). And the possible beginning for a short story: what could be the second to come out of this universe.

Will the MS go anywhere? Well, that’s always the question, isn’t it? But the story feels good — rough but good — and, regardless, I enjoyed myself in my plunge down the rabbit hole, bumped into some new writers online and learnt some stuff along the way. Would I do another rabbit hole? Most definitely. It’s a three-day trip, man. Just ask Alice.

Reasons to write short stories

I’ve written two short stories this year. This is big news here at the coffee pot, because short stories aren’t really my thing. They’re tricky suckers, so tight and concise and punchy; no rambling, multi-plotted story with an epic cast of characters here. I envy those who can do them well, and who can do them consistently and frequently. It sucks that shorts, mostly, don’t pay that well. It sucks that the short story struggles for acceptance in the broader community.

But why the flurry over here (two does not a flurry make, granted, but I’m counting the wee outbreak from last year as well) where the long form is by far the norm? I think it’s possibly, partly, mostly, procrastination, but it’s good procrastination. Sure, I’m not working on a novel — pick one, the hard drive’s littered with carcasses and infants — but I am writing.

And that’s one of the beauties of shorts — they’re short. The procrastination will only last so long (I promise).

Here’s my justification, in answer to those whispered accusations of neglect from those aforementioned bits and pieces of novel:

1. Shorts are short. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and not just a pair of knobbly knees sticking out either!

a. Because short stories don’t have a lot of room, they help hone craft. They demand that extraneous matter be discarded. They require a singular devotion to the point of the exercise, without cluttering up the place with overblown description, secondary characters, waffling dialogue, and so forth.

b. Short, theoretically, means they don’t take as long as a novel to write. Some might gestate for ages, but in the actual writing, more often than not, a short should fall out of the oven a whole lot quicker than a novel. Bask in that warm glow of accomplishment. Just think: beginning, middle and The End in just a day, or two, or a week, maybe a month… However long it takes to get it shiny, do then take the next step: send it out to a market. And, if the factors align, score an acceptance. The warm glow is now a roaring fire complete with wine and chocolate.

My short stories are infrequent visitors, so I like to send them to a home made of bricks and mortar. Or dead trees, if you want to be strictly accurate. It might not enjoy the accessibility (and, arguably, the exposure) of a half-decent online mag, but it does look good on my shelf. Ego stroking is important in the depths of discouragement and narrative black holes, when the decision to sit at a keyboard making up stuff seems a stoopid career choice compared to, oh, watching telly, going to the pub and otherwise doing “real” stuff.

c. Because they’re short, you can play. Try different voices, different tenses, different structures. And when they don’t work, you don’t have to spend six months changing it all back to third person, past tense. Shorts are a great sandbox; raking it over and starting again doesn’t hurt quite so much.

d. Sometimes, short is just the right length. How long is a great story? It’s as long as it needs to be. Sometimes, that means short. If you can get your point across in 1000, 3000, 8000 words, then go for it. Don’t waffle. Don’t wander. If it needs 160,000, well, that’s fine, too. You can pretty much always tell when a TV show has been extended halfway through the first season; likewise, a written story can suffer from over-reaching.

e. We now interrupt this program with a news flash … There are times when you hear about an anthology and the theme or the title just zaps you: pow! Instant idea! Run with it. The novel, or whatever other project you’re suddenly neglecting, can wait — it’s only a short break, ain’t it. You don’t wait for those lightning bolts to strike twice. And even if you do miss out on getting into that title, well, maybe you can send the story somewhere else. Anything that gets you enthusiastic about writing must be good.

2. Shorts are fashionable. There are lots of markets for shorts, both in print and online (look at ralan.com and duotrope as starting points for spec fic markets). It means you probably won’t have to wait too long to hear if the baby has found a home. You’d think the commuter set would be lovin’ the shorts, especially when delivered on a wee screen. They should. Everyone should. Because of point 4 (below). But first, there’s another fashion statement to consider:

3. Shorts look cool. Not as cool as a fez, perhaps, but cool, nonetheless, when they’re racked up on a CV. You don’t need them to get a contract for your novel — hey, everyone has a story to tell about how they cracked that first book deal, and not all of them involve a razzle dazzle set of short credits — but it can’t help, can it? To show that you’ve been writing, learning, engaging with the market and the writing community.

4. Shorts can punch above their weight. Oh, how a good short story can leave you gasping. I must’ve been only knee high to a grass hopper when I first read Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and I still hark back to that final line as one of the best ever. A short is an idea, so very sharp, and when it hits the spot — intellectually or emotionally — it really digs in. I’ve heard it said that a short story makes a great movie while a good book makes a great TV series. Sounds about right.

5. Shorts can value-add. So you’ve got a novel in the works, but that character is a bit of a mystery. Whack him or her or it into a short and see how they fare. It might not go any further, or you might end up with not only some revelation for your long work, but a neat little tie-in. Back story might not fit in a novel, but it might make a handy piece of cross-promotion — if it stands alone as a great little yarn. Fans of the novel will love the extra info, and other readers might gain a yen for finding out more about the world and its characters.

6. Take a short break. Hit the wall in the novel? Even better, finished the first draft? Take a break, go on a literary holiday and write a short. Or two. Explore a new world, a new voice, a new style. Revel in writing something fresh that isn’t the novel. It’s a working holiday and, at the end, you may even have a souvenir acceptance to show for it. Refreshed and ego-stroked, it’s back to the big game. And who knows? That short might, down the track, grow into a novel of its own, now that you’ve planted the seed.

I’m sure there are other reasons to write shorts, other than the sheer love of the form — feel free to share. But I think I’ve procrastinated enough. Writing about writing shorts is probably taking it a step too far. I should probably go write something. But something short or something long? Hmm. I’ll have a coffee and think about it…

QWC blog tour

I’m now living in Melbourne, but I’m continuing my membership with the Queensland Writers Centre because it’s a damn fine organisation with plenty to offer, even for an ‘outpost’ member such as myself (a writer who wouldn’t have a book on the shelf were it not for the QWC). The centre has been kind enough to include me in their blog tour, offering a Cook’s tour of writers’ blogs. You can find out more about the blog tour at the end of this post. Meantime, here are the requisite questions answered:

Where do your words come from?
The words themselves probably swim up from a lifetime of reading and study and movie-watching. But of the origin of the ideas that drive them, I’m not sure. Perhaps also in the words that have gone before, adapted by experience and observation, daydreaming and nightmares. I tend to download my stories from the ether of the subconcious, then set about shaping them, making sure the words are the best possible ones to tell the story. And then there’s Roget’s 😉

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up on a Queensland cattle property about half way between Maryborough and Gympie, an hour’s drive to either. It was a fertile place for the imagination, fuelled by books of all sorts. I’ve been leap-frogging my way through gradually larger cities since, most recently to Melbourne where I’m still waiting for my blood to thicken and save me from the embarrassment of being the only person on the street wearing gloves.

What’s the first sentence/line of your latest work?
My most recently published story, “Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn” (Dreaming Again, 2008) opens with, “George stood by the bleached skeleton of the Wyandra stockyards, breathing in dust and sun-baked silence.”
The first sentence of the story I’m meant to be working on at the moment is still a work in progress…

What piece of writing do you wish you had written?
Macbeth’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech. It’s stuck with me ever since I had to recite it in high school.

What are you currently working towards?
I’m planning a new novel, probably a follow-up to The Darkness Within, or yet another iteration of a linked story that just won’t behave. Or maybe something else again. November is my self-appointed crunch time.

Complete this sentence… the future of the book is…
… assured, though its delivery method will expand into the electronic realm with much wailing and gnashing of copyright regions.

This post is part of the Queensland Writers Centre blog tour, happening October to December 2009. To follow the tour, visit Queensland Writers Centre’s blog The Empty Page.