For a long time, in a different life, I was part of a writers list. We’d submit stories up to once a week and comment on each other’s work. I learned the basics of writing there from people who were kind enough to show me the errors in grammar and structure that marred what could have been good stories. I benefitted from reading their fiction and their thoughts on writing. I honed my skills taking part in monthly themed stories and in producing flash fiction – 100 to 200 word stories with a beginning a middle and an end. I even committed poetry from time to time. There were arguments of course but I learnt from those too.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was how hard it is to see a story just after you’ve written it.
When I write, I have to believe in the story, to fall in love with it at least a little, or I will never get it finished. Besides, if I don’t believe in the story, why should I expect anyone else to read it?
Sadly it’s true that love does make you blind. You see not only what you wrote but what you meant and all the things you thought about but did not include. This makes me blind, not only to typos (which I make a lot and often fail to spot even after proofing) but to gaps in the story.
I don’t use an outline when I write. I usually start with a voice. So, I get all excited when I finally find out where a story is going. So excited that it’s hard to make myself go back and check that, now I know the end, the rest leads up to it in such a way as to make it feel inevitable, even if it is also meant to be surprising.
The writers group became my eyes. They helped me see the story I’d really written so that I could decide if it was done or not. Sometimes the changes would be small. Sometimes I’d add whole sections. Sometimes I’d just polish the language. It’s not that I needed them to tell me what to write, I needed them to tell me what I’d really written.
I miss that.
My most recent story, “Assessing Francis Connor”, is at the stage where I’d love to hear what my writing group thinks of it.
“Assessing Francis Connor” started with me hearing the first line in my head. “Is he the one?” I let the dialogue run as dialogue only until I had what turned out to be about half of the story. Then I went back to the beginning and had to nest the dialogue into everything else that makes a story work.
I decided to go with first person present tense, not just because I like that style but also because the close up and personal touch would add a second line of internal dialogue and would set a pace that counter-balances the essentially static nature of the action.
I decided to tell the story from the point of view of the second person to speak, not the first. This changed how I read the dialogue and made me wonder what “my” relationship to the first person to speak was. That turned out to be important in shaping not just the tone of the story but the plot.
As I went back through the dialogue, parts of it changed, taking into account things I’d “learned” from my main characters thoughts.
I knew the story was dark when I started. I recognise that it’s based on some of my own anxieties and dislikes. What I didn’t know was how the story ended. Then Francis Connor mentioned “Fahrenheit 451” and I finally understood where I’d being going with this all along.
I was pleased and I posted the story.
But it’s still too early for me to see it.
Perhaps in a month’s time I’ll be able to read it again and understand what I need to do to improve it but I’ll never be able to see it from all the angles that a group of writers can provide.
I already recognise that I need to do a little more to set the context so that what happens to Connor will be better understood. I also recognise that I’m now writing science fiction in set in a future where I will be an old man and wonder how many other long-term sci fi fans out there are starting to think about that. Still, I won’t tinker with it yet. I’ll wait until the fog clears.
Writing is a lonely business. There’s just me and the voices in my head.
I’m getting used to that idea but I still wish there was a place to go where those of us who are compelled to mine our imagination for fiction in order to understand our lives could go and compare notes.