From Boring to Brilliant

Or, the Process of Wrangling an Unruly Short Story into Submission

I had been dry as an ancient seabed in the desert; nothing was coming. I seemed fresh out of ideas, and the writing just wasn’t happening.

It’s a state of blockage that every writer has experienced, though some handle it better than others. I know writers who seem to always be able to pump out hundreds or thousands of words. I know writers who put in the daily effort regardless. And while I try, I admit that sometimes I wait for inspiration. I know it’s not an effective method, but some of my best work has come from lightning bolts of inspiration, flow-states that led to drafts that only needed minor tweaks rather than major revisions.

But it can’t always be like that, can it? So I wanted to share the process of my latest short story, specifically because it wasn’t a lightning-bolt story, and it forced me to put in the work to come out the other side.

First, the idea: I knew what I wanted to write about. I plotted in my head, from beginning to end. Sometimes I’ll just write from here: maybe jot down a few notes and get on with it. But there were a few complexities I wanted to iron out, so I started by writing out the whole story as a summary—single-spaced, about 1 page.

Next, the draft: Now that I knew what the story was, the next step was to figure out how to tell it. Often I determine what a story is and how to tell it simultaneously, since the two are often closely linked, but this time, I’d had the idea first before I had any clue about how I wanted to structure the chronology, how much I wanted to stretch or compress time, which parts needed scenes and which parts needed summary. So, deciding on a safe third-person and a starting point, I plunged ahead and wrote the draft, which came out to be 5,500 words.

Then I re-read the draft. And I hated it.

Okay, maybe hate is a strong word, but look: the story was boring. It had all the exciting elements I’d come up with, all the key turns in plot, but it was just insufferably boring. And that was because of the way it was told.

You’ve heard the advice, “your story really starts on page 3.” So have I. Every writer has. I thought, with the first draft, that I had pushed the starting point close enough to the action for it to work. Guess again. As it turned out, my story actually started on page 4 of my first draft. Yikes.

So, the revision: I have a weird habit of just revising directly over the first draft in Microsoft Word, which is why I usually have no clue how many drafts I’ve actually done. Maybe it’s because I know I’m not going to want to save that iffy early draft anyway. But I’ve realized that this can also make it harder to do a major revision, being so locked-in to the structure of the initial draft.

So I did something I’ve never done before. Lying in bed at ten o’clock at night, mulling over a better starting point for my story, it came to me. I didn’t want to grab my computer, and I hate handwriting (and hate is not an exaggeration here; it’s too slow and my hand cramps too easily). What to do?

I pulled out my phone, opened the “memo” app, and started typing out a new beginning to the story, without consulting the first draft—just working from my memory, my knowledge of the story. And then I kept going.

It never occurred to me to write on my phone. I have students who write entire essays on their phones, and I literally recoil when they tell me that. How can you work on such a tiny screen? Your thumbs can’t possibly replace ten fingers on a keyboard! They shrug; it’s what they’re used to. Look at Gen Z over here, already making us Millennials feel old.

I’m used to a keyboard. My fingers are tap-dancers. My husband will attest to the manic speed at which I can type. I like being able to type fast because I like that my fingers can keep up with my brain; if I’m handwriting, for instance, I might lose the train of my sentence halfway through because it took too long for my fingers to catch up.

My phone seemed to be an interesting halfway point between the two. I couldn’t type as fast as on a keyboard, but it was faster than handwriting, fast enough to keep up at least. And, as I soon found, this provided me an interesting boon: because it was a bit slower than typing on a keyboard, it forced me to make my sentences shorter and more precise. I realized that this was the tone and style the story needed. It needed to be sharper, more focused; it needed the semi-fragmented narration of someone who has just been dealt an emotional blow and is still working through it.

I ended up typing about 700 words on my phone that night, and the next morning I transferred it to my computer and finished the draft, which came out to 3,500 words.

The verdict: I never thought I’d say this, but I want to try writing on my phone again. Especially in the evening, when I don’t feel like sitting at my desk staring into a bright computer screen; especially as a way of forcing myself to go a bit slower (and thus be a bit less insipidly wordy); especially to create distance from the first draft, to not be so beholden to the first draft, to not write directly over it, getting stuck in it like quicksand. It was surprisingly freeing.

I was so much happier with the immediacy of the second draft, written in first-person, starting closer to the action and condensing as much as possible to keep the language sharp. It may not have been one of those lightning-bolt-of-inspiration stories, but maybe that’s a good thing.

I’d love to hear from others what your process is with writing a short story. Please feel free to share in the comments!

Categories: Writing

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