How to write a short story – by throwing away a short story


I wrote a novelette last week. The interesting thing about it was that I literally had no idea what I was doing.

It was originally intended to be a sort of light-hearted romp — with a point, mind you, but a romp, nonetheless. But one of the things that I’ve learned about my writing is that I don’t know what I’m creating until I’m part way through — sometimes not until I’m done, which is bummer, because then even though I’m finished, I’m actually only getting started, and that means throwing away a lot of words. This time, I got six thousand words into the story before I threw it all away and figured out what I was really going to write about.

The idea kernel was pretty simple. The story would focus on an unpopular environmental battle, an attempt to save a place called “the zone.” (dumb name, yes yes, I was going to make it more specific and sexy later). The main character would be a sloppy, graying hippie type, who is getting reviled by everyone for his absurd activism. Undeterred, he struggles on, essentially throwing himself in front of the bulldozer of progress. At the very end, he succeeds and stops the development, and he goes to visit the place he saved. He waxes poetic about the need to “take a stand” and that “sometimes you really can have too much development” blah blah blah, the “sacredness of nature,” blah blah blah (insert bombastic cliche here)…

And then the camera pulls back. “The zone” is the size of postage stamp, surrounded by massive skyscrapers, with a single scrawny Charlie Brown tree in the middle. The hippie stands and admires this spindly tree, his wife acknowledges that he’s done good work, and they go home, holding hands, feeling proud of themselves.

Maybe not a great idea, but I thought I could probably pull it off. The concept was cartooney, but I liked the idea of demonstrating how much loss we actually accept without even noticing that it’s happening. And I liked the bait-and-switch at the end. I liked the idea that I could sort of poke fun at the earnestness of environmentalism as this guy suffers slings and arrows, and then slap people in the face at the very end that this guys’ painful sincerity is actually too little, far too late. Maybe it would have sucked, maybe I could have made it work. It doesn’t really matter, because on the way to my cute little ending, I got sidetracked.

First I started with the main character, the middle-aged hippie. In the first scene, he’s making coffee and arguing with his wife about whether he should or shouldn’t make a stand to save “the zone.” While I’m building him, I realize he needs a job, so I make him a journalist, pretty much at random. I figure that this is how he’s decided to make a stand. He covers lost causes all the time, and it pains him that “the zone” is about to be razed. It’s the last straw for him.

Then, because he’s a journalist I throw in a bad guy, a pretty generic developer type, who controls a lot of people, has some thugs, etc. This to give the whole fight some personal urgency. Then I realize I need a name for my main character, and I make him Yuri, for no good reason, other than I need a name, and I don’t want to name him Bob. But now, I’ve got Yuri, a journalist, who wants to save “the zone,” an unpopular thing. And then, since he’s a journalist, it seems logical that the fight for “the zone,” might actually be partly an issue of getting the word out, trumpeting the oncoming Armageddon if you will. So now he’s a journalist covering the biological loss of “the zone” (man, that was a dumb name), interviewing some biologist whose life is at risk from the thugs — and to add complications, I decide that his editor doesn’t support the story. The editor wants Yuri to write something else, doesn’t want him to make waves… because… (writer thinks furiously)… because (ah ha!) their newspaper is owned by the developer!

So now I’ve got this environmental parable wrapped into a free press story – sort of a what would happen if Dow Chemical owned the Wall Street Journal. And now I’m thinking that the free press in this future world, really isn’t free. Maybe it’s all draconian. All heavily controlled. I like that, because Yuri, my Russian immigrant — now he’s an immigrant, because I want him coming out of a police-state, and russian censorship is something I think will resonate as a nifty secondary idea — is in a new information control state run by big companies like Dow Chemical.

Except… hmm… that doesn’t work, because we know the internet really frees up media, and as I was always thinking of this story as being set in some future America, it’s not realistic from a world-building perspective to make the whole place an information control society, not with cellphones and pagers and websites. Media’s too free to be controlled. It would be hard to sell as a story of corporate censorship. Not impossible, but definitely harder to sell — Even the Chinese have a hard time controlling the Internet. So now, I’m thinking maybe this story doesn’t work unless this becomes a story of people not caring about the news, rather than having it censored–

Hmm. I’m feeling stuck with the whole story. What the fuck is this “zone?” anyway? Maybe this guy needs to be some other kind of activist. Maybe I need to change Yuri’s ethnicity, or his job, or something. This journalism/news angle is really getting in the way of my spindly tree joke story. Something’s not working. I’ve got a pretty well defined Russian journalist, trying to cover a story that his corporate uber-bosses don’t want covered because it interferes with their money-making. Nonetheless, he’s going to go ahead and publish the story, or at least try. Huh. This isn’t going to work. My spindly tree story is done for at this point. And now I’ve got a case of corporations control the news paranoia as well. It all feels too pat.

And then it hits me: I’m not writing an environment story at all. I’m writing an information story. Duh.

So I throw everything away.

I realize that the most interesting thing about this story is about how we control and disseminate information, and about the difference between how a relatively free and diverse media marketplace functions, in relation to a completely controlled one. From there, I realize that the two places where I’ve seen extensive media control in action are in China, and in Laos. Of the two, Laos was actually a scarier place to me. A lot happening under the surface. The country still has neighbors spying on neighbors. Laos looks nice on the surface and has an ugly underbelly. Ever since I traveled through there last year, its been on my mind, sort of bothering me.

So, I start making decisions. This is a story about information control. It’s going to have a Lao main character, a young journalist who now lives in the states. He’ll be a refugee from some sort of purge, and now I’m going to be contrasting his experiences of censorship and information control with the way media markets in the U.S. function. Now that I’m thinking about it, the reason why he’s a refugee is because his father was an activist, a rabble rouser who paid the ultimate price in Laos. My Laotian main character, Ong, lives in Los Angeles and he’s in the middle of more news and information than we can comprehend. He works for Milestone Media, an integral part of a 24-7 information storm that feeds content to everything from cellphones to earbuds to TVs to news tablets and car radios. Unfortunately, even though Ong is living in the lap of American freedom and wealth, he’s got a problem.

Suddenly, I like this story. It’s about two different places. One where information is controlled and allowed to drip out in only the tiniest amounts, and the other, a place where information gushes over everyone as if it’s pouring out of a fire hose. I’m not sure this story will be any more successful than the other, but I thought I’d mention it because the development process was so strange. Looking at the final product, it’s almost impossible to tell that this story’s starting kernel was a graying hippie saving a Charlie Brown tree. If I hadn’t randomly made the guy a journalist in the very beginning, I doubt this other story would even have appeared.

This pretty much encapsulates my entire writing process: Write a whole lot of stuff, just let it keep pouring out, and making things up, creating scenes, making random associations, random justifications… and then, about halfway into the process, something will catch my eye, and I’ll actually have a story to tell.