Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Story in Five Parts

I really liked that 5-part collaborative flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's blog, as you can probably tell because I've been talking about it so much here and on my Twitter over the past few months that you'd think I was a paid sponsor or a crazy stalker or something.

I'm not. I promise. Though I wouldn't necessarily say no to being a paid sponsor. But the crazy stalker thing isn't my style.

Really.

I do a lot of flash fiction challenges, some of which you get to see here on the blog in my Sunday posts and some of which are so terrible they shall never ever see the light of day. Sometimes they're just quick little warm ups and I don't really get anything out of them beyond just getting my head into the right space for writing. Other times they're character building or plotting activities that help me with my current WIP. And sometimes they're just generally educational.

I thought the 200-Words-at-a-Time challenge would just be one of the random warm ups. I used to be part of a critique group that did something similar once and it was silly and fun. I spent most of my entries putting old school projectile weaponry into the hands of the main character, who happened to be on a space ship at the time. And screwing up the romantic subplots one of the other members kept working in, just to mess with her head.

Because if nothing else, I am an absolute model of dignified professional comportment.

But instead of being a silly way to cool my brain down after NaNoWriMo and through the holidays, the 200-Words-at-a-Time challenge ended up becoming one of the educational ones. I took something new out of what I was doing every week.

Mainly by realizing what I'd done wrong the previous week.

And, because I'm nerdy like that, I wrote down those lessons and now I'm going to share them with all of you.

Because I'm a giver. I give.

If you take give to mean "force my thoughts and opinions upon you whether you asked me to or not, with repetitious visual aids just to make it really annoying". Isn't that everyone's definition of give?

Week One: Go! But Don't Go Too Far!
I wasn't really sure how to approach the first week's challenge. I mean, it was supposed to be the first 200 words of a 1000 word story. Did that mean I should write a 1000 word story and only post the first 200 words of it? That seemed like a foolish way to go about things.

First off, it seemed to be missing the point of the challenge, which read to me like an exercise on focusing on the beginning of things. If I wrote the whole story, that wasn't really a write-only-the-first-part kind of task. And, because I tend to continue a task as I begin it, writing the full story in week one would probably mean I'd feel compelled to write the rest of the story in each successive week as well.

Besides, if I wrote the whole story, wouldn't that make whatever someone added to it next seem "wrong" in my mind? Probably. I can be pretty judgey all on my own, so I decided not to volunteer for it up front. (That concern turned out not to be all that important, but I had no way of knowing that when I was starting out.)

So I decided to just write an introduction. I tried to make it general enough that someone could take it in whatever direction they were inspired to go, but with enough information to be a sound foundation for a story. In the end, I don't think I pulled it off.

Looking back in week two, I realized that while I created a specific character and gave her a direction, I forgot to set a hook. There was the potential for her to murder someone, sure, but there was nothing special about it. (Before you go running off with the idea that murdering someone is pretty special all on its own, remember that this is fiction and in fiction it's really not.)

As a result I failed to snare anyone else's imagination.

Week Two: Running Uphill
If we're following the basic story structure most of the world seems to think of as standard, the second 200 words of this 1000 word story should be all rising action. Do you have to follow standard story structure every time? Of course not. But since I wasn't working independently on this project and the folks I would be theoretically collaborating with wouldn't be consulting me on my intended direction, using a basic structure seemed like... professional courtesy.

Here, Next Writer in the Chain, take this story and run with it. I'm not going to tell you where I was heading with it, but at least you have a vague inkling of the terrain to get you going.

So, assuming others were operating under a similar idea, all I needed to do was grab up someone else's introduction and turn up the heat. Those characters who were just meandering along in their regular, or sometimes not-so-regular, lives in part 1 needed to stop meandering and start running full out toward the plot.

Some people seem to genuinely enjoy writing the rising action bit. They get a kick out of bringing in the sidekicks, love interests, extra goons, and the occasional teasing glimpse of the real villain. They lovingly build up the hero's skills through a series of challenges and setbacks and they positively glow with pride as their main character gears up to face their big moment.

Unlike those weirdoes, rising action is probably my least favorite part of writing just about anything. I like starting out fresh with a shiny new idea, so introductions are good. And I love writing from the climax forward, when everything has exploded and the story is careening downhill like an out of control train where the brakes have failed, the track is iced over, the conductor is unconscious, and all the characters have going for them is sarcasm and a fully-stocked snack cart.

Rising action, on the other hand, is like schlepping up a hill. I don't like hills. They're Mother Nature's finest form of subtle torture.

Still, I was committed to this challenge, so I tried to make myself take on the uphill slog--with somewhat limited success.

I got the sense in week two that I'm not alone and a lot of people don't like the rising action part of the story. Because when I read through them all in preparation for week three, I noticed that many of the entries slid down into backstory and info dumping rather than charging forward. Misdirection is procrastination's best friend and so, of course, I had done the same thing.

Though I did at least make something blow up in the end.

Week Three: To Battle!
Years ago, before I started studying the craft of writing, I thought the climax of the story came at the very end. I didn't realize that it was supposed to be in the middle. Because I didn't realize that the goal of most fiction is to push and shove a character into making a decision they don't want to make in the first place and then, once they embrace your way of thinking and run headlong into sure victory, to send them flying off a cliff instead.

Fiction writing is sadistic and twisted that way.

But I know better now, so I went into week three looking for characters all pumped up and primed to have the rug pulled out from under them. I didn't have much luck at first. You see, even though I wasn't writing out the full 1000-word stories each week, I was trying to go on with the end in mind each time.

It took me days to decide on a piece to continue. And as I said before, a lot of the week two entries, my own included, had too much backstory and not enough forward motion, in my opinion. I could have gladly continued them on for 10,000 or even 100,000 words, but I didn't see all that many that seemed like they were ready for their climactic explosion.

Naturally, I chose the story with an actual climactic explosion.

And then I sort of fouled it up by not actually getting to the explodey bit. But at least some folks liked what was there enough to carry on. Progress!

Week Four: It's All Downhill from Here
Falling Action is probably my favorite part of writing anything. I love that part where everything is falling apart and the main character is headed for absolute rock bottom, the Black Moment, when all hope is lost and the end is nigh.

I'm pretty sure that says weird and terrible things about me, but there it is.

So now I needed to find a story that had already taken a turn for the worse and really put the screws to it. Take it from "well, that didn't go as planned" to "oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die!" and then twist the knife and leave it with the main character moaning something along the lines of "everyone else is dead, the monster is still hungry, and there's no escape."

As you do.

I may have taken that idea a bit to literally. I think I left this one with too much to achieve in order to reach a happy ending. There was a lot going on and a number of threads waiting to be untangled. More of them than I think you'd expect in a story this short anyway.

With only 200 words to go, I suppose someone could have finished it off by having the main character struggle desperately and then fail without ever figuring it all out, but people don't usually like to write that story. And, despite my brain at the time telling me it would be fine, realistically I can now see that writing a desperate struggle and a successful rescue and resolving just what the heck was going on in the first place probably would have taken more than 200 words.

Week Five: And They All Lived Happily Ever After. Except the People Who Died.
Ah, the end. [INSERT SIGH OF RELIEF] Aren't endings just lovely? Ideally, in the last 200 words of this exercise, I was supposed to find a character facing their darkest of dark moments and show them the secret escape route they hadn't noticed on the way in, letting them find their way out into a new day, a little battered and bruised, or maybe downright broken, but at least alive and somewhat functional.

It's so nice to feel useful, isn't it? After all, what is the point of setting yourself up as the god of your own little universe if it doesn't stroke your ego every now and again?

I can't really decide if I like my last entry or not. It ended the story. I felt like I brought things back around to where they were at the beginning in a satisfactory way. I have no idea if we ended up where the original author wanted to go or not, but then I guess we weren't really ever meant to know that.

I didn't get much specifically out of week five except that happy feeling of having finished something. (Which is important, don't get me wrong, but not terribly quantifiable.) Things were crazy busy and while I did manage to read all the entries for round five, I confess I didn't give over any of my limited brain space to analyzing them. But I have spent the weeks since looking at the overall picture.

There were 74 entries in the original week one challenge. And despite the efforts of some very determined cheerleaders along the way, who tried so hard to pull every entry on to the next round whether it wanted to go or not, only 19 of those 74 introductions got carried all the way through to week five. That's only about 25%.

(I know this because David Wilson made a spreadsheet. Which I greatly appreciated as I was on the verge of making one myself, a compulsion I didn't really have time to indulge but probably would have done anyway.)

So what happened to the other 75% of the stories? Well, some of them had too much story and some of them had too little. Some, like most of mine, were structurally unsound, which probably would have made finishing them impossible even if they had made it through the previous four rounds. I tried to keep the end in mind as I was writing, but I think in most instances my mental reach far exceeded my, and everyone else's, grasp.

It's really hard to take someone else's ideas and characters and draw the plot through a proper conclusion. Hell, that's difficult even without the added complication of the world not truly being your own, and these worlds belonged to four other people as well.

Even when I went back to try to write the conclusion to my own story, which I'd been adding little bits to on my own in spite of no one picking it up, the ending felt a bit... unsatisfying. (Did I mention the structural problems?)

I also learned a lot about getting outside my comfort zone. I wrote in genres I don't usually write in. I wrote about characters I wouldn't otherwise have chosen and I had to find my way around settings I was wholly unfamiliar with. I wrote in styles that weren't my usual and while I did layer my voice over them (impossible not to do, at least to some degree) some of those stories don't read anything like my usual writing.

Oh, and this exercise really reinforced the idea for me that I'm becoming a plotter. My pantsing days seem to be done. At least for now. I like having a structure to work from and I get really peeved when the story doesn't follow it.

So yay for education!

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