Aphelion Issue 230, Volume 22
July 2018
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

Aphelion Editorial 059

May 2002

The Senior Editor's usual drivel about whatever...

by Dan L. Hollifield


Hello and welcome!

Some time ago- while I was writing "Sins of the Fathers" -Jeff asked me to think about writing a feature detailing the writing process itself. It seems that he was impressed with the method I used to fine-tune the story for publication. This is the result of that request. Jeff, be careful what you wish for...

DISCLAIMER: I'm a very visually-oriented type of writer. I see pictures of what I'm writing as if I were watching a video. This is the way I work... if you do it differently, more power to you. I'll be as general as I can so that I don't have to break it down into genres or whatnot. Also, I'm writing this the way that I talk, instead of using the proper grammar that a story would call for.

Every writer runs into this question sooner or later; "How do you make up all this wild (insert expletive as desired)?" And you look at the poor sap as if they haven't a clue what an imagination really is after all. Somehow, "it just came to me-" isn't a good enough answer- not even for yourself. Is writing a story such a mysterious process? Maybe so, but I'm about to take a shot at illuminating some of the darker areas. Got your sunscreen? OK, let’s spread a little light...

Usually, a story starts with a daydream. ("Well, DUH! " I can hear you say.) You, the writer, drift off into what is essentially your own little world. A scene plays out in your mind, you watch it, and guide it a bit to a conclusion that you like. Or it may be only a sentence rather than a daydream that acts like a movie clip. The entire Mare Inebrium series was spawned by the sentence "'That's the trouble with time travel,' said the man with blue hair." This sentence sat in my notebooks for several months until I thought of a story to use it in. It was a good hook- a good first sentence for a story. It catches the reader's interest enough for them to try the story. For short stories, you can't afford to let the reader be bored by the start of the story. You'll lose them to another writer, sure as can be. In a novel, you can take fifty pages or more to get to the point. (And I'm likely to think that it’s a boring book.) In a short story however, you may only wind up with twelve pages to tell the entire tale. So narrative hooks become important tools to build your story with.

So you've got your daydream and you've got your narrative hook, so what do you do with them? Well, then you ask yourself "what happened before this scene- and what will happen afterward?" Then you start an outline. You might think that an outline of a story is the most useless thing because you can never stick to it. The story evolves into something else as you write it and the outline bears only a passing resemblance to the finished story.

Don't get ahead of me. I know, my stories never resemble their outlines either. Relax, its normal. Take a deep breath and remember your daydream. Then, plot your story out in really general terms and save the file as your outline. Most stories run to a sort of format. This can help make plotting the tale easier, but don't let the format become a trap. Stay loose, you'll want to be able to change directions in the story if better ideas come to you.

The general terms really help since you can flesh them out in a multitude of directions- telling a different story in each direction, so to speak. Now, add in some detail. Write some dialogue, describe your characters, set the stage the story will take place on. Work from your outline and add these new details to it. Keep saving the file, but don't overwrite your outline file, save the fleshed-out outline as a working copy with a different filename from that of your original outline. Then you daydream some more. Your daydream gets better, more detailed, and you add the new stuff to your working copy. Unused parts of your outline keep hanging around in your working copy until you either flesh them out or delete them. Over and over again- until you have your story written.

But you're not through yet, not by a long shot.

Now comes the editing, proofreading, and the most important step- letting someone else read the story. That's the part that can hurt- when your reader suggests some changes. Proofreading is more than just running your spellchecker once. You have to read the story to see if you still have some errors like "cap" for "cat" and so forth.

Now it’s time to show you a little of what I've been blathering about. Here's a really simplistic example that we can turn into a story, of sorts:

OUTLINE:
See Dick and Jane.
See Dick and Jane watch Spot.
See Spot play.
Play, Spot, play.

OK, pretend that was a word processor file and save it. Now let's flesh it out a bit for a first draft.

1st DRAFT:
The two blue-skinned children languidly waved a score of tentacles
in the chlorene sented air as they gazed through nine multifaceted
eyes at their pet. The fanged carnivore slathered with barely
contained rage as it dismembered a small helpless herbivore that had
chanced through the forcefield. The children wriggled their membranes
and altered their shapes with glee at the sight. The pet carnivore
dashed back and forth on its twenty legs, batting the prey about
from claw to claw.

Now, that's got it a bit more fleshed out. Save it again, but with a different filename. That's a nice first draft. We need to spellcheck it and see if anything else comes to mind to add to it for the second draft.

2nd DRAFT:
In the frosty light of two dim, far off suns a savage entertainment
played itself out before the eyes of two inhabitants of the yellowish
-green world with four moons.
The two blue-skinned children languidly waved a score of tentacles
in the chlorine scented air as they gazed through nine multifaceted
eyes at their pet. The barely-tamed fanged carnivore slathered with barely
contained rage as it dismembered a small helpless herbivore that had
chanced through the forcefield that formed the pet's enclosure. Random
sparks flickered as sand struck the fence of energy. In the ultra-violet
light the carnage looked even more eerie. The four meters of the
carnivore's height bristled with thorny spines and two of its front legs
ended in large, serrated pincers. The prey was chased around the
enclosure until its sides heaved with the torture of drawing each painful
breath. The children wriggled their membranes and altered their
shapes with glee at the sight. The pet carnivore dashed back and
forth on its twenty legs, batting the prey about from claw to claw.
"This is great practice for 'show and tell' at school," they said.
"Miss Jmwiruhsjhduski will be so surprised when Spot eats her vital
organs,"
"I'll bet she squeals in anguish as she re-generates her lacerated flesh,"

Well, the second draft is coming along nicely. It turns out that Chlorine was misspelled in the first draft. A bit of tweaking, some more spellchecking, and I think we'll have something. I'm not sure what, but it'll be something. This is about where I'd put the story online and invite some friends to read it and e-mail me comments. Meanwhile, I'd think about what I have and where it’s going. If I received any comments that sparked new ideas or pointed out flaws, I'd give that some thought too as I did my re-reading.

OK, I'm going to digress a bit now because I don't want you to get too bored with the story we're working on. We'll come back to it in a few paragraphs, after I've blathered some more about my personal writing habits. We'll just pretend that we're waiting for comments on the second draft to show up in the e-mail.

Since most of my writing winds up online, I like to take the editing a bit further than most folks. It makes it easier on me in the long run and it has the added virtue of making webzine editors worship your submissions. Well, not worship exactly, but you get the idea. It’s nice to get a submission that you don't have to read four times in order to publish it. (Read to accept/reject, proofread if accepted, add HTML tags, proofread HTML) Submitting in HTML shortens the process by three steps. Any online editor will like that. Of course, you still have to write good stories 'cause no one is gonna publish your stuff just because its already HTMLed. 8^) It just shows the Web editor what submitting a polished manuscript shows a print editor- that the writer is serious about his work. It lets the quality of the writing show through more clearly, too. Now you have to remember, I've gotten most of Aphelion's best stories as ordinary word processor files- I'm just saying that I had to go over them more often to get them ready to publish.

What I like to do is to HTML the story after spellchecking and then read it in my web browser. This gives me a better idea of what the actual layout of the story will look like, as well as making it easier for me to spot errors. I bounce back and forth between the browser, the word processor, and the HTML Editor to make corrections. That's called "multi-tasking" and it's most useful on complicated jobs. It sounds clumsy, but it actually works rather well. It works rather like this- I write the outline in my word processor, save it, flesh it out in a first draft, save it with a different filename so that the original is not overwritten, and proofread it. That gives me two documents; the original outline, and the first draft. Then I open the HTML editing program, copy the first draft into it, HTML it, and save it as an .HTM file. Since I have webspace online I can use, I usually put each draft online and ask the staff and other friends to comment if they wish. Then I open a web browser and read it several times. While I'm reading, if changes occur to me I'll add them to the HTML copy. I'll also copy the changes back into the word processor file. This gives me my second draft. If the staff or any of my other friends have offered comments I can keep these in mind as I re-read the story.

You may ask yourself why I don't just use the word Processor for the whole thing. Well, I found that I missed fewer errors reading the story with the web browser than I did with just the word processor. The more often I have to re-read something, the less likely I am to want to re-read it. After a while, I want to do something else-to get away from the story for a while. That's OK as long as you don't just drop the story from boredom. That's what the comments of your readers are for. To keep you interested, to motivate you to keep working on the story.

To trim the process a bit, sometimes I don't correct the word processor version until I have the HTML copy corrected. Then I shut down the browser and copy the HTMLed version to the processor. There I can remove the HTML tags and tweak the text layout to give me back the italics, underlined text, and other goodies that get lost when the HTML tags are deleted. I usually do a global search for one tag at a time and tweak the text to match what the tag was a command to do. I have to do that because the HTML editor that I use doesn't show italics as italics on the screen. They look no different from the rest of the text, they just have HTML tags on either side.

As another shortcut- and a decided reverse -I usually add the HTML tags for italics as I'm writing the story in the word processor. Then when I first copy the file to the HTML Editor I don't have to bounce from the processor to the HTML to find my italics. They're already there before I add the paragraph tags and whatnot for the HTML copy.

I use an older HTML editor called, oddly enough, HTML Writer. I've tried some add-ons to "Word Perfect" to make it convert word processor files to HTML, but I didn't like them much. So, I always come back to the tried and true. As I said before, it’s easier for me to spot errors reading a webpage than a word processor file. And if you are going to submit to e-zines anyway, it makes sense to learn HTML. HTML is actually pretty easy to learn and can enhance the story in a number of ways. For an example, look at Jim Parnell's third story in Aphelion, "Over the Hill" back in Issue 15. It was submitted in HTML, with an illustration, a special background picture to make it look like a pulp magazine page, and special font notation to add to the pulp zine look. It didn't use Aphelion's page layout format, instead it came as a package deal and presented an opportunity make a more immediate impression on the reader. Of course, it didn't hurt that the story was good too. If it had been a bad story, no amount of window dressing would have gotten it considered. Which brings us out of this digression and back to the matter at hand.

While you're reading the story to proof it, you can usually spot a place where you feel that the text isn't quite right. You see how to fine-tune the dialogue or the set dressing to better suit what you want the story to say. That's called editing and sometimes the writer is too close to the story to see when a change should be made. So, you get someone else to read it and tell you where you lost them, or where more description is needed, or more dialogue... whatever. Your reader is invaluable when they're honest enough to risk hurting your feelings by actually pointing out flaws that they see. It’s more helpful for your reader to tell you "it was great up to the last two paragraphs, then it was unclear just what happened" than it would be if they just said, "great story, I liked it." What I like to do is to put the story online and let the Editorial Mafia look at it when they have time. They'll send me some e-mail and let me know what they think, and I'll make some changes or add more detail. Sometimes the comments let you see the story or characters in an entirely different light. While I was working on one story, my reader commented that I should change the dialogue for one character because the way I had him written made him sound as if they were going insane. Instead of changing the dialogue, I saw a whole new plot twist and had the character merely pretending to have a nervous breakdown in order to make his enemy underestimate him. A plot twist was born. But, if I had been thinner-skinned I might have just gotten mad that someone was challenging my deathless prose. You have to be adaptable to accept criticism, and profit by it.

So now let's get back to our putative story. All right, let’s pretend that we've gotten some e-mail about the story that says "very descriptive, but where's the dialogue going? What's the story about?" So, you think of some things for the characters to say, some more details to add to the setting, and start looking back at your outline to see what plot points you missed. Let's quickly take a look at that old outline again and see if we missed something while setting up the story.

OUTLINE:
See Dick and Jane.
See Dick and Jane watch Spot.
See Spot play.
Play, Spot, play.

OK, I see it. There's no ending, no direction. We'll have to think of something.

OUTLINE:
See Dick and Jane.
See Dick and Jane watch Spot.
See Spot play.
Play, Spot, play.
See Dick and Jane have fun at school with Spot.

Now that ought to be fun to write. I'm just allowing my imagination to flow here for this story.

3rd DRAFT:
In the frosty light of two dim, far off suns a savage entertainment
played itself out before the eyes of two inhabitants of the yellowish
-green world with four moons. They called their world mumble-mumble-blah.
The two blue-skinned children both languidly waved a score of tentacles
in the chlorine scented air as they each gazed through nine multifaceted
eyes at their pet. The barely-tamed fanged carnivore slathered with
uncontained rage as it dismembered a small helpless herbivore that had
chanced through the forcefield that formed the pet's enclosure. Random
sparks flickered as sand struck the fence of energy. In the ultra-violet
light the carnage looked even more eerie. The four meters of the
carnivore's height bristled with thorny spines and two of its front legs
ended in large, serrated pincers. The prey was chased around the
enclosure until its sides heaved with the torture of drawing each painful
breath. The children wriggled their membranes and altered their
shapes with glee at the sight. The pet carnivore dashed back and
forth on its twenty legs, batting the prey about from claw to claw.
"This is great practice for 'show and tell' at school," one said.
"Miss Jmwiruhsjhduski will be so surprised when Spot eats her vital
organs," said the other ameboid child.
"I'll bet she squeals in anguish as she re-generates her lacerated flesh,"
added the first- and they both laughed in derision.
The next diurnal period, the two children sloshed their way to school
with their pet encased in a portable forcefield. When the teacher angled
her body down to inspect the cage, the children released the carnivore
by remote control. The beast, once freed, bounded, slathering about
the crystalline chamber. Shattered desks crashed in its demonic wake.
It's fangs dripping acid drops on the school-room floor, it leapt upon the
hapless adult teacher and severely tore her pink and green paisley dress.
The Janitor's bright blue skin glistened with sweat, whether from fear
or exertion, as he wrestled with the playfully murderous pet. The children
quivered their bodies with delight as they watched the grown-ups cope
with the slathering, be-fanged monster.
"You are both going to get detention for this," the teacher wailed in
anguish.

Well, for the third draft I changed a few words to make the sentences clearer. There was a repeated word ("barely") in one paragraph that worked out better after dropping the second "barely". Even more development was added as I thought of new details. I find that working on several projects at once makes it easier to keep at one task that gets boring, like proofreading. I have to take a break from re-reading a story, so I do the proofing in stages. Between proofreading sessions I'll go look at astronomy pics for new cover pictures, or go to a chat network and look up old friends, or draw something. Whatever it takes to get my mind off the story. But I have to eventually come back to the proofreading or the story never gets finished.

Is the idea of the process a bit clearer now?

So you make changes, post them again, and collect more criticism. Over and over until you work the story up into the best it can be. You're going to be thoroughly sick of the thing by the time you get it ready to submit. With "Sins..." I was writing the bulk of the story over about an eight-day period and posting each day's work for the staff to read for comment. Some suggestions I adopted, some I didn't. For instance, there is a point in the story where one character drops a bombshell of information and another responds by making a joke. Jeff thought that this point would be the best place to end the story- with a punchline -but I had more I wanted to say and kept writing. In another place in the text, Jeff thought that adding one part of the outline would detract from the rest of the story. In my working copy, I had always included the parts of the outline that had yet to be fleshed out. Jeff looked ahead at where I proposed to take the story and told me "don't even go there..." or words to that effect. What I had in the outline would have slowed the story down and added un-necessary details. So, I dropped that angle and polished what I had left. Jeff was right about the detail, but wrong about where the story should end. I went on with the story- past the punchline -and said my say, but did agree that the story would suffer if I included that future outline fragment. The story was changed by the comments I received. Indeed, it became a better story.

Editing isn't fun, proofreading isn't fun, re-writing isn't fun, but they all have to be done to make a story your best. Writing turns out to be lots of hard work, but it pays off in the long run. When your story appears in publication, it’s a thrill that can't be beat. Except maybe by actually getting paid for the story. There's the moral of this article; If you work hard enough, you can sell your stories. That's what Aphelion and other e-zines are for, to give the writer a chance to develop their skills toward the ultimate end of writing for pay. /p>

There you have it. Writing, my way- and if any of it helps you, you're welcome.

Thanks for your time.

Dan

THE END


2002 Dan L. Hollifield

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.