Keeping Score: 9 September 2022

Finished typing up the first draft of the new story over the long weekend. Even found time to create a new Ulysses export style based on the Shunn Manuscript Format (the standard for most of the markets I submit to) so I don’t have to manually fix up the margins, etc when exporting to Word (there are existing Styles that claim to be standard format, but are all missing one or more essential pieces).

Not that the story is ready to submit, mind. I typed it dutifully, and edited as I went to make it the best version of this draft I could. But the tonal shifts are still too big to handle in a short story, and the ending doesn’t land with near enough force.

So over the past week I’ve taken a page from literary agent Donald Maass’ workbook, which I’ve used before to edit novels. One of the big points the workbook drives home is the need to look for connections in the story: between plots, between characters, between locations, everything. Strengthening connections can both tighten and deepen the story, making the stakes feel larger because there’s more history — more connection — between the events and characters.

For this story, I had a set of three characters loosely connected. One was the main character, who worked for one of the other characters, and had hired the protagonist to work on a case for the third. There was no prior history, no relationship between the characters other than the business one. As a result, the conflicts were mainly business conflicts: Can the protagonist get the assignment done (extracting a secret from the client)? Will she rebel against it when she finds out what it really entails? Etc. Not bad, but certainly not world-shattering, either.

But what if the three characters were more connected? What if the client was the protagonist’s father? And the person hiring her to dig into his past was her mother?

Now things get more interesting. Why would the mother pit the daughter against the father? What marriage would have that level of conflict? Why would the daughter agree to go along, at least first? And what might possibly change her mind?

This one shift generated a whole new slew of ideas for me, so much that yesterday when I sat down to work on the story, I started writing out — longhand, again — an entirely new draft. New starting scene, new tense, new voice, even (it’s now in first-person).

I’m already happier with the new draft. It feels more assured, like a train engine already running under full steam. I’m looking forward to exploring what the characters do in this new situation, with these new connections between them.

I never could have gotten there, though, without that first draft. And I’m still going to crib plot and structure from it, even if they end up squeezed into new shapes.

What about you? Have you ever done a complete rewrite of a story, and were you glad you did?

Ron Toland @mindbat