Found some gold in my unfinished story archives

Melange+Snooper-Dune1984I used to generate dozens of story fragments, ranging from 50 to 5000 words, each year, but eventually I stopped seeing the point. I never looked at them, and most of them were just nonsense. Now I tend to either delete the free-writing or to store it in my huge “_fragments.docx” file (which I also never look at, but at least it’s only one file). Nowadays it’s only when a story starts to feel like something (i.e. gets to maybe 2000 words) that I give it my own file.

However, I still tend to either finish a story within a week or two, or abandon it forever.

Yesterday, though, I was bored and sleepy and looking for ways to avoid working, so I took a little stroll through my ‘Unfinished Stories’ folder, and I found a lot of good stuff in there! A lot of voice, actually. And a lot of inventive situations and characters. In general, these were stories that I’d written during the 2-3 months when I was very depressed and finding it hard to write anything. In some cases, I didn’t even remember writing the story. What I do remember was that I’d plop down at the keyboard, day after day, and struggle to generate something, ANYTHING.

I’m not a fan of free-writing. I think trying to produce crap usually leads to crap. These stories weren’t free-writing. They were conscious attempts to chase something–an image or an idea–and produce something good. However, I was also at my wit’s end, so I was chasing some pretty far-out things.

In most cases, when reading over the fragments, the story ended right at the point where it should’ve started to become something. You know what I mean. There’s the intriguing part of the story, where you throw out lots of stuff, and whisper to the reader “Keep going, this is all going to come together, and the payoff will be amazing.” The problem is, though, that then the payoff has to be amazing.

Generally, with this sort of story, you have 2-3 seemingly unrelated threads, and then you tie them together at the end. In speculative fiction stories, there’s usually the big story–the societal or technological change–and then there’s the little story–the protagonist is broke or lovelorn or incompetent or something. For instance, Dune is the story of a corrupt, decadent empire, and it’s also the story of a young man who’s lost his father and his place in society. The two stories come together at the end when he forges a new family and uses it to destroy the empire.

That’s what I call a major tie-up. It’s one where the resolution of the personal story leads to the resolution of the exterior story.

What I usually specialize in, though, is a minor tie-up: a story where the exterior story somehow impinges upon the personal story in a way that illuminates or clarifies. Ted Chiang is a master of this. For instance, in his story The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate, there’s this big meditation on time travel and fate and destiny–and it all comes together at the end to provide a moment of peace to a man who has lost his family.

When you’re lucky, the story contains the seeds of a minor tie-up right from the beginning, and you’re able to go through and write it cleanly.

However, in these unfinished stories, the minor tie-up wasn’t quite clear. Usually, that was because the personal story wasn’t well-enough thought out. Either there wasn’t enough inner conflict, or I didn’t understand the inner conflict, or the inner conflict wasn’t thematically appropriate for the story (for instance, if the inner story in Dune had been that Paul Atreides was a plucky inventor who was trying to invent an alternative to the geriatric spice, then the story wouldn’t have worked nearly as well, because that doesn’t have thematic resonance with the whole dying, decrepit empire deal, because his very pluckiness and ingenuity would, in some way, belie the tale you’re trying to tell about this world).

Anyway, I’ve read through them, and I got them in my brain bank, and someday soon, hopefully, the answer will come to me.