The 40% Solution

Early drafts can be a real grind.  Especially if you don’t really have the story straight in your head yet.  Sometimes, I sit up in bed at two in the morning, awakened by the force of the muse dropping an entire story into my head all at once.  In these cases, I run to my computer and make a bunch of notes, guideposts that will help me remember this gift in its entirety.  But most stories don’t come that way.  Most stories grow organically out of a ‘what if’ moment.

The impetus for my novel The Vengeance Season came from this little nugget: What if a guy went back in time to solve his grandfather’s murder and accidentally ended up saving his life?  And what if saving his grandfather’s life changed the future so that time travel had not been invented?  I ended up rewriting all the time travel out of it, but that was how it started and that version got me an agent.

The idea for Murderology was basically, what would happen if a group of sleuths got together to hunt serial killers and the serial killers recognized them as a threat and started hunting them?

Those aren’t fully formed stories.  Those aren’t even ideas.  They’re musings.  When you’re developing a story, be it a short story or a novel, from something as thin as that, you’re on a completely different footing than when you’re writing a story you know all the way through.  The first few drafts of a story based on a whisper of a shadow of an idea are just exploratory exercises to get your brain thinking in the right general directions.

And, inevitably, there comes a moment during a first draft of that sort when you realize you’ve gone the wrong direction on a bad road and the bridge is out ahead.  That’s when you tell yourself to just turn around and start over.  Just abandon the draft and start again.  It sounds logical but it is in fact a mistake.


I’m there at that place right now working on a short story that got away from me and ballooned up to novella size while I wasn’t paying attention.  With two paid short story publications, I don’t have the guano to get a novella published in any magazine that I’m not currently an editor of.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure I would publish this novella.  Why?  It’s not done yet. It’s a first draft of a glimmer of a spark of an idea.

Imagine you’re an editor of a big SF magazine.  You spend half your time reading unsolicited submissions, most of which are truly awful, by unknown or unproven writers and the rest of your time doing 100% of your job.  You’ve set a hard limit on short stories at 8,000 words because space costs money and publishing one novella basically means you can’t publish three stories by other equally deserving authors.

If someone sends in a novella it had better come with some extraordinary bonafides.  I don’t have those bonafides so I know full well at this very moment that I’m trying to close up the wound on this draft that this version of the story will never see the light of day. So cut bait, right?

Actually, no.  And let me explain why: I’ve been in this position many times before and I’ve always taken the path of least resistance and abandoned the draft to head back to the beginning and start over with a fresh perspective.  That has uniformly proven to be a mistake for two reasons.

First, I will eventually reach the end of a later, successful draft only to find that I have no experience with the finale because I’ve been ejecting early during every previous attempt.  Even if the ending you come up with is inappropriate for the final product, the ideas you play with in that endspace will be important explorations into the nature of your story.  You have to know the paths the protagonist didn’t take just as well as the one he did if you want to know him completely.

Secondly, you don’t know which part of your story sucks until it’s over.  If you stop at 66% and tell yourself it’s a wash and go back to the start, how can you know which part was the wrong part?  Was it the beginning that was messed up?  If so, how do you know the ending was equally bad?

The novel I’ve been working on here and there for the last five years is now growing backwards.  I have the ending I want because I went all the way through a draft I knew I didn’t want to use.  It turned out that the first 66% of the novel was rubbish but the last third was exactly what I wanted.  Now I’m pulling a John Irving and working from the ending toward the beginning.

I like to think of the bad draft as the 40% solution.  Even as I’m writing it, I know it’s mostly bad.  Let’s say it’s 60% bad.  But that leaves 40% that’s good.  And it may not be a contiguous 40%.  There may be a scene here and some dialogue there that need to be saved but you would never have them if you pulled the big red handle before reaching the end of the draft.

“You wouldn’t have these problems if you worked from an outline,” I hear you saying.  That is you, right?  But the truth is that I have worked from an outline before, several times in fact, but the outline is never the complete realization of the story.  It’s just the frame on which you hang the story.  And, unlike with architecture, you can’t know ahead of time if the frame is right for what you’re about to hang on it.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all of those writers out there who do everything in one draft.  They’ve been touched by an angel (or madness) so none of the rules apply to them.  For me, however, toiling away on draft after draft, I’ve found it best to go the distance before starting over.


The Work Behind The Work

I’ve been reading the biographies of SF writers lately. I started with Heinlein, moved on to Vonnegut, and am now reading about Bradbury’s life. I love doing this because it keeps me in the mood to write. I read about these now famous guys going through the same issues I am going through — the struggle to find a voice, the ever upward path of getting your stuff out there, dealing with criticism that is sometimes completely off the mark and sometimes right on the money (which may be worse) — and I think, “Well, they got through it all right.”

One thing that strikes me about the lives of these three foundational members of the SF Authors club is that Heinlein and Vonnegut were both older when they got started. Heinlein was out of the Navy after suffering through a horrific case of tuberculosis (although one might more fairly characterize the treatment as horrific) and Vonnegut was working for Westinghouse as a publicist. On the other hand, Bradbury was an actual kid hanging around these powerhouse writers in LA and trying his own hand unsuccessfully at what they did every day.

I’ve come to believe that while it’s important to write (and read) a lot when you’re young, it’s also important to go get a job and have to get up every morning and work alongside people who aren’t artistic by nature. One of the things that strikes me about the differences between the works of these three men is that Heinlein’s stories are full of hard nosed pragmatists with real jobs, Vonnegut’s stories are societal commentaries that lament the dehumanization of mankind and Bradbury’s stories are largely fantasy.

That’s not a bad thing — or even a criticism — because many of Bradbury’s stories are pure works of art, but it makes me wonder if, lacking real world experience, he had to manufacture conflict that takes place in imagined worlds. It also stands to reason that is why he took so long to break through.

This is the reason so many novels have writers as their protagonist. That’s the only experience the author has and it speaks of a particularly shallow dip in the wellspring of human experience.

It would really be better if you spent a few years swinging a hammer alongside a burly Cajun who thinks what’s wrong with the world mostly has to do with college boys. Or work as teller in a bank for a bunch of buttoned-down, needle-nose pricks who are going straight from college to management. Or sell furniture at one of those places that’s always going out of business. If you want to get in touch with the rawest form of evil, working with commission salesmen is the best way to do it. Or work for the NSA where you’ll get an inside look at what a government agency gone rogue is really like.

Obviously, I mention these because they were things I did during my own in-between time and while the people I met and the insanity that ensued didn’t inspire any novels or stories outright, they did form the basis for the characterization and events I use to fill out those stories.

The only real danger in making a living and indulging in a normal life while practicing on the portable Smith Corona tucked under the bed in your flophouse room-by-the-week is that you might get distracted.

This happened to me when I dipped my toe into the nascent world of UNIX programming just as the tech industry was really taking off. Still, I can’t say it was a bad deal. I traded that writing time for two decades of enough income to get married, buy a house in the suburbs and raise two children. And all the while, I was compiling those character traits and anecdotes and outrageous misadventures to use as fodder for when I got back down to business.

The Greater World of Small Places

I’ve notice something about the short fiction I’m writing:  Trying to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that is populated by lots of well crafted characters in less than eight thousand words is a losing proposition.  Once you get done cutting on the backside to meet the word count limits imposed by editorial policy, all you have left is the version of the story as it would be recounted by a hyperactive seventh grader.

“He goes into the thing and it’s all, like, boom!  But he’s on the thing, the ship or whatever, and then POW! but the lasers miss and he’s, like, running, and then he gets away.  Oh, and he bangs the hot blonde at the end.”

Now that I think about it, that describes every Bond movie ever made.

This drove me crazy for a little bit because I was really chasing my tail trying to get these big stories cut down to magazine appropriate bite size pieces and then I found some flash fiction I had written about ten years ago and it basically set me free.

In just 830 words, this piece evoked a world of ruin, a post-apocalyptic wasteland bedraggled by a lack of faith populated by people who cannot die.  I love all four pages of this story not for the plot or the characters but for the world it implies exists just outside its margins.

Short stories, especially in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres, are always going to be more about style than plot.  And that’s kind of funny because novels in both of those genres  are routinely criticized for being too oriented toward events and not enough toward relationships and personalities.

One of the greatest examples of this is the movie Vanishing Point.  On the surface — and this movie is almost all surface — there’s a guy trying to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours.  And just based on that business, the movie is a massive success.  But it’s also an anti-war anti-Nam movie.  That’s the greater world it exists in.

And which movie is its most likely logical successor?  Mad Max.  Think about about the larger world implied in that movie.  George Miller doesn’t bother to scroll paragraphs of back story across the screen to tell you why the world is as messed up as it is.  Or does he?  I actually can’t remember now but even if he did, it was probably the studio who made him do it.  You could get by with the few hints.

One of the greatest “implied world” movies of all time is Blade Runner.  If you read the Philip K. Dick story (which isn’t very good) you know that Earth has been depopulated because all the quality people have fled for the colonies.  So the world is populated by just the 4F candidates who couldn’t pass the most minimal entrance exam.  You would also understand, though I don’t think it’s ever stated straight out, that the reason everyone left was that the world had been ruined by pollution.

What with all the mass extinctions of even common animals — due to the aforementioned pollution — actual, biological pets have become rather rare.  So rare that owning them is against the law.  The fact that biological humans cannot legally own biological animals is the genesis of both the title of Dick’s story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Deckard’s question about the owl in the movie.

“Is it real?” Deckard asks. On one level, you have to answer, “Of course, it’s not real.” Because everyone would go to jail if it were.  But Rachel’s response also has to do with the definition of the word “real.”

They never get into it.   A couple of wise old scientists don’t sit around a futuristic space table and discuss the impact of artificial humans on a dying planet.  All of that is implied.

So my feeling is that I’ve done a good job if I’m able to tell a story in 8,000 words (or better yet 4,000 or 400) that implies a world that could only be described in 80,000 words.  In other words, if I could write an entire novel to fill out the implications of a short story, I’ve done my job — as long as I’ve entertained the reader and expanded their internal universe a little bit in the process.