cupidsbow (cupidsbow) wrote,

6 Stories in 10 Weeks

A Rant About the Process of Writing to Deadline by cupidsbow

You may have noticed me whinging about deadlines over the last couple of months. Specifically, I've bandied around the phrase "six stories in twelve weeks." Ha! Not only did I write more than six stories, but when I checked my diary, I discovered that twelve weeks was too generous an estimate. It was actually more like twelve stories in ten weeks (and they were just the stories I posted on LJ, as I did, in fact, write *more* than that).

Yes, you read that right. I'm boggling too.

What follows is the story of what happened after I signed up for six challenges, all due within a ten week stretch (from first sign-up to last deadline). In meeting all those deadlines, I learnt a hell of a lot about writing. A *hell* of a lot. I thought some of you might be interested in what I went through, so if you click on the cut, you'll find behind the scenes commentary on those six stories (Dreams of a Distant Sun; Hindsight; The Scientific Method; Thrill Ride; Say When; and Things to Come), plus rants about some of the wrong turns and additional experiments I wrote in those ten weeks…

It all began few months ago, in late September 2005, as I was lying around feeling exhausted after finishing my Doctorate. I wasn't ready to get on with my life yet, or do anything really intense, but at the same time, I was *itchy*. I needed a project. I needed to do some writing just for the joy of it, because the drudgery of that last year or so of the Doctorate had well and truly left me wondering why the hell I'd ever wanted to be a writer. And as I was lying there, all lethargic and uninspired, it occurred to me that while I'd had a lot of practice at meeting deadlines and word-counts and assigned topics for non-fiction, I'd rarely had to be that disciplined when it came to writing fiction. Even the doctoral thesis only had one hard deadline, the final submission date, rather than lots of individual deadlines. Basically, I'd been pretty spoilt when it came to writing fiction--I could just do it whenever inspiration hit.

After a bit of thought, I decided to see what it was like to have to meet a series of deadlines for fiction, and also what it was like to have to write to fill other people's specifications. How? By signing up for five fanfiction challenges, all due before the end of the year. Yes, yes, it was an insane idea. I realise that *now*, but at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable. After all, I'd planned to sign up for a few secret santa exchanges anyway, so what were a couple more deadlines? Anyway, I started signing up in October, and the deadlines for the challenges stretched out over a month and a half, starting in mid November and finishing on new year's day. Then, because I was *insane*, on impulse (*insane*, I say), I signed up for a *sixth* challenge.

This was the insanity I found myself committed to:

  1. lotrips_fqf, Monday 14 November
  2. undermistletoe, Sunday 4 December
  3. slashababy, Saturday 10 December
  4. sga_santa, Monday 19 December
  5. ncis_tinsel, Sunday 1 January
  6. damonaffleck's New Year's Day story exchange, Sunday 1 January

Yes, that is a seven week period. Insane!

1. Dreams of a Distant Sun
I began writing in late October with the request for the Lotrips Fuh-Q-Fest, which was the most detailed of all those I filled. I only managed to work in about half of what the requester asked for, but despite that, I was very happy with the story, Dreams of a Distant Sun (you can find the request at the bottom of the story; most of the other challenge requests are given in the individual story headers). It came in at about 4,500 words, and it's one of the best things I've ever written. The fact that I wasn't feeling time-pressured really shows in this story: it's taut, well-plotted science fiction; it doesn't rely too heavily on dialogue; and the non-chronological technique is both effectively written and reflects the theme.

This was one of those gift stories that authors get occasionally. It pretty much wrote itself; although it did start off with a really naff title, "Come Fly With Me," which I knew was wrong, but it took a while for the right title to find me. A couple of re-writes were needed to smooth out the connective tissue, but that's standard for non-chronological stories, as they're innately more work-intensive than linear narratives. I also had to add in a whole new scene during the re-write stage (the one about Hannah being sick), to give the story better balance. It was all surprisingly painless, though, after the hell that was the PhD.

In fact, it was such an easy, joyful experience that it reminded me of all the reasons I'd decided to do a doctorate in creative arts in the first place. It helped that I knew the Lotrips characters inside-out, which meant I could focus entirely on the techniques and flow and just have fun with it. I suspect that this story is probably my farewell to the Lotrips fandom (even if I do write another piece or two at some point); I can't see how I can better it.

Before and during work on the next story, I wrote several other things, like Military Intelligence, LonelyHearts Atlantis, and several chapters of Being John Sheppard. I also finished work on an original script. This was November, and I was keeping track of my daily word count for FinWIPMo (finish works in progress month); I averaged about 1,000 words a day.

3. Hindsight
The second story I wrote (but the third in terms of deadlines) was another Lotrips story: Hindsight, which came in at about 3,000 words. This story presented a major challenge, in that I've always been a real OTP girl for Elijah/Orlando in this fandom, so writing either of them in another pairing wasn't easy. I chose Elijah/Dom because I don't like writing Viggo, and especially not Viggo/Orlando. Dom's a great character to write, but even so, the pairing didn't intrinsically press my buttons, so I looked for another way to make the story interesting to me. That was important, because if I couldn't find a way to invest myself in the telling, it wouldn't feel truthful for the reader, and as it was a present I really wanted it to. After all, one of the things I wanted to experience during this whole experiment was writing to someone else's specifications, and the slashababy request was definitely that!

I found my way into the story in two different ways. First, with content. A theme I've tackled several times in Lotrips, and still find fascinating, is the way fame changes people. In this story, I wanted to look at fame from the other point of view: how it affects people who don't have it. That's why I originally called the story "Starlight." However, once I got to the re-write stage I realised that title didn't work, and that the backwards chronology was challenging enough that I really needed to use the title as a signal to the reader.

Which brings me to the second major choice I made. As the story wasn't due for ages (I began work on it before I signed up for undermistletoe), I decided to use backwards chronology, which I'd never tried before. It was a challenging enough technique that I knew it would keep me interested in writing, even if I had problems with the pairing. And I figured that even if I didn't nail it straight away, I had plenty of time for re-writes.

Oh, the irony! Thanks to the drama of undermistletoe, I ended up not having as much time for re-writes as I'd expected. This turned out to be a good thing in one way, as the story got to sit for a couple of weeks while I wrote frantically about "Ancient!John". When I came back to Hindsight, I had some distance, which was direly needed. Basically, the first draft was a mess which made no sense to anyone but me; it needed three re-writes. Poor vegetariansushi was pulling her hair out during beta. It wasn't until the second re-write that I got the idea to open each section with the date and a quote, which I think helped the flow of the story a lot. By the end of the third re-write the story at least made sense, but I still think it needed one final smoothing over. I've been over-ruled by the readers, though, who seem to have enjoyed it a lot. And in the end, entertaining readers is just as important to me as pleasing me, so I count the story as a success, despite my perfectionist quibbles.

After finishing the first draft of Hindsight, I started thinking about the next two stories on my list, both of which were for Stargate: Atlantis. I toyed with a lot of ideas and threw most of them away as either too long, or not on the required themes. I got inspired enough by one of these ideas to pull an all-nighter and write up "The Education of Rodney McKay."

Then I knuckled down to writing what I thought would be the undermistletoe story.

2. The Scientific Method
In mid November, I became fascinated with Instant Messenger, and how I could tell sprawling epics in real time in just a few thousand words. So I decided to conduct a little experiment and see if writing on LJ would have the same result. I wrote about 3,000 words of LonelyHearts Atlantis in real-time, posted as LJ comments; I reached about the half-way point in the story. Then I realised that the idea was exactly on the Ancient!John theme I'd been assigned for undermistletoe, so I abandoned the experiment and started writing the story up properly.

I got about 4,500 words in, and realised I wasn't even a third of the way through; that I was, in fact, writing a novel, and that I was going to miss the deadline if I kept on writing the novel.

So I did the logical thing: panicked and ranted at vegetariansushi about what a moron I was.

This is probably the most valuable lesson I learnt during the whole Deadline Extravaganza: I have a very poor grasp of how long my story ideas are before I start writing them. I can usually tell, vaguely, if they are "long" or "not-so-long". But that's pretty much it. And often? I'm wrong about the not-so-long ones. Obviously, this isn't a problem when there's no deadline, or the deadline is a freelance one. It's a major, *major* problem for a writer who, say, has a PROFESSIONAL DEADLINE with a publisher or television producer. Clearly, this is something I need to work on.

Once I'd stopped panicking (by this time it was about a week out from the deadline) I put my thinking cap on, strong-armed vegetariansushi onto IM, and started methodically going through Ancient!John ideas in the same way I regularly brainstorm essay topics. Then, every minute I wasn't at work, I lay on my bed and ruthlessly thought through and discarded plots for the ideas I liked best. I tried to get a feel for how many scenes each plot had, figuring (from past experience) that each scene would *probably* come in somewhere about the 1,000 word mark; I needed something with 5 scenes at most. I can write about 1,000 usable words of fiction a day; 2,000 if I push it. My personal best is 5,000 words in a day, but that was a freak event and I can't reliably replicate it (and I'm shattered for days afterwards).

So, four days out from the deadline, after 48 hours of non-stop thinking, I had the bare-bones of the plot for The Scientific Method; I knew it could be pared back to 6 scenes (so 6,000ish words, which is pretty much what it came in at), and I knew I'd be pushing to write it in time, but it was the best, shortest plot I had on the theme. Its compactness was mainly due to my desperate inspiration to use the Replicators, which meant I didn't have to invent my own bad-guys for John to use RANDI on (which would have blown out the word count).

Then the real craziness began: I went to work every day, then got home and wrote all night. For four days and nights. vegetariansushi and cricketk pretty much beta-ed on the fly, which I've never done before. I'm amazed they could make anything of my terrible, sketchy notes and bad prose, but somehow they did, and saved me a lot of re-writing time by pointing out holes I would only otherwise have caught once I'd finished the first draft (usually I send out to beta what I call a complete first draft, but that's actually about my third draft).

I managed to post the story one day after the deadline, which, frankly, amazes me. What amazes me even more is that it's a *good* story. That said, it does have some flaws; in particular, it relies too heavily on dialogue. Yes, I know the dialogue is funny. What can I say? When the writing gifts were given out, I scored a facile ease with dialogue. But that means I tend to use it as a prop when I'm not sure how else to forward a story (or when I'm writing really, really fast), and an over-reliance on dialogue is rarely the best way to achieve depth of characterisation or subtle plotting. But it's not like The Scientific Method is a particularly subtle story, and really, that's about it as far as major flaws go, so I'm very pleased.

4. Thrill Ride
After collapsing in a heap for a few days, I roused myself and did the re-writes on Hindsight, and then started seriously thinking about the sga_santa request I'd been assigned. I'd been toying with ideas for weeks without much success; in fact, The Education of Rodney McKay was one of the early ideas I'd decided wouldn't work (too plotty, not enough smut, and if I'd added in the smut, the story would have been unbalanced and too long; besides it had the het aspect, which the requester didn't want).

I kept looking at the request with a furrowed brow and then not getting the right kind of ideas, so I started throwing words at the screen to see if anything would stick. One of the false starts was "A Brief History of Friendship," which I liked enough to post as a stand-alone vignette. After another false start, which, frankly, was utter crap, I finally realised that the requester was really asking for a smutty PWP (yes, I know, I'm a bit slow sometimes). That's when I got the idea for Thrill Ride (although at 4,500 words, does it really count as a PWP?).

PWPs are not my thing, so it was harder than you'd think to write the story, even though I hammered it out in two sittings. Well, two all-nighters. I seem to have spent much of November and December 2005 sleepless. Anyway, once I was done, I really wasn't sure how well it was working, so I was kind of surprised when vegetariansushi practically orgasmed during beta--that was the first inkling I had that I'd more than nailed the sex, which I'd been a bit worried about.

The re-writes mostly consisted of me agonising over whether lychees were sexy (as vegetariansushi is allergic to them, she was no help in this regard), and semi-colon placement. If only more re-writes were like that!

As for what I think of the story... now that I have a bit of distance, I'm really pleased with how well I nailed every aspect of the request, even if it did take a couple of false starts to get there. My ability to write fiction on theme has seriously improved over the course of this project.

I took a little break from filling requests after finishing Thrill Ride, and indulged myself by telling vegetariansushi some stories on IM. I had such a good time doing "The Fiendish Plan of Dr. Macabre" that I saved the IM session and then wrote it up as a story. Heee. Secret Agent John "double oh, oh" Sheppard!

Ah, yes! Is there anything sadder than someone amused by their own jokes?

5. Say When
Domestic bliss? In NCIS? Yes, that was the request I was assigned for ncis_tinsel. Go right ahead and boggle. I certainly did. Neither Gibbs nor DiNozzo seem particularly domesticated to me :)

Of course, by the time I started work on Say When, I'd already nailed the Thrill Ride request, and after *that* a bit of domestic bliss seemed like a doddle.

You know, I really don't have much to say about this story. I'd been thinking about writing something set on Gibbs' boat for a long time, and this seemed a good opportunity. And then Tony just kind of sidled up to me and whispered in my ear, the way characters sometimes do. It pretty much wrote itself after that. Which was just as well, really, as I was out of time for doing any re-writing. I bet poor vegetariansushi was relieved at that news!

What surprised me most about this story was its brevity: I managed to capture the mood I was striving for in just over 1,000 words. That's practically a drabble for me!

6. Things to Come
By the time I got to this request, I was completely and utterly exhausted. I mean, *done*. I barely had two braincells left to rub together. Fortunately, I know the Afflection characters almost as well as I know the Lotrips boys, so I just sat in front of the computer and let them have their own way, which typically enough for them, meant 2,000 words of snark. And again, there was no time for re-writing.

Things to Come worked out much better than I had any right to expect, given how tired I was. Perhaps that's not so surprising, though. After the whole multiple all-nighter stunt I pulled for undermistletoe, I said flippantly to redbraids that, if nothing else, the doctorate trained me to write coherent sentences even when comatose. *points to Afflection story* I rest my case. The one major thing that gives away how tired I was is that this is clearly a story based on that old, reliable stand-by of dialogue-driven writing. But I kinda like the dialogue, so I can't even bring myself to do my usual hyper-critical analysis of it :)

The End
So there you have it. Six stories (around 21,000 words) in ten weeks of writing time (plus an uncounted number of words in the extras, experiments and false starts that were all part of the process).

My overall impression: don't ever do this again, you moron! Yes, it's possible, even for a slow-n-steady writer like me, but my God! It's no way to live!

My advice to other writers: yes, it's worth doing once, because you'll learn things about your own writing processes that are useful to know. You need to do your maths first, though, to make sure you've given yourself enough time to not only write the stories, but to do the re-writes, and, most importantly, to screw up. I really should have given myself at least an extra week, preferably two. In fact, if I'd just not signed up for undermistletoe, I would have been okay. Which is ironic, because that's the story that taught me the most.

I think I'm all out of words now, although I'm open to questions if you've got any. I figure, having gone through the pain, why not share it? ;)

And now I've got that off my chest, I'm going to bed for about a week!
Tags: essay, writing
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