Structure: Making a Story Out of a Fragment

Posted: October 27th, 2013 under Craft, Story.
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The current story’s day or two in structural revision has made huge changes in its organization and now has it on an open track to completion as a story of approximately (after some cutting) the right length.    It’s an interesting example of the kinds of decisions writers make when something doesn’t run easily the first time.  The story had a lot of life in it and lot of good stuff.   It had two POV characters, though–a character familiar to you, and one you never heard of before (nor had I.)    It came with a lot of backstory (why X, the new character, was where he was, doing what he was doing, why Y, the familiar character was where he was…etc.)   I knew fairly early on what happened–who did what and why–and initially it seemed like writing it down would be easy.   But it wanted to be at least a long novella and probably a novel, which would knock it out of its potential sale to an anthology and put me in the bind of having to come up with another story for the anthology (in less than a month.)    It kept saying “I’m just part of a novel…not a standalone story.”  And I said “NO.  You have to be a story.”

The first obvious thing to do was cut off all but the tiniest, absolutely crucial, backstory.   Yes, it was interesting that X had done this, and R had done that, and X had come from here and thus knew someone else who had come from there, but…no.  Cut, cut, cut.    But cutting off so much backstory merely revealed that the bigger problem was the two POVs.     I had gone on and written large parts in both POVs…and the interplay was fascinating and more revealing than one by itself, but…it was talky.   A lot of inside-the-head, a lot of discussion between characters, to reveal what each thought/planned/etc about what the other had done and said.  OK in a novel, where a chapter of each would work, but not OK in a short story.

Then the question became “Whose POV should it be?”    I had the known characters: not just Y, but some of Y’s associates?   I know them; I’ve written them before; they’re fully alive to me.    Y, or one of the other known characters, would have the advantage of signaling to readers right away that they were in a Paksworld story.   (There are other ways to do that, though.)  People who liked Y would want to read that story and get more insight into Y.

On the other hand, a completely new character, X, would expand the world more than a known character (even a known character doing something new to the reader.)    X struck me as having intrinsic interest–someone you’d want to know more about.    But since I started the story originally in Y’s POV and had thought initially of Y being the protagonist, much of X’s attractiveness was coming from Y’s concept of X.   X’s POV sections were shorter (at the point when I realized I had to do a structural change. )   But this was not an impossible barrier.

One cardinal rule of picking your POV (if there’s only one) is “Whose story is this, anyway?”    Who has the most skin in the game, the most at stake?    Whose motivations are driving the story?  The way the story came to me, both X and Y had a lot at stake.   Well…did they have anything in common at stake?    And from which viewpoint would what was at stake–singly and in common–show up the best?  Thinking about this, doodling on paper, thinking more,  especially while in bed before sleeping and upon waking,  tilted the board in favor of one of the two.  It boiled down to “Who got less sleep and had the worse night?”

By yesterday,  or maybe Friday,  I had committed to one of them and started figuring out how to use some of the words written in the original story file.  By no means all.    Moving solidly into one POV revealed things that were just a little different than when I got them as reports or backstory.   I’m now 15 pages into the new version, the one-POV version.   Hoping to finish today but maybe not.   Every new story I write (and not just in Paksworld) teaches me more, gives me the chance to invent a new tool or refine an old one.


  • Comment by Alon — October 27, 2013 @ 12:15 pm


    I hope you will tell us what anthology it’s going to be published in…?

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 27, 2013 @ 1:13 pm


    Alon: If the editor accepts it, and when it’s allowable, of course I will report on the anthology title and release date. I don’t know when that will be. First I have to finish it, then submit it, then the editor looks at all the submissions and chooses which to accept, then several other steps before the time I can say so. For instance, the other story was accepted into the other anthology, and I now know the order of stories in that volume, but I’m not supposed to reveal the contents yet.

  • Comment by Kerry aka Trouble — October 27, 2013 @ 2:59 pm


    The first anthology isn’t even listed on Baen’s upcoming releases for the next 6 months – I went looking for it and couldn’t find it 🙁

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 27, 2013 @ 4:59 pm


    It may not have a release date yet, or it may be deeper in the stack. It just went to Baen from the anthology editors. Or it may pop up suddenly now that it’s delivered.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 27, 2013 @ 6:14 pm


    Yes, I can see where multiple points of view (which have been a delight in Paladin’s Legacy) would not work in a short story. You really need to have a single point of view to keep the story short and focused.

    I love your insights into “technique” it makes the story more alive, and less fixed. Thank you for sharing them.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — October 27, 2013 @ 8:40 pm


    GinnyW expresses my thoughts exactly. I really enjoy the glimpses you give us of your process.

  • Comment by Gareth — October 28, 2013 @ 11:31 am


    Have you ever considered creating something like Miller and Lee’s splinter universe where fragments or short parts that didn’t make the final novels (but you are happy for people to see) – back stories that were written but didn’t make the final cut are readable for ‘donations’. Really don’t know how well that works financially from the writers perspective but I suspect reasonably well. I know I usually give significantly more than the corresponding percentage of an anthology and I think the site shows average donations (though that could be just a hint).
    Obviously out takes that you weren’t happy with the writing would never get seen but I get the impression that sometimes there are chapters that get cut which contain viable and ‘real scenes’ in the sense that they still fit the universe and story line but ultimately got pruned.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 28, 2013 @ 4:07 pm


    And the new story is…no, wait, better stop and define “finished” in all its permutations for my purposes. There’s “all of the story is in the file” finished (and this story is finished that way) and “the story is ready to be seen by an acquiring editor” and “the story has been copy-edited and the copy edits approve” and “the page proofs have been checked.” This story is “finished” in that all of it is in there. Thanks to the massive structural work before the new version started, it doesn’t need a structural revision, but I’ve already found one place where, in using a chunk of the original version, I then duplicated it in a rewrite. That’s a construction-level problem, and there’s more of that to check. Then the surface, finish, level. Then off to the editor.

  • Comment by GinnyW — October 29, 2013 @ 7:03 am


    We are glad it worked out, and looking forward to reading it, eventually.

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 29, 2013 @ 7:26 am


    Eventually, you will–one place or the other. If it doesn’t sell, I may try letting it blossom as a 2 POV story, because there’s other stuff in there.

  • Comment by Sharidann — October 29, 2013 @ 8:37 am


    Out of curiosity, same publisher for both stories ?

    Baen or Del Rey ? Both ?

  • Comment by elizabeth — October 29, 2013 @ 10:00 am


    Sharidann: I’m not sure of the publisher of this one. Even if an anthology is under option for a particular publisher, the publisher may refuse it and the editor may shop it around elsewhere. I know who has the option, but that’s a private matter between publisher and editor and I should not say anything about it until it’s solid.

    Rob: Titles for short fiction in an anthology shouldn’t be too long unless they’re really, really interesting. Or so I’ve been advised.

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — October 29, 2013 @ 10:56 am


    I enjoy different points of view for narrators. In the late Iain M. Banks’ “Inversions,” one of the two narrators is a pretty ignorant kid who is spying upon the protagonist for another, unrevealed character. It’s a remarkably effective trick. The kid is observant, but naive.

    Short fiction titles: obviously, writers like Roger Zelazny would disagree…

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