Embryology of a story #2 (The Egg Develops)

Here we are. Embryology of a story? OK, it’s part 2 of my writing journal that tracks progress through the penning of ‘The Egg.’ Tale IV in the Abyssal Black series.

Entering the phase of first draft writing is both exciting and trepidatious (yes, that’s a word.) Will the story pan out as expected? Will inspirational insights to character and dialogue appear during serendipitous moments? Will I get lost in the swampy middle? The only way I’ve found to counter this moment of the Fool stepping over the cliff is to launch in and start typing. As Neil Gaiman said, “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”

Thankfully, I didn’t have to fiddle about long with the opening scene. I knew I wanted to introduce one of the two main MCs, and put him in a setting that gave the reader a feel for his everyday life. Also, the first scene would provide a gateway to character traits that act as latching points for the plot. Given that it’s easier to ‘write what you know’, I thought I’d go easy on myself and include a scene I’d actually witnessed before: laying drains in a field using a mole plough. This required a bit of research to get the terminology and technology right, but as I’d actually witnessed a machine driver carrying this out, the descriptions and scenery backdrop were easily imagined.

The establishment of the mundane, ready to contrast with the (hopefully) suspenseful inciting incident later was important. The reader has an opportunity to look through a window on the MC, Woody’s, thinking. It doesn’t offer much by way of spoilers to say that Woody yearns for a child — specifically a son. So, at least one of my themes begins to be satisfied — that of the human desire to contribute to the next generation. I also dropped in a hint that Woody and his wife are having trouble in this department.

Because I had written the MC character briefs in a lot of detail, they are pretty much imprinted on my mind. However, I still made brief reference to certain internal motivations and history, to make sure I was consistent. I’m keeping these scenes short to coax the reader into reading the next one. I was always a great admirer of Richard Laymon’s style, and the way you were hooked straight into the story from the first sentence. I only wish I had an ounce of his skill. Still, one can strive. Maybe the first edit will improve things in this respect.

The two main MCs — Woody, and his wife, Jenna — are amalgams of people I have known, with a few totally imaginary traits thrown in. When writing their dialogue, descriptions and mannerisms, this helped get the fingers moving quickly over the keyboard without hesitation.

Each of these first writing sessions involves looking over what I wrote the previous day. One thing I’m consciously trying to do is not let my own ‘purple’ vocabulary creep into the character’s dialogue, or their thought processes. They are, for want of a better word, working class. This is not to say they are not intelligent or ‘life-wise’. They have profound thoughts, and I have to explore how they express these, or how they are revealed through other elements in the story. At the moment, there are some clumsy sentences where I, the narrator, am telling the reader why the MCs are acting as they are. I need to blend this in more subtly to the prose. Some of this I can fix during these ‘reading over’ sessions the next day. Somehow, the passage of twenty four hours or so is enough for a paragraph to shout at you and suggest a way to show rather than tell. Sometimes, however, it takes a more structured, deliberate approach when doing the first edit proper.

Scene 2 switches to Woody’s wife. Her waiting for him to come home, cooking a stew, remembering her younger life — all too quickly past. Again, I drop in a reference to her and Woody’s hope for a child. Woody arrives home from the pub and they have an argument. I employ a fellow writer’s advice by imagining the two characters in a movie scene. I try to get myself in their heads and imagine what they are feeling, what their trigger points are, how they express themselves, the things they hide. This flows quite nicely, It ends up almost like an Eastenders scene (not that I watch the soap opera — but I have memories, y’know!)

Scene 3 is part one of the inciting incident. Woody storms out to the chicken shed to find solace amongst his birds. Something is making them act strangely. They’ve not laid any eggs and most are out in the bushes squawking away. Again, I can write quite authoritatively, as my dad used to keep all manner of birds when I was young. Bantams, silkies, thornboroughs, guinea fowl, golden pheasants, geese, turkeys, and even peacocks! It was my job to feed them every morning. I remember the sight and smells of the hen coops where we would look for eggs, how my Dad would ‘neck’ chickens when we wanted them to end up as a Sunday roast, how to pluck and dress the bird etc. etc. I don’t need all of this to appear in the story, but it provides a familiar backdrop.

For the incident that gets things going, I allow myself to do a little discovery writing or pantsing. As I said, something is out there, round the back of the chicken shed. I have childhood memories of getting the coal in on winter’s nights, when it was pitch black, rain lashing down and the wind howling. My dad would tell stories of Billy Green Teeth, a troll-like monster that preyed on young children. I imagined him waiting at the top of the coal house when I opened the door with scuttle and torch in hand. Useful material for this scene in order to create suspense.

Other elements of mystery I include upon the next day’s edits include Jenna having a mother from traveller stock. A bit of a trope, but I’ll allow myself the stereotype in the hope that I’ll make her character sufficiently different and necessary for the story. There are suggestions of an afterlife, a seance, and vague whispered words that might provide hope for Jenna’s otherwise childless future. I hope the recollections are not too overt or dramatic. Again, a rest after the first draft, followed by a fresh set of eyes will help here.

Towards the end of the week, I cut some scenes from the outline, as I realised they were either irrelevant or could be better incorporated into other scenes e.g. some aspects being taken care of in the initial scenes. I’m very aware of word-count. Ideally, I need to keep the story to 20k words in order to constrain it to the Abyssal Black format. I’ve been here before. A short story turns into a novelette, which turns into a novella, which turns into a novel. Some say a story will write itself to the length it has to be. There are others, such as Blake Butler, who advocate the benefits of a writer constraining themselves — often in a very prescriptive manner (I took one of his courses on Litreactor the other year.) There is such a thing as the Drabble and Flash Fiction after all. I’ve dipped my toe into those before, and I think I’m going to have to keep an iron nerve with this one.

Next time, I’ll fill you in on the next set of scenes, and how I face the problem of preventing the story from becoming too bloated.

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