Embryology of a story #1 (Into the Egg)

Some would say this blog is a distraction from what I should actually be doing — writing a story. However, these critics are just voices in my head, so I’m going to ignore them for now. If you’re one of the handful who might possibly read this, I thought it might be interesting for you to track my progress through writing the next story in the Abyssal Black series.

First, a little background is necessary. My short stories and novelettes during this last year have all been held within the tenuous grasp of an overarching theme. That of the Abyssal Black. This place isn’t the void, or a bottomless chasm, it is in fact a library, a repository of sacred volumes that tell stories of the lives and exploits of those deemed worthy. But they are more than this, they actually hold the soul and essence of the subject, or tarum-mihi, as they are called. In effect, a soul finds immortality by allowing their lives to be encapsulated in the book. This is assured because the librarians, or seekers, are charged with reading these stories and meditating on what is revealed therein.

The idea for the Abyssal Black library arose from something Ursula K Le Guin once said about the contract between author and reader; that a story is not fully realised until there is an audience for it. The story ultimately comes alive when it is read by another. The same could be said for any work of art.

I’ve already written three stories for this series (which you can find and purchase here.) I’ve given them the minimum price of $0.99 to encourage potential readers to follow the theme as it unfolds story by story. So, I’m ready for the next one. I consulted my extensive list of ideas to see if anything jumped out at me. Some of these sketches arose from Ray Bradbury’s advice from ‘Zen in the Art of Writing,’ where he suggests that a writer should make a list of events and/or titles inspired by real life points of impact, things that have really affected them.

One idea seemed to draw me like a magnet. In very crude terms, it read as follows: ‘What if a childless man finds an egg in his chicken shed that is somehow different. He decides to incubate it, and eventually a child hatches.’

This was quite a bizarre notion, and one that might well evoke rejection based on how absurd it is. Yet, I remembered stories Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Ralph Robert Moore and Philip K Dick wrote which, if resolved down to their basic plot lines seem equally absurd. ‘Through a scanner darkly,’ ‘The Illustrated Man’ and ‘Tommyknockers’ spring immediately to mind. In the hands of these masters, through consummate skill in using character, they pen masterpieces.

I decided to press forward. I always like a working title, even if the story dictates a change due to the eventual direction it takes. I settled on ‘The Egg.’ However, I’m always wary of stories that start with ‘The.’ The premise has been overused somewhat (in much the same way as ‘Chronicles’ has been overused in the fantasy genre.) Yet there is nothing new under the sun, so they say, and after a cursory check on Amazon, I found (beside the expected childrens’ books and cookery books) only one fiction story that caught my eye. It wasn’t horror as such. Therefore, I felt there was room for such a title.

The Abyssal Black stories so far have each contained a prologue and epilogue featuring how the particular tarum-mihi comes to be included in (or potentially rejected from) the library. There is a developing storyline regarding the seeker’s journey further into the Abyssal Black, and the perils he faces as he encounters obstacles that test his devotion to the calling offered by the mysterious Keeper of Books.’ So, I’ll have to give some thought to these ‘book ends’ for the story-main, too.

Where to go from here? Well, I was clear about the setting. I wanted to work in my equivalent of Stephen King’s Castle Rock; the fictional town of Valley that formed the backdrop to my novel, Mycophoria. Also the novelette, These Damn Insects.

Since the focus of the story was going to be the characters, I decided to start with two detailed character sketches for the main protagonists: Woody Woods, and his wife, Jenna. I use a template that is quite detailed. To my shame, I forget where I obtained it from, otherwise I’d give it an attribution. (Moree about this shortly.)

Next, the themes. As I imagined these characters, a few immediately came to mind: the overwhelming drive and obsession to procreate, the pain of childlessness, how people limit their horizons, and the lengths people will go to so they can realise their dreams. Pretty weighty. Perhaps too much to be confined in a short story of between 2500 and 10,000 words. It seemed clear to me this would be a novelette of up to 20,000 words.

The character template I use goes well beyond the typical appearance, family history, occupation etc. that you might have come across before. It asks such questions as, What is your character’s defining strength, Who or what, would your character die for? Write three words that describe your character, If a song played every time they walked into the room, what would it be? You get the idea. Once this was done, my imagination had enough to latch on to, and I could already see scenes taking shape. Scenes featuring dialogue between the two MCs, scenes involving the characters on their own, and others (cinematic in nature) showing interactions between the MCs and other minor characters.

I jotted down a sketchy outline, split up into these scenes. As it stands, there are gaps, but the pivotal moments, including beginning and end are there. Now that I’ve accomplished this, I’ve already got 4800 words. Some of this takes the form of headings and questions, which are part of the template, but still, it’s quite substantial.

Finally, I’m raring to go, ready to write actual prose. As I’ve done before, I’m adopting the Chuck Wendig approach of being a pantser by nature, but an outliner by necessity. This is a little different from Stephen King’s total gardener approach, where he doesn’t know how the story’s going to end, right up until the last minute. SK’s approach is an ideal I’ve only been able to successfully accomplish in shorter stories, as my longer works tend to get lost in the swampy middle all too easily. That said, my rough outline should be flexible enough to allow those ‘pantser’ moments, so it’s not altogether a straitjacket.

I’ll pick up progress in the next blog entry, where we’ll cover the first scenes, together with balancing plot, theme and characters.

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