I wanted to share a little of my writing process as I work on this short story that fits into my Empath Chronicles series. Writing a short story is a bit different to working on a full novel, and each is it’s own different art form, but there is some overlap in the way I write.
Every story starts out with an idea. The idea may be simple and need lots of work, or come with a lot of details already in place (those are the ones I like!). For this short story, I knew I wanted to explore the character Emma, and where she came from, so people know her better when she returns in the next longer instalment of the Empath Chronicles.
This short story has been a really fun challenge for myself. I haven’t written short stories since high school, and as I said, they are a different form of art to a novel. You have to condense so much into such a short space, but still make it compelling. Tough stuff! Even more challenging was the subject matter. Bullying, self worth, and the fact that as it played out in my mind, I knew this story was going to be a tragedy. I’m used to reading and writing “the hero story”, with big showdowns and victories for the main character. But Emma’s story won’t be so fortunate. So there was my challenge- to write a short story that was moving, dealt morally with the issue of bullying, dealt with a character who makes a bad decision instead of a good one leading to a non-heroic ending, and could be read by someone who hadn’t yet read Emotionally Charged. Yikes. Well, I’m going to try anyway.
As the idea forms in my mind I jot down notes. On paper, on my phone, in Word, where ever is handy. I then gather all those ideas in Word, and start getting them into order. I start breaking them down into Acts (I like to follow the three act structure), and then break them down even further into scenes, and fill out the details as I go.
Here’s an example, of the first scene of Emotionally Scarred, in it’s planning stages-
She felt unattractive with a large mole on her face. Teased terribly about it, called a witch because of the mole and felt like it with her freak ability to know how people were feeling.
If I really were a witch I would make myself beautiful but my powers are different.
She could tell the way she revolted people because of her empath ability so of course never dared tell anyone about it. She finally convinced her parents to have the mole surgically removed. They couldn’t afford a good plastic surgeon and it left a scar bigger than the mole.
It was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. But the hack doctor botched it.
She made an effort to still be positive about the new school, dressed up, held her chin up, but she could still feel how people looked at her and her scar, and knew she was going to be just as bullied.
She turns to stare at a notice board to hide that she’s close to tears. The hottest guy in her year (with looks of a 50’s movie star, he knew it too, playing it up by calling girls Doll) comes up and talks to her, shows interest in her for some reason. She’s suspicious, but there is some hope as well. He asks to meet her after school at the abandoned set of a pirate movie (like Popeye’s town) so he can get to know her some more.
This story will only be three scenes long, but book two of Memory’s Wake, for example, has seventy-six scenes, varying in length, each written out in about the same level of detail. I also jot down what I call “Fragments”. Snippets of prose that have come to mind that I might like to write into the story later. I drop those into the scene outlines in a different font- like the bits in bold, above.
I like writing in Word because I use their Heading styles to keep my outline in order. Acts are set to heading level 2 and scenes (I give them all a short descriptive title) are set to heading level 3, so that when I turn on the Document map, I can glance over my entire plan easily, and use the document map to jump to whatever scene I need to work on.
As I’m planning, I’ll often pass by details that I’ll have to come back and decide later. I set these to red, so I know I have to come back to them. This outline originally read-
After I have the flow of the story right, I go back through and fill in the details like that. Once I have the complete plan, I write into that outline. I normally write in order, start to finish. Even with a plan I prefer to go in order. I write following the outline, deleting the outline as I’ve written each part of the scene to replace it with.
And very quickly I have a first draft. Want to read how that scene plays out? Here’s the first draft, fresh and un-revised! I haven’t even run a spell check over this, that all comes much later.
Emotionally Scarred – Scene One – First Draft
If I really was a witch, I’d enchant myself to be beautiful, but the powers I have are different. I might not be a witch, but I’m not a good guy either. I wasn’t born to be a hero. Heroes aren’t ugly.
If only I could use my powers to stop people staring at me. The corridors of my new school were a shade of lime green that set my teeth on edge. Everyone watched me, the new girl with a target right on her face. My sneakers squeaked as I walked and I felt so completely conspicuous. Damn laminate flooring. The other students stared openly and gossiped as they pretended to poke through their lockers. A tide of emotion followed their stares, the usual mix of sympathy and disgust I was used to feeling. That was my superpower – to sense how people were feeling, so strong I felt it myself. I hated it. I hugged my laptop bag and pile of new books close to my chest
Chin up, Emma. Don’t let them get to you. You’re beautiful on the inside.
That’s what I was meant to believe, that my outer appearance wasn’t important, and that real friends would like the real me no matter how I looked. But I didn’t feel beautiful on the inside. It was as though my face had poisoned everything about me. I tried to ignore it, act like everyone else, be cheerful, friendly, dress right, talk right, do all the right things. Maybe I tried too hard.
This year was supposed to be better. I was going to be a new me. A fresh start, a new school, a new face. But the hack doctor botched it. It took so long to convince my parents to have the mole removed. This was no cute beauty mark (how I wish it were just a cute beauty mark), but a brown blob of ugly flesh larger than a quarter that covered the side of my chin. That’s why I was the witch of my last school. Marked by the devil, dribbling sewage, just plain gross; I heard it all.
Brother, if they knew I was reading their emotions like some kind of freak…
I’d finally convinced my parents to let me change schools. By convinced, I mean I got expelled from my old school by getting into a fight with this chick who wouldn’t leave me alone and breaking her arm. I guess I was stronger than I realised.
So I was off to a new school, and in between, I’d have the mole removed. Then it was meant to be like in books, where a group of great friends would adopt me and the hottest guy in the school would fall for me. I’d be happy. Really, I’d be happy to just not be bullied.
I was so dumb. I didn’t realize I needed a proper plastic surgeon for the work, to actually make my face look like the mole was never there. The mole was gone, but the doctor left a great pink grub of a scar in its place.
I often wonder if it weren’t for that mark, would I be comfortable with how I look? I was tall, like a supermodel (yeah, right) but that just made me easier to spot. I should have loved my bright red hair but I hated that it just made me more visible.
I came to this new school determined to be positive anyway. I dressed up, smiled, and waited for people to ask, wow, where did you get that scar? And I would tell them crazy cool tales of my heroism, saving a small child from a pitbull attack, only to have a chunk of flesh bitten off my face. I’d say it was nothing. I did what I had to do.
But everyone judged on first sight. They didn’t even talk to me. And the thickness of their hateful emotion smothered me. I knew I hadn’t escaped. It would be the same here as it was before.
My eyes stung suddenly. No way, if I cried now in the middle of the school corridors, it was all over.
I turned to face the wall and made it lucky. There was a notice board right there, covered in fluoro fliers for me to pretend to read while I got myself under control.
The corridor stunk of bleach from a recent cleaning. If anyone saw my eyes damp, and asked if I was OK I’d say my eyes were sensitive to the chemicals. I had an answer for everything. If only anyone would ask.
“Since you’re new, I’ll give you some advice.” A voice, deeper than most teen boys, spoke in my ear, closer than I’m used to anyone getting. I shivered. “Don’t join the Chess Club.”
I turn around to find Rafael, who I’d already determined to be the most handsome guy ever, leaning on the wall next to me. He had one elbow against the wall and his hand played with his own sun-bleached hair. I don’t blame him; my hands would love to do that, too.
He had the looks of a 1950’s movie star and he knew it. He played it up, wearing a leather jacket with turned up collar like he was James Dean, and said things like doll, daddy-o and swell. Yeah, I’d been eavesdropping, just a bit.
He was looking at me, talking to me. What was going on?
I let what must be a dumbfounded expression stay on my face and spoke slowly. “But… the checkered boards are so pretty, and I like the little horsies.”
Rafael had the worn look of having to explain something to a poor dumb girl and I worried I’d missed my shot. I raised an eyebrow dramatically, hoping he got the point.
A moment passed, then he chuckled and I let out a massive sigh. Internally. Externally, I kept my cool and gave a flirty-yet-coy grin. I was stupidly proud of myself. Maybe I could do this. I would beautiful on the inside, and he would be the first person to see.
“I’m Raf; that’s the other important thing you need to know, new girl.”
“Emma,” I said. I extended a hand to shake his, leaving just one to hold up my books. They shifted, and I rebalanced them in a way I hoped look cute, and squish my boobs up into prominence at the same time.
“Woops!” I giggled, as though I hadn’t meant to do the whole thing. His smile in return was hungry, almost predatory. There was warmth and excitement to the emotion flowing from him, but also something dark. It gave me chills.
“Careful, you’ll need those, for, you know, learning.” He stared at the books, or maybe at me. I tried to believe it was me.
“No problem. I can shake hands and balance books. Get me a job in the circus, I have the skills.” I rolled my eyes, with just enough eyelash flutter to be cute, I hoped.
The bell rang. Too soon, I wanted this to go on forever.
I shrugged and smiled anyway. “Time to go, and you know, learn.”
“Better move. I don’t want to get you in trouble on your first day.”
Right. I’d been here a week. Well, he’s noticed me now, at least. I had to give him a reason to remember me. Dare I?
“I don’t mind getting into trouble sometimes, if it’s for a good enough reason.”
Raf bumped his shoulder into mine. “You’re a firecracker, aren’t you? Say, you want to meet up after class? Just hang out?”
Something was wrong. This was too good to be true. I hated that I doubted this. I was about to split apart, torn between hope and suspicion. I did a quick check for hidden cameras.
My lips trembled. “Sure.”
“Come to Siren’s Haven. You know it?”
The abandoned set of a failed pirate movie, still standing down by the harbor. I knew kids went there, but I’d never been game. I nodded, casually, like I went all the time.
“See you there at six, the main pirate ship. It’ll be a gas.”
He headed off down the corridor. I skipped class, went to the girl’s bathroom and did the snoopy dance.
And that’s scene one!
Once I’ve finished the whole first draft, and start revisions, I’ll share the revised version of the scene to show what changes I make. You’ll notice I also notice that some things change between the outline and draft, like it being her first day (or not). No matter how thorough the plan, things still always change.
What do you think of the story so far? Feel free to be critical, first drafts need criticism! My thoughts are telling me to possibly cut a little back story (or save it for later), add more description of the setting, and maybe a little bit more about Emma herself, who she is and what she likes, beyond her feelings about her appearance. But that’s all for the revisions stage. For now, back to drafting!