Starting in the Middle

I’ve been surprised over the past few weeks how this project is coming together, kind of piecemeal, not all orderly like I approach most of my life.  I am a list maker, an outliner, a planner.  My kids tease me that “Mom, it’s okay not to ‘have a plan’ for the day,” assuring me that it’ll be “alright.”  Really, it’s that bad sometimes.

When I started this novel adventure, I approached it how I usually approach a writing project.  I gathered all my resources; I researched, read, and took notes; I outlined and plotted; I developed characters.  And then, I thought I would start at the beginning.  That’s where I’ve always started every paper, essay, my Master’s thesis etc. – the beginning.  It seems like the logical place to start.  Apparently not.

Either I’m starting to let go and listen to my creative self a little bit better, or I just approach fiction a little differently, or at least a long fiction project, than I do non-fiction projects.  The short stories I have written I have started at the beginning and worked through until the end, but for my novel, I have random scenes written throughout.  I work on whatever I feel like.  If inspiration hits, I write that part.  It’s been so fun – who knew?

The other day I was reading a stack of 9th grade papers.  My students wrote them as a culmination of a fun end of the year Writer’s Workshop unit in which we studied “using punctuation in interesting ways to create voice.”  “How do authors use dashes, ellipses, fragments etc?  What do they achieve when they use them?” were the questions we asked as we read quite a few mentor texts, and they wrote practice pieces.  They could write their final piece on any topic; they enjoyed this assignment.  How do I know?  The final papers were super fun to read; they got it, the whole idea that language is fun and they can play with it to achieve an emotion or a mood in their writing.  As I was reading, twice I read lines that made me think of my story.  I had to stop right there, grab a piece of paper and write segments of scenes.  When I got home that night, I expanded them, and I still like them.

My muse is a funny thing.  I have no idea when inspiration will strike or what it will inspire.  However, I think my planning (or over-planning according to my kids) has been helpful because now when inspiration does strike, I have a good idea of where that piece will fit in the larger picture, but it’s certainly not exact.  I’m trying really hard to just go with it.  To let go, to allow this process to teach me whatever I need to know about how I work and the best way for me to work.   This is new territory for me, to work organically and not in a completely linear fashion.  But, overall, I think I like starting in the middle.  Now, if I could just think of a really great first line, life would be great.

What does one do with a short story?

I wrote a story.  What now?  I am clearly new at this game and writing short fiction is not something I thought I would ever really be interested in as I have taught them for years and recognize that a tight, good story would be, for me, much harder to write than a novel.  I also took a lone creative writing class in college in which I was required to produce a story; I hated it, both the story and the writing of it.  I remember it being really hard, and as a nineteen year old English major, really hard work was not at the top of my priority list.

I wrote a god-awful piece that still makes me cringe.  We were supposed to write about something we knew, and it also had to say something.  Perfect.  Having grown up in a relatively small town, with a relatively uneventful childhood, I had neither the maturity nor the experience to look at my life and understand that virtually any event could fit these requirements.  So I wrote an unfocused piece about a backpacking trip though I did manage to include a not so subtle statement on the environment in it; it failed miserably (which I knew) but my professor still gleefully (to me) let me know all its faults.  I decided at the ripe old age of nineteen that fiction was far too hard and not for me.  I probably should have written a story on how much pressure I put on myself to do everything well, including writing fiction.  But you know what they say about hindsight . . .

Following that experience, any aspirations I had to write short stories went on a shelf.  But then the muses struck again, and by the time I got out of bed this past Saturday morning, I had a whole little story plotted in my head.  I jotted half of it down in my notebook while my daughter was warming up for her soccer game.  And then I jotted the second half down after we got home from the game. I completed a short story . . . and even better, I like it!

It was fun to actually complete a piece of writing.  I think I’ll probably write more of them, especially if they come to me complete and lovely as this one did.  Now I just need to figure out what to do with it.  Do I submit it to a contest?  To a magazine?  A publisher?  What does one do with a 2300 word story?  Do I need to write five more before I do anything?  I guess I’ll have to research that to find out.  Or if anyone out there has any grand ideas, let me know.  But even if nothing comes of this story, it’s nice to have a completed piece in my “writing portfolio.”