I‘ve always been fascinated with the behind-the-scenes process of writers I admire. While reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography once, I remember thinking a lot about a passage he wrote reflecting on the night he sat down to write what became one of his most famous stories, “Nightfall,”
I put a piece of paper in the typewriter, typed the title, which Campbell and I had agreed should be “Nightfall,” typed the Emerson quotation, then began the story.
I remember that evening very well; my own room, just next to the living room, my desk facing the southern wall, with the bed behind me and to the right, the window on the other side of the bed looking out westward on Windsor Place, with the candy store across the street.
For almost a year now, I have been using a set of scripts that automatically collect all kinds of statistics and details about my writing, and because of that, I can walk through the the evolution of a story I wrote during that time, from idea to publication. I thought I’d give this a try in order to provide others who are curious about how this writer goes about his craft, a peek behind the scenes.
And I do stress “craft.” This post isn’t about the art of storytelling. It is about the craft, how I do it, and what the process looks like from the inside.
The story I’m going to discuss is my most recently published story, “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon,” which appears in the current issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show. It’s a great issue, with stories by many writers more talented than me, and is easily worth the price of the issue, should you choose to buy a copy. Reading the story isn’t required to make sense of this post, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
One other point I want to make before jumping in. All of the data I used to write this post, the dates, what I wrote on a given day, all of it was collected automatically by my Google Writing Tracker scripts. All I did was write the stories. The data collection was automatic.
1. Birth of an idea
Generally speaking, I am a situation-based writer. I get an idea about a certain situation, a “what if” and that forms the seed of a story. For me, a story idea usually requires some time to develop before I feel comfortable enough to write the story. Sometimes, one idea alone isn’t enough but a combination of ideas is what makes the seed germinate.
I go through a fairly similar emotional pattern each time I get what I think is a good idea. The drawing below attempts to illustrate this:
When I first get an idea, there is usually a rush of excitement over it. But as I have discovered, with rare exceptions, that initial rush is short-lived. I think in part this is because I realize that the idea requires more thought in order to become a good story. Time passes, but the idea never really fades from my mind. It’s there, percolating in the background. At some point, I start getting excited about the idea again, and the excitement doesn’t flag, it only increases. This is usually my clue that I’m ready to get started.
For “Big Al Shepard,” the idea for the story came while I was on October 24, 2012, while I was on my morning walk. I jotted the following note into Evernote as I walked:
I’m not sure what triggered the idea. Possibly it was thinking about Apollo 14. I don’t know. But take note of a couple of things about the idea that help illustrate how a story of mine evolves.
First, I suggested that Al Sheppard hits a baseball on the moon and that “changes everything.” Second, I thought it would be a short story, possibly for Daily Science Fiction, which means I was thinking about 1,500 words or so. Finally, there is the opening line that I jotted down. Later, we’ll compare this to the published story.
At any rate, every story idea has a different germination period. “Big Al Shepard”‘s turned out to be almost exactly one year.
2. The first draft
I started the first draft of “Big Al Shepard” on September 25, 2013 with the open lines:
Big Al Shepard glanced at the instruments and said, “The clock is running.”
Beside him, his command module pilot, Stu Roosa, said, “P-Eleven, Al.”
“Yaw program,” Al said. The fingers of his gloved left hand were wrapped loosely around the abort handle.
I include these first few lines to illustrate how things change from one draft to the next. I had already decided the framework for my story. I’d tell the story in two separate timelines, one taking place in 1968, the other in 1942. I wanted to open the story with something exciting, and what’s more exciting than a rocket launch, especially when an engine goes out during the launch.
I worked on the story the next day, then paused to work on the second draft of another story. I got back to “Big Al Shepard” on October 3 and worked on it every day through October 14. On the 15th, I paused in order to work on the third draft of another story that I’d written just before “Big Al Shepard.” That work took me the better part of a week. I spent 3 more days, the 21-23 of October, completing the first draft of “Big Al Shepard.” The draft came in at 7,800 words, but add to that an additional 1,700 words that I cut, false starts, etc. Those cut words went into the “deleted scenes” section of my manuscript. Here is what my day-today work on the first draft of “Big Al Shepard” looks like:
Note that on the days that I wasn’t work on “Big Al Shepard” I was still writing, just working on other stuff. If you count just the days I worked on the first draft of “Big Al Shepard” I worked on it for 17 days, averaging about 550 words/day.