Evolution of a Story from Idea to Publication: A Behind-the-Scenes Look

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:

Emotional Excitement

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:

Big Al Idea

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:

First Draft Al Shepard Chart

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.

3. The second draft

When I work on a first draft, I am figuring out the story. I do as little research and world building as possible. There are often placeholders for characters names or bits of information that I will need to look up later. All I want to do in the first draft is get the story out so that I know what it is.

In the second draft, now that I know the story, I try to tell the story to my imagined reader. I don’t line edit my first draft. I start a brand new document (“Big Al Shepard 2.0”) and, with the first draft on the right half of my screen, I begin writing from scratch. This time, I write a little more slowly, working with what I wrote in the first draft, but trying to tell a better story. If I need to fill in blanks or do some actual research, this is where I’ll do it. For instance, during this draft, I sent questions out to my Launch Pad Astronomy workshop colleagues on the best way of determining lunar launch windows in the 1960s, since my Apollo timeline was going to be different than the one we know. I also spent some time looking up baseball stats and play names, making sure I had those right in the baseball scenes.

I began the second draft of “Big Al Shepard” on October 24, 2013, the day after I finished the first draft. I finished the second draft on November 2. The second draft of the story opened identically to the first draft, but by the time I got to the end of the second draft, the opening of the story had changed dramatically. It became:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight we gather to honor the memory of a friend, a colleague, and a pioneer whose legacy will be difficult to match for decades to come. Tonight, we say goodbye to Alan B. Shepard. Al was the first American in space. He was the first commander of a Gemini mission, and he was my backup commander on Apollo 1. And in October 1968, Al was slated to be the fifth man to walk on the moon. Neil Armstrong and I beat him by a few months, but Al still had more firsts than any of us in the astronaut corps.

That change took place on October 27, when I decided that I wanted to frame the story as a eulogy being given by Gus Grissom, to bring out the alternate history a bit more strongly.

One other illustration I want to make about the difference between first draft and second draft (writing for me vs. writing for a reader): remember my original first line:

Big Al Shepard glanced at the instruments and said, “The clock is running.”

It’s not bad. It’s direct and to the point, and moves the story forward quickly, but it lacks color. A version of this line still existed in the second draft, but since I was writing for the reader instead of myself, it looked like this:

As his world rumbled and shuddered around him, Big Al Shepard glanced at the instruments and said, “The clock is running.”

The same thing is happening (the launch has started) but I think this communicates it better, and more dramatically than what I wrote for myself.

In the second draft, this kind of change happens to virtually every line in the story. So:

“Yaw program,” Al said. The fingers of his gloved left hand were wrapped loosely around the abort handle.

became:

“Yaw program,” Al said. His gloved left hand cradled the abort handle as a chef might cradle an egg.

I wrote the second draft of “Big Al Shepard” in 10 consecutive days, and the second draft turned out to be shorter than the first draft. The draft itself came in at about 6,800 words, around 1,000 words shorter than the first draft. My day-to-day work on the second draft looks as follows:

Second Draft Al Shepard Chart

During the second draft, I averaged about 660 words per day.

4. Beta reads

Usually, it is my second draft that I send to one or more of my beta readers. I can’t stress how important a role beta-readers play in my stories, and I am fortunate enough to have some amazing beta readers whose opinions I trust because they are fantastic writers in their own right. They are also honest, and critical, but always about the flaws in the story, never about the author.

In the case of “Big Al Shepard”, Ken Liu was my beta reader. He came back with 3 things that he found problematic in the story. One was that the narration by Gus Grissom at the beginning was too long, and slowed things down. The second was that there were several places in the story where I was intentionally semaphoring future events. Ken didn’t think these were needed, and I agreed. Actually, I was deliberately trying to mimic something I saw Stephen King do in his storytelling, but I am not Stephen King. The last thing Ken identified was perhaps the most important. The high moment of drama felt too flat.

You can’t get feedback like this from family or non-writer friends. I takes a writer other than yourself to see these flaws, and as soon as I saw Ken’s comments, I knew that they were all correct. I cannot stress how grateful I am to Ken and my other beta-readers for taking the time to show me how to be a better storyteller.

5. The third draft

I write my third drafts the same way I write my second drafts, starting from scratch in a new document, with the second draft right beside the new draft, and my beta-readers notes easily accessible. I write this way because I like the continuity of it. It means I probably write more than I have to, but I like the flow. I have a hard time jumping into the middle of a story to make changes. I need the flow of the whole thing.

I began the third draft of “Big Al Shepard” on November 5, 2013 and finished the next day, November 6, 2013. The third draft came in at 6,300 words, which means I cut even more, about 400 words, from the second draft. Most of this cutting was the excessive narration that Ken referred to. The opening of the story once again changed slightly to give the narration a more brisk and immediate context:

Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom walks to the podium. It has been more than three decades since he stood on the lunar surface and his hair, black then, is now an iron gray. He wears a black suit of a fine weave and his astronaut pin catches the light filtering in through the cathedral windows.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,” he says. Tonight we gather to honor the memory of a friend, a colleague, and a pioneer whose legacy will be difficult to match for decades to come. Tonight, we bid farewell to Alan B. Shepard.” At this he pauses and looks across at the sea of faces that stare back at him in silence. He had rehearsed this speech in front of Betty, but now it seems all wrong. He considers this for a moment, and then continues.

I wrote all 6,300 words of the third draft in two days, doing just about half each day.

The story was something much different than what I thought it would be when I first jotted down the idea for it more than a year earlier. But I loved the story. It was full of baseball and Apollo history and was as close as I have come to writing wish fulfillment in my fiction.

6. The submission draft

While I do all of my writing in Google Docs, I prepare my submission draft in Scrivener. I did that just before noon on November 6. I proofread my submission draft and then got ready to submit it.

Way at the outset, when I first got the idea, I thought the story might be a Daily Science Fiction story. But at 6,300 words, it was way too long for Daily Science Fiction. I’d sold my very first story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” to Edmund Schubert at InterGalactic Medicine Show way back in 2007. But I’d failed to sell another story to Edmund. I’d told him that I had a science fiction story that I was working on and that I’d send it his way when I finished.

So, around noon on November 6, 2013, I emailed the submission draft of “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon” to Edmund.

I got an email from Edmund an hour later saying he’d received the story, and he’d probably be able to look at it the following week. At this point, I dropped it from my mind and began considering what to work on next. Once a story is out, I try not to think about it, and am always focused on the next thing.

As it turned out, the story wasn’t out long. Four hours later, I received another email from Edmund. He’d needed a break from what he’d been working on, read my story, liked it, and wanted to buy it. I’d sold “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon” five hours after I submitted it!

6. Publication

There was one round of very light edits that we went through. Between the time I made the sale and the time the story was published, I gave a reading of the story at the Washington Science Fiction Association. It went over well, but they gave an unexpected reaction to an unintentional pun I’d made at the end of the story. I had my astronauts on the moon, making bad jokes, giddy the way I imagined they would be in the excitement of their achievement. But the pun elicited a groan from the audience. They weren’t the only ones. Allen Steele, who also read the story, noted the pun at the end.

I decided that I liked the story too much for it to be remembered for a bad (and unintended) pun at the end. So I made a very slight change to remove the pun without removing the giddiness from the scene. I passed this change to Edmund along with his line edits, and that is how the story was published in Issue #37 of InterGalactic Medicine Show, with some fantastic art by Scott Altmann.

Conclusion

All told, in order to produce a 6,300 word short story, I wrote a total of about 23,000 words spread over 3 drafts. The first draft was 7,800 words, and the final draft was 6,300, meaning I cut a total of 1,500 words, some 20% of the first draft. This is a good thing. I have come from experience to be a believer in Stephen King’s advice: “take out the parts that are not story.” As a younger, less experienced writer, I found that harder to do. Sometimes, you fall in love with a phrase or a paragraph, and you admire it so much, you hesitate to purge it. But I’ve learned to recognize the parts that aren’t story and remove them.

One thing I do to make this easier is that I never throw anything away. I keep a “deleted scenes”section to my manuscript, and anything I cut, whether its a line, a paragraph or a scene, gets put into my deleted scenes. There are two reasons for this: (1) you never know when that stuff will be useful elsewhere; and (2) it can be useful to look at and see what you thought didn’t work in the story. You can learn from it.

I want to caution that the unusually quick sale of “Big Al Shepard” was a fluke. It was a right place at the right time thing. There is an element of luck in publishing and this was one of those lucky circumstances. I felt really good about the story and was fairly confident it would sell. That it sold in 4 hours was not on any merit of the story itself, but entirely due to the time that I happened to submit it, and the editor to whom I submitted it at that time.

Thus concludes my behind the scenes look at the evolution of my most recently published story. I hope it gives a window into the way one writer (me) goes about his craft, and that there is at least something useful in this to others.

If you have questions about the process, let me know in the comments.

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6 thoughts on “Evolution of a Story from Idea to Publication: A Behind-the-Scenes Look

  1. Thanks. This is the most helpful article about the process of story writing I’ve read. From the fact that you took three complete versions, to the beta process, to publication it is golden. Now at the end of the first draft of a story about 11,500 words long, I see the need for the additional effort. The beta reader part is more of a problem than the writing. I joined a group last fall, but after four sessions it did not gel. If I remember right, your group was not your first try at connecting with one. The Phoenix area must have several groups worth the time and effort.

  2. Paul, I’d caveat your comment by saying it is evidence that story writing is hard for me. For others, it might be easy. And while it is hard work, I should stress that, for me, it is exceedingly enjoyable work. There’s nothing like seeing one of your stories in print after all of the work.

  3. James, finding good beta-readers is one of the most difficult parts. Unpublished writers sometime have the idea there is some magic bullet to getting published. There isn’t. You need to read a lot and write a lot, and submit a lot. That said, in my experience, I found it much easier to team up with other professional writers, beta-reading for one another, after I made my first sale. I still had to make that first sale, but once I did, the door opened to more (and better) options, when it came to beta-readers.

    I also lucked out in that my local writers group has turned out several professional writers. When I joined the group, Michael J. Sullivan, who was a founding member, was just starting to take off in self-publishing, and it wasn’t long after I joined that he got his first big contract from Orbit. This was pure luck. I live in Falls Church, right on the border of Arlington, and the Arlington Writers Group meets a few miles from my house.

  4. Thanks for such a detailed view of your process Jamie. I can’t help to wonder though, and please, I mean no controversy with this.

    You say the story was about 6300 words. intergalactic medicine show pays 6 cents the word. That means for your story, you got something close to $378.

    On the same page, it says they pay artists a basic of $400 for a color illustration, but that they are willing consider higher rates for established professionals.

    My question is, most established writers also get paid higher rates on some publications? Or the deal goes only for artists?

    Forget about intergalactic medicine show, I’m talking about “in general”, not about that particular story you sold.

    I ask because most magazines seem to offer low rates for writers, while at the same time most offer higher payment for artists. Intergalactic Medicine Show does says they can “talk about it” if the artist is well known, and I’m imagining because it will meant the artist brining his/her own audience once the issue is out.

    But it is the same for published authors?

    Thanks for sharing your methods again 😉

  5. Rod, I think it is a matter of circumstance. If my story had been 7,000 words, I would have received $420 for it. Writers are paid by word counts and artists are paid a flat rate. IGMS pays $0.06/word, which still qualifies as a professional payment rate by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although it is the minimum pro rate. Most of the other magazines pay 8-10 cents/word. Although I don’t know if this is still the case, it was not unheard in the past for a magazine to pay a writer a bonus for a particularly good story (say, 11.5 cents/word, or something like that).

    Also, keep in mind that a writer chooses where to submit. It is possible that I might have received a higher word rate at another magazine, but I wanted to submit this story to IGMS. In general, I think writers know the spectrum of pay rates and choose to submit wherever they submit based on many factors. (I’ve written about my own submissions process elsewhere.)

    I can’t say whether other writers have negotiated better rates with magazines, I can only say that I haven’t. On the other hand, I know that in some original anthologies, the headliners will often be paid more than non-headliners. As far as artists go, I can’t speak to that as I have no experience with that end of the spectrum.

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