Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Atmosphere Is Not Plot

Things have been quiet in the mailbox lately which has given me a lot of time to ponder. I heard back on one contest, where I received an honorable mention and the story will get published. Nice. My Duotrope stats can crawl out of the basement. AND I doubled my writing income for 2009. I was so worried I wouldn't be able to afford a Mocha Frappuccino this summer.

I'm almost done with my AA short story. I have a theory that everyone has to write about rehab/AA, the apocalypse and time travel once in their lives. I really like my AA story, but I can tell you right now I've invested too much time in the voice at the expense of pacing. Why do I do it? Because I'm so f-ing in love with my own powers of creation. My lead character is Ronnie, a down on her luck real estate agent who meets a guy who reminds her of her dead ex-boyfriend. I suppose dead means ex, right? Dead boyfriend.

Characters as big and brassy as Ronnie chafe in the short story format. The page count goes up to accommodate the snappy dialogue and huge sections of plot are buried to keep the page count down. It's happened before. In another story, about this lonely slacker dude, I focused the first draft almost exclusively on his slacker voice. I massively rewrote to achieve a balance but other readers still felt I'd undersold the plot. I didn't actually care what other readers thought. In the end, however, I caved and it didn't take much to make it work. There was only one tiny change I wouldn't have made.

Here's where I could go off on a rant about the sanctity of the author's intent, how it really was my story and no one edited Jack Kerouac like that. Yes, all true. I had put some serious hours into the slacker dude story and I had also let it rest for five or six months. That's enough time for me to be objective again. But it got rejected twice in its finished form and when it was finally picked up, I was happy to make the suggested revisions because I could see the reward at the end of the tunnel. Fame and fortune, here I am.

But this experience, and the fact that I will have the same experience again with Ronnie, has caused me to ponder. What have I really learned about myself? How can I write faster, edit more effectively, and let go of cuteness sooner?

Stop me if you've heard this before:

  1. Planning the plot ahead of time REALLY helps. If I know I have to hit certain marks at certain times, I can maintain a reasonable pace.
  2. Know the goal. If my goal is to create a character sketch with dialogue, stick with that goal. In other words, know what shape I want the piece to take. This has more to do with voice and tone than plot.
  3. Atmosphere is not plot. It really isn't. No, no, no.

More about atmosphere, in which I return inevitably to Lovecraft: In his short stories, atmosphere is what the plot grows out of. It's never a sunny day in Lovecraft. He asks a question in the beginning of each story, a question which is inevitably bound to the setting and atmosphere. One of the benefits of writing the same story over and over again until you DIE is that you eventually get this right.

Cuteness. I really don't have a solution to cuteness or to my shameless love of my own creative awesomeness except surgery or amnesia. Maybe both. Cut out my brain and make me forget I ever wrote that story.


  1. I recently read Jack Kerouac, and thought it was a total waste of time. Don't make that your goal. I am enjoying you corraling your random thoughts toward a 'goal'. Do you find yourself writing yourself (maybe just supressed attitudes) into your writing? Curious. Writing looks like an enormously time consuming task. Keep at it. Big dollars are just around the corner.

  2. Honorable mention, good. Publishing, superb. Where and when?