Sunday, November 1, 2009

Breaking Down a Story Piece-by-Piece - An Author's Thoughts

When I decided on Friday, October 30, that I would write a Halloween story, I just thought it would be cool to do. A short story, I thought, even though I haven't written a short story in a long time. That was really all I had at that point... Just the idea of a Halloween short story.

After deciding to base it on Michael Jackson's "Thriller," I listened to the song almost on repeat, and a couple other Halloween-ish songs, to get me in the right frame of mind. (The first thing I always do before writing is create my playlist.) Then I thought, "I need a name..." Your character's name practically defines the character. So it needed to be good. I knew I wanted to call the guy "Mike," so it had to be a girl's name that went with that. I always search, and check out the popular listings. It's a nice way to browse.

Once I'd decided on a name and had the music going, I opened a browser to the lyrics of Thriller, and a new Word doc, minimized so each only filled up half of the screen. That way I could look at both at the same time.

My first thought as I stared at the white screen was to write basically the music video. It's cute, and classic, right? And clearly it goes along with what Michael wanted as his vision for the song. But, I thought, that would also be Michael's take on it... Not mine. So instead I looked at the first line of the song. "It's close to midnight."

Seemed like a good place to start. Close to midnight. I started typing.

It was close to midnight.

The moment I typed that line, I knew two things:
1. I was going to parallel the song.
2. The story would be released in segments over the course the night before Halloween and Halloween.

In the opening paragraph, I had intended to have Mike there with her. But as I was writing and describing her, I realized that I hadn't left any room for Mike to be standing at her side. So Mike suddenly disappeared from the scene, and she was alone on the street. In my head, though, Mike was with her in the beginning. So because I knew Mike would show up at some point later (though at the time I didn't know in what capacity other than the vague idea that he might save her), I had her mention him. Albeit unfavorably. That way, when Mike shows up later, you're not left wondering, "Wait. Who is Mike? She has a boyfriend?"

A clattering sound in the darkness of the alley shattered the silence around her. She tried to scream, whirling to the side to try and focus on the source of the sound, but in the darkness she could see nothing.

This was intended to be the intro to our creature. You'll note it kind of goes with the line, "You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it." But it was too soon. I wasn't scared. If I wasn't scared, there was no way anyone reading it was going to be.

I flashed back to the video of Thriller. MJ turns into a werewolf. I didn't want a werewolf in my story, but I certainly wanted the moon to factor in. So to build suspense, I scared her, then I relaxed her and made her chide herself for being scared... Who hasn't done that at least once in their life? I know I have.

And then the dilemma. I knew I wanted everything to slow around her as she caught sight of the creature. But I didn't want to give it all away by literally slowing the pace of the story by describing her vision of the tops of the buildings and fire escapes and all that. It would have slowed the story too much and, worse, given away that something was about to happen. So I ended up with this:

As she brought her gaze down, everything seemed to slow.

No. I wasn't happy with it. It was just the best I could do.

Next came describing the creature, and another dilemma. Did I have her just freak out and then describe the creature when she was safe? Or describe the horror she saw and then freak out? Moreover, I'm not a horror writer. Coming up with grotesque images isn't my thing. So trying to come up with a horrific image wasn't easy. I don't actually know if I succeeded. I tried to picture the zombies from the video and put together all the disgusting features from them into one thing.

It's important to note here that I did NOT intend to have Mike be the zombie here. Let me repeat. I did not intend to have Mike be the zombie! There were a few ideas in my head... That some witches were casting spells in a graveyard to bring zombies to life to grab people for the hearts (remember the foreshadowing I set up in the line, "Her heart hit against her ribs as though it were trying to make a break for it and not suffer the same fate Maia was going to suffer."?) I thought the zombies might try to overtake the building, like the video, and Mike would burst in and save her. Something along those lines. The idea of Mike being the zombie never occurred to me at this point. If it had, I would have added in something about his clothes being more modern and described him more young-looking instead of having more of a middle-aged male look to him. (Though I think it works out a little with the epilogue, seeing as how Mike is clearly extremely old.)

The mouth opening and bugs coming out? In the third part where Mike tells her that he was trying to talk to her was just a moment of luck. That wasn't the intent during writing. I was thinking of the Thriller video, where the creature opens its mouth and the "blood" comes out. That's all. It worked out, I think, but again, if I'd known it was Mike at the time, I would have put some more foreshadowing in there. It might have spoiled things, though, so I don't know how much more I would have put in. Ahhh, the joys of publishing live!

Then the keys... I didn't know if I wanted it to get her there on the porch, and take her back to the witches lair or whatever, or actually have her get into the apartment to be swarmed. No clue. So she struggles with her keys. At first I thought, "This is too cliche." But then I thought about all of the times I've jammed my key into the lock, and it wouldn't turn, or I dropped them. So I let it stay.

But it ends on a cliff-hanger of the hand reaching for her because at the time, I just didn't know what was going to happen next. I needed to figure it out and I needed some time. Since I knew it would be posted in parts, it was easier to post part one, then figure out what would happen next. If part two didn't work, I could always re-write it. But I was under a deadline! I only had an hour or so to write this before it would be, "close to midnight" for the east coast people.

Thus concludes part one of the Thrilled - A Halloween Story break-down. I hope it's been helpful and interesting to you to see how it all came together... I know it's been a new writing experience for me... I've never actually written about my writing process like this before.

Stay tuned until tomorrow, when we go over part two (and likely part three, since part two is so short!) of "Thrilled - A Halloween Story."

Read the story here: