I have a “library” of unfinished stories on my hard drive, many of which have been following me from computer to computer. A few are in RTF format; many of them are in Nota Bene format from my PC days in the late ’90s, and some of the most ancient are in WordStar.1
One of them is my last Ranea story. This isn’t the “last” Ranea story in the sense of finishing the cycle of possible Ranea stories, mind you; it’s just the last story set in Ranea that I ever started.2 Ironically, I conceived of it as what might be the start of an occasional series, a mystery/comedy with a detective odd couple who were both leads rather than one being a sidekick. I used to refer to it as the “Moonlighting Story,” given that I was going for that kind of fast-paced comic dialog. I wrote about seven thousand words a decade ago (at least), let it lapse, and then wrote another six thousand words about five years ago. Then I let it sit, yet again.
Last week before the writers’ group, I decided I’d pick it up, blithely telling them that I’d have something for the next meeting (on the 11th). This, of course, obligated me to finish the damn thing. So, I found the most recent draft of the story, and re-read.
Originally, it bogged down when I needed to fill in the elements of the crime caper beyond the Shocking Surprise™. The continuation added snippets, but I couldn’t quite push myself to the ending. In retrospect, the snippets simply didn’t sync; I was spackling on plot points rather than layering them. And in a detective story, even a comedy, you can’t do that.
I made an outline from it of the scenes, making notes where there were obvious plot holes or unnecessary convolutions. (Yes, a real outline like you learned about in junior high. I actually own outlining software and I think it’s great stuff.) This gave me a bit of a structure for how the plot should go, and I ended up cutting a thousand words—then adding another thousand words to the end. Then I did something that I haven’t done in years.
I printed the story out, in nearly traditional manuscript format: double-spaced lines, inch-wide margins, underlining for emphasis.3 Then I took it out to a café on Monday—actually, a brewpub north of work—and started scribbling. After more scribbling sessions at Barefoot Coffee and at home, I finished last night.
Out of 57 pages, there are only two with no marks. The first of those is page 24—which, I see, is mostly a section that was rewritten on Sunday. Some of the other pages have very few marks. Many look like inked war zones. Unsurprisingly, it’s the oldest section which fares the worst; the newer sections—being the ones from five years ago, and from last weekend—have less awkward phrasings but needed more plot surgery. And the whole thing suffers from what several of the later Ranea stories did: low environmental detail. A half-dozen of the pages now contain scrawled directives to talk about streets and office buildings, sights and sounds and smells.
So why bother with this? I am writing with a computer. Why print out and do changes by hand I’m just going to enter into the computer later this week? It affords me a way to see and interact with the story on a physical level that, at least for me, can’t be replicated on the computer. I can compare two (or three or four) pages side by side, to jump back and forth and see how the same thing is described in different scenes, to see what foreshadowing works and what foreshadowing should be there that isn’t. And, even in this very internet-centric decade, there’s something satisfying about being able to hold your work in your hands.
1. I ran WordStar 3.3 for CP/M and, later, WordStar 5.5 for DOS. Nota Bene is more obscure, but actually easier to convert from these days: NB’s file format is actually just ASCII with embedded markup, making it fairly similar to HTML. The format I use these days for writing is Markdown, which my trusty text editor can easily convert to both HTML and RTF. For many years I’ve insisted that you don’t write prose in text editors any more than you write code in Microsoft Word, but Markdown has finally changed my mind, letting me use powers that text editors have that word processors by and large don’t.
2. Ranea is a fantasy world I’ve set about a dozen stories in. While it started as a Dungeons and Dragons-esque setting back when I was in high school, the non-human races ended up as Vraini (foxes), Melifen (cats), L’rovri (wolves) and other animal-derived people, while the magic became more like engineering and the “vibe” pushed toward the Victorian and even quasi-modern rather than medieval.