Thursday, February 21, 2013

Loss in Translation

This is a topic I'll probably talk about with Big in an upcoming episode, since we chat so often about writing (heck, I may have already talked about it and forgotten), but I haven't been blogging about anything other than audiobook reading, so I figured I'd go ahead.

I was recently invited to be the "featured writer of the month" for a horror podcast, which basically selecting a story and performing it for a show that will, coincidentally, air on my birthday.  I thought it was pretty freaking cool that someone would give me the honor, so I immediately tried to think of a story that was a) appropriate for the show, b) potentially effective with me doing all the voices, and c) short enough to qualify for their guidelines.

Ultimately, I thought it would be best for me if I wrote a new story, since it accomplished two nice personal goals that way.  I started to think about it, to come up with a horror story that would work.  Of course, it being me, I ended up coming up with the same story I always write*, just set in a desert instead of the woods.**

But I was pretty thrilled with this version of that old story.  In my head, the pieces started to come together, and in a drive to Jeff's house, I had the beginning, middle, and end, and two twists, one good and one bad.  It feels great to create, and I was pretty happy with this one.

BUT . . . I'd not actually accomplished anything yet.  As I've discovered over the decades, my brain is really good at coming up with scenes, interchanges, scenarios, and even endings, but it's up to my body to write them down.  And it's not just writing them down that's needed.  Somehow, I have to translate the images and blobs of thoughts in my head to words, specific words in a specific order, restructuring those amorphous ideas into something concrete, something specific.

And therein lies the rub, sir and ma'am.  I think--Think, mind you, with a capital T--that this is a really good idea for a story, basically three students unloosing something evil, and a really good angle at telling it, basically a lonely old man going back to the place where his life fell apart, just wanting to see her face once more before he dies.  It has the potential to be both scary and impactful, and I have something personal to say about it, since I am that old man, just with more hair.

But how do I tell the story?  Do I start with them young, then move linearly to the old man's story?  Which is the main story and which is the coda/prologue?  How much dialogue and interchange can there be in there and still fit into the podcast's time requirement?  Does my original unhappy ending work, if I really think about it (ultimately, I decided it did, with a minor tweak)?  Do I have to end it unhappily?  Is the story even scary?  What do I name the ancient evil?  How about the character names?  Can I refer to erections in a story like this, since appears that half of America's population sees those as the true boogeymen in life?

This is a struggle I have with, say, one in three or four of my stories.  Usually, I just write them, thinking, "This might be a cool story, let's see what happens."  But every once in a while (heck, it might be rarer than one in four), I come up with something and think, "This is great!  Wow, did I come up with this?"  And then have the uphill climb of making the great idea into a great story.

In the last year, I wrote two stories like that, both based on great ideas I had bouncing around in my head.***  The first, "The Calling," came to me while driving down to my cousin Ryan's house.  It felt like my brain was playing Tetris, or putting a puzzle together in my head, and I was all but bursting to talk about it when I got there.  I told him the story, from beginning to end, and he replied, "That's pretty cool.  Was that a movie you were describing?"  I guess that was a compliment.  I tried hard when writing that one out to keep it tight and rein in my excesses, but it ended up being pretty long.  My biggest challenge on that one was to figure out how to convey the enormous amount of exposition I had without just relying on what Abbie Hilton calls an Info Dump.  I came up with a structure I was happy with, and basically created three separate info dumps, which I hope didn't bother anybody. 

"The Calling" was really well-received, as far as it's been read, and I suppose that means I was able to translate the great idea to a great(ish) story.  Mission accomplished.

The second story was about a kid in a casino and his best friend, playing Texas Hold Em, and the kid has had too much to drink.  It was a horror story that I, unwisely, chose to call "Know When To Walk Away, Know When To Run."  It was another great idea in my head, but as I wrote this one out, it just wasn't working.  It was short and sweet in my imagination, and really scary.  On paper (or on pixels, I suppose, since I never printed it or wrote it longhand), it just didn't work.  It wasn't as sad or confused as I wanted it, and it certainly wasn't scary.  I couldn't figure out how to fix it, either.

I consider that one to be a failure, although at least one person who read it said that he liked it.  And as sad as I am about that, I keep referring back to it in conversation and my podcasts, as if I learned something from it.  And what I learned was: it's hard to translate something from my head into written English.

So, back to the Great Idea at hand.  I think I know the structure I want to tell it in (basically bookends with the present, and the majority of it told in the past), and it seems like I can keep it short, even with a paragraph or three about loneliness (and yes, one sentence about erections).  I believe I'll try to make it a horror story with dramatic elements, rather than the opposite, which it could easily switch to.  I think I'll call it "Unreleased," which for once is not a pop song title, and I'm certain I can write it out, revise it, record it, and have it edited by my June deadline.

Whether it becomes a Great Story, however, is up in the air.

Rish Outfield, Writer

*This is an oversimplification.  I think I probably write three stories over and over, but this was definitely one of them.

**Sadly, it looks like this one is going to start in the woods too.  Guess that makes me a hack.

***I originally had "great ideas" in quotation marks, but eff it, they were great ideas.

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