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We’re now five weeks away from the June 11 deadline to enroll and submit your short story to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. You’ve, gathered ideas from the world around you (and from what you’ve been reading and watching). Maybe you’ve pulled out an old story or novel chapter that isn’t working yet. You’ve spent a little time developing one or two of these ideas by noodling out some scenarios or creating some characters or both.
Now it’s time to commit and write a Zero draft.
Technically this is your “first” draft, but even the thought of creating a first draft can be daunting, especially if you have a strong vision of what you want the story to become. Personally, my zero drafts are abominations; a mess of ugly writing where the only thing I’ve succeeded at was mangling the idea. (TBH, sometimes I will get a story that just rolls off my fingers in pretty good shape, but those are gifts, and it seems more useful to talk about what it takes to create a story the hard way.)
This zero draft is the one that nobody but you gets to see. I don’t outline my short stories, but I usually have a little collection of notes, a few random lines of dialogue, and an idea of the beginning, middle, and end. With that in hand, I sit down and try to write the story through to the end. Try to lock your critical mind away in a box and just write. Try to write, if not fast, then with deliberate speed. Try not to look back. I try to write at least 1,000 words in a day. If you’re pushing ahead, not stopping to edit or polish anything, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can lay down 1,000 words. I often write more. Since I’m not editing at this stage, if a scene really isn’t working, I’ll just write a different version of the scene or write a different scene altogether. For the zero draft, don’t be afraid to write scenes that may not make it into your final draft. The next day when you return to the work, you can weigh both scenes and move forward from the one that works.
Creating something new is messy, so give yourself permission to make a mess. Keep moving forward writing as fast as you comfortably can. Often the first few paragraphs are a kind of throat clearing, don’t worry you can cut it later. In the meantime, clear away. Keep looking for a way into the story. If you can’t find a door, look for a window and climb in. My first paragraphs often have more to do with these flailing attempts at entry, and I almost always cut them in revision. Resist the temptation to polish your opening lines and paragraphs before you move on. Just try to keep the basic story in focus and keep pushing the narrative forward.
The trick here, especially with short fiction, is to scale your story to the word count limit. Mostly this is something that comes with practice. Writers from Bradbury to Jay Lake made a practice of writing a short story a week. Check out Charlie Jane Anders' great post about writing prolifically.
For now, just keep your cast of characters limited to two to four “speaking parts,” and focus on one life-changing event or revelatory moment for the protagonist. You can also try Vylar Kaftan’s super cool short story formula.
All of the above will work for both short stories and novel chapters – first chapters, especially, should be a tight, dramatic unit of storytelling.
If you can sit down for an hour a day, you should be able to generate a zero draft of a short story or novel chapter in a week or less. Think more about the general size of the story as opposed to the specific word count limit at this stage. Shoot to tell the story in 3,000 and 6,000 words, as the final word count will change in revision.
Don’t forget to keep reading short stories and novels. Pay attention to how the stories or chapters are structured.
OK. Pick up your pens and get out your keyboards and write your zero draft!