Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Care and Feeding of a Story

Let me tell a story about caring for and feeding your writing. 

"Wanting It" is one of my favorite stories to date. Like Ramsey Campbell, what keeps me going is the idea that I haven't yet written my best story, but "Wanting It" makes me a proud papa. I'm working with a student who struggles with writing because he wants it to be "perfect" the first time. It never is.

"Wanting It" began life as a feeling more than an idea. I wrote it during spring, 2010--several hundred thousand words and more than three years after beginning my writing journey. My heart ached. I was missing something, but I couldn't put my hands around "what" was missing. "Wanting It" began with longing, and there were tears when I wrote the story. It's biographical without telling details from my life--other than the protagonist's first name. Thanks, Tim O'Brien, for that trick.

I edited and polished and sent the story to Ken Wood at Shock Totem on April 26, 2010. I'd come to a place in my writing where I knew stories needed to start at the top no matter the odds. I found a rewrite request in my inbox on June 17. I read Ken's email several times. I looked at my story. I tried to find the "confident writer" he described hearing in the last few pages. I did what I could to tighten the story, had three friends read it and provide feedback, and sent it back.

The good people at Shock Totem liked it, but liked parts of my first version better. Ken and I began a back and forth discussion about what to change, where to change, how much or how little to change, keep, crop, blend... We exchanged several messages about what to call a guy's butt--not because we didn't know, but what would the narrator say? Ass? Rump? Buttocks? Yes, we had that conversation.

After months of writes and re-writes, Shock Totem #3 came out with "Wanting It" in the line up.

But "Wanting It"'s story wasn't over. It still isn't. The story garnered some nice reviews, including this one from Joshua Jabcuga (Bookgasm):

"I was genuinely moved by Polson’s entry, one about nostalgia and memories, and as some of us know, these ghosts of what-was or what-can-never-be-again can create the most haunting experiences of our lives, the kind that no amount of beer can drown, no pill can numb, and the type where no amount of distance or time will help us escape from it... horror at its finest."

Horror at its finest? Thanks, Joshua. Thanks Ken and the Shock Totem crew. "Wanting It" went on to land an honorable mention in Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year volume 4 (my name was even mentioned in the year in review--this small town kid is humbled). Yes, hundreds of stories receive honorable mentions each year, but the four I've garnered mean so much to me. They're my own little black ribbons.

So what do I tell this student?

Keep writing. Nothing is ever finished. Ever.

(And if you've never read a page of Shock Totem, start now.)


Unknown said...

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Alan W. Davidson said...

I am so disorganized that I was able to find issue #3 of Shock Totem lurking under work and read books on my desk. I gave it another read and still find it haunting. That story is one of my favourites of yours, Aaron. I can only dream of submitting to such a high-quality publication as Shock Totem.

And your student?...I STILL struggle with expecting perfection in a first draft, paralyzing myself into not writing at all.

Josh Jabcuga said...

Keep up the great work, Aaron. I'm digging your blog too. Best, Josh J.