Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Story Behind Your Story

I have a friend at the office who admires fiction writers. She often says something like, "I find it fascinating to see where authors come up with their ideas." I honestly feel the same way. Since I never know exactly where a story will seed or how it will grow, I'm constantly amazed when a good idea finally takes root.

The Your Story Competition #26, which finally completed its process (and yes, I'm the winner), is a perfect example of not knowing where the next story idea will come from. About two years ago, I sat in my house contemplating people and religion, and how sometimes religion is perverted (or even subverted, if you will). At the time, I considered what the Scriptures had to say on the matter of prayer and prayer closets, and a small germ of an idea started to form. I played around with that idea for a while and eventually gave up on it, thinking it just didn't have the right feel.

The idea never gave up on me. Every now and then, I found myself turning back to the same concept, my mind leading the way. Let's take another look, it would say. Maybe we'll find the right answer this time. Still, the time never came. That is, it never came until the day I opened up May/June edition of Writer's Digest and found the following prompt for the Your Story contest:

You wake up to find a dead body on the floor -- and a bloody knife in your hands. You can't remember exactly what happened, so you piece together the clues.

I took a moment to think about that and suddenly my mind raced back to the idea of a prayer closet gone terribly wrong.

As many of you are writers, I'm sure you can relate to the strange, and almost always wonderful, process of writing a story, and how the story turns out completely different from where you originally thought it would go. Such was the case for my entry to the contest. As I sat down to shape and mold the story, a new idea came to me: What if the dead body was the MC's father? I took a moment to explore that idea and liked what I found. As I continued to write, more questions, and then ideas, flowed from that initial thought. At the end of the story I eventually made my way back to the corrupted prayer closet; however, the road I took led me across a better landscape than the one I had originally considered. While the closet remained a place of misguided religion, the backstory behind that ill-conceived notion became deeper, and richer, than I had ever expected it to be.

Over the years of writing, I came across a piece of advice. Only now does it make sense. And only now do I find myself wishing I could tell you where I read it. It goes something like this: For every story, throw out your first idea; it's probably not the best. In the case of "Yellowed Kodachrome", I can honestly say that was exactly the course I took, and I'm pleased with the results.

For those who don't read Writer's Digest magazine or know about its competitions and forum, my story will be published in the November/December issue later this year. I can hardly wait. When it hits the local bookstore, I may walk in and grab a dozen or so copies, just so I can keep them locked away in my special place.

Other News:

While I can't say for sure, the story I sent off to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine might just have received the fastest denial I, and probably the editor, have ever seen. Less than a week after mailing the darn thing off, I received a nice little Doesn't-work-for-me letter in response. Considering that it takes at least three days for postal delivery (both ways), I gather the slush reader took a quick look and sent it right back out the door. So that's that. Nothing ventured and all that jazz. Just to pick up my spirits, though, I quickly searched Duotrope for another possible fit and sent the story right back out.

I'm still doing some research to gather my arrows together before launching into the re-write of my novel. A full quiver provides many more chances to hitting the mark. As part of that process, I'm currently reading through Hell's Angels, written by journalist Hunter Thompson back in the nineteen-sixties. Gauging from it's title, I have no doubts that you'll know the subject matter.

Until next time...


  1. What a thoughtful post on your winning entry--thanks for sharing.

    And many congrats on your win!

    Jessica Strawser
    Editor, Writer's Digest

  2. Jessica,

    Thank you for the kind words. I am honored that you took the time to stop by and consider myself blessed to have the winning entry. You and all the staff at Writer's Digest have my appreciation for this opportunity.

  3. this is so exciting! yea {jumping} knuckle knock explosions, dude!
    I may have to send my copy to you for autograph, after I get it and read it.

    sorry bout the other, but I'm sure the piece will find a fine home.

  4. Woot! Woot! I'm so happy you won! I just had to stop reading and drop down here and tell you that. Now I'll go back and read the rest of your post. :)

    And you did it without soliciting for votes, just on the strength of your story. Double Woot Woot!

  5. Paige and Jon: Thank you for the warm comments. I'm very excited about the opportunity. And yes, knowing that my story won on its own strength makes the accomplishment taste even sweeter.

  6. Congratulations on your winning story, Stephen. I'm sure you'll find a home for the other one, too.


  7. Thank you, Carol. I hope I find a home for the other story, too. I'm not ready to give up on it.

  8. Really happy your story won, Stephen. It's a cool story told with skill.

    So will you keep the dozen copies of WD in your prayer closet? :)

  9. Greta,

    How did you know about my closet? :)

  10. Hey -- congratulations! I'm so happy someone I know finally won one of those contests. Loved the process behind your story and its conception, too. Is it still online at WD? (haven;t been there in ages). Woot, woot! peace, Linda

  11. Thank you, Linda. It is interesting how some stories evolve, isn't it? I'm always amazed. Regarding your question, as of today, June 20, the story is still posted on the WD Forums.

  12. Tremendous job, Stephen, and your entry stood head and shoulders above the others. What was one line I read in one of the others...a "quick instant". Really? As opposed to a slow motion instant, I suppose.

    Yours read smoothly all the way through and I'm glad the selection committee had the good taste to select it as a finalist. I think a few copies of WD would be in order as well.

    That's an ostrich feather, amigo.


  13. Thank you, John. And I agree with you on the unnecessary adjective. Another one -- and one that King took issue with in On Writing -- is the use of "very". People who write stuff like "very quick" annoy him. Either something is quick or it's not.

  14. Congrats, Stephen! Thanks for sharing your thought process about evolving a richer, deeper story. I think it's very true that first ideas don't work.

  15. Thank you, Laura. At first, I thought the advice about first ideas was off-the-mark, like it was a way to say: "Don't trust your instincts." But now, looking back at how this story changed from what I originally thought it would be, the advice makes counter-intuitive sense.