Change in Direction
A couple years ago, I was asked to submit a story to an anthology called Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There. The editor, David Bell, was asking some horror authors to sub, but the anthology would include mainstream stories as well. Since the broad theme of the book was travel, I looked through my idea file for anything that might fit. I had one concept I'd been kicking around for a while, under the heading of "Strange Post-Apolacyptic Scenarios." The idea was to portray a future where unseen (supernatural?) barriers would suddenly appear along highways, preventing any high speed travel. I'd never gotten much past the idea phase--partly because, I think, the concept was a little too science-fiction, and thus outside my comfort zone. But it seemed a really good fit for the Commutability anthology, so I decided to go with it.
I had the entire story planned out, from the title ("Distance"), to the ending, and knew which scenes I needed to write to create the story. For the opening scene, I'd decided to present a memory from before-the-world-changed--as a kind of ironic commentary on the weirdness of the story's present situation, and also to ease readers into the sci-fi elements of the story. I wrote the first sentence: "On the day of his brother's death, perhaps at the very instant of Denny's surprising accident, Scott again recalled the terror rides of his youth." These terror rides involved the older brother taking the story's protagonist for late-night drives along back roads, and for thrills the brother would switch off the headlights and steer blindly for long stretches. The opening scene engaged me more than I expected, and I developed the relationship between the brothers a bit, and the protagonist's mixed feelings about those dangerous rides.
But I couldn't manage to write the next scenes: the ones with the sci-fi elements that were the actual genesis of the story and were supposed to provide its framework. I put the story aside for a few days, and dreaded going back to it.
Until I had my "ah-ha!" moment. I figured out how to write the story without the sci-fi elements: more as a mainstream family drama, with a main character slipping into dark thoughts after his brother's fatal accident. It wasn't just that I was uncomfortable with the sci-fi elements…the story didn't need them, and it actually didn't need any overt horror/supernatural elements, either. The finished story, as it turned out, ended up being one of my favorites, partly because of that "ah ha" moment, and how happy I was when I broke through the story barrier that had been keeping me from moving forward.
I've had similar experiences with some other stories, where I've envisioned the story in a rigid way (to suit a particular market, or maybe just to try something new), and I'll keep writing to my original concept, plugging away at the daily word count. But then, something will happen and I'll figure out a way to make that story into my story: one that develops my favorite themes and allows for the atmospheric effects I like to produce. Those are happy times for me as a writer--when the story just clicks, and things finally feel "right."
So, the lesson for me is to be careful not to let the original idea for a story become a kind of trap. It's fine to have an outline or detailed notes about where a story can go--and I've written quite a few stories where the initial plans worked well all the way through. But some of my best experiences as a writer happened in those "ah ha" moments after I broke away from the outline and went in an entirely new direction.
Norman Prentiss won the 2010 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction for his first book, Invisible Fences. Previously he won a Stoker in the Short Fiction category for “In the Porches of My Ears,” which originally appeared in Postscripts 18. Other publications include the novella The Fleshless Man, a mini-collection Four Legs in the Morning, a chapter in the round-robin novella The Crane House: A Halloween Story, and story appearances in Blood Lite 3, Zombies vs. Robots: This Means War, Horror Drive-In: An All-Night Short Story Marathon, Black Static, Commutability, Damned Nation, Tales from the Gorezone, Best Horror of the Year, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, and four editions of the Shivers anthology series. His poetry has appeared in Writer Online, Southern Poetry Review, Baltimore's City Paper, and A Sea of Alone: Poems for Alfred Hitchcock.
Visit him online at www.normanprentiss.com.