In the Origin of a Story series I’ll be sharing insights of how some of my stories came to be. What inspired them, and what kind of process followed it. All of that spoiler-free, so you can still enjoy the story if you didn’t have a chance to read it yet.
This time I’ll be talking about a cyberpunk short story, Karel on the Other Side. It’s been published in the third volume of The Worlds of Science-Fiction, Fantasy & Horror anthology. The ebook available for free on Smashwords, and the paperback—from Amazon.
The unexpected inspiration
This story was somewhat of an accident. It all started with the #FP hashtag – a Friday game for sharing microfiction. That week’s theme was “the other side”, and while I was brainstorming, I came up with the following tweet:
When Jean-Pierre said “I’ll meet you on the other side” I thought he meant the other side of the shopping mall, not the afterlife.
It didn’t think much of it as microfiction is fun, but in my case it rarely translates into longer pieces. At the same time, sometimes it provides inspiration, so one day, when I was stuck, I pasted that bit into a file. I wanted to check if I could write a story with so little as a starting point, and without a clear idea of the plot or the ending. Writing without a plan was entirely against my process, and I wasn’t even sure if I could pull it off.
The sentence determined several things for the story. There was a mall, and since I don’t write contemporary fiction, it had to be science-fiction of some sort. I didn’t know back then the whole story would end up with a lot of cyberpunk-like feeling.
It was also in first person point of view, so the rest had to match it. Since the narration determines many things, I had to decide on the voice my main character would use. In a way, the first sentence, the way she described the event, also determined that.
Finally, there was Jean-Pierre in the tweet, and even though I had no idea who exactly he was, he seemed rather important. After all, there’s a difference between planning to meet someone at the mall’s other side and in the afterlife…
I didn’t work on the story regularly. Instead, I’d open the file when I didn’t feel like working on any of my other projects or during lunches at my day job. I’d look at what I wrote and wondered if I had an idea what would follow.
Paragraph by paragraph, the first scene was born, and this was the stage when I needed to figure things out. Who was Jean-Pierre and what was his relation with the main character? Why there were running through the mall? And why Jean-Pierre would know about the explosion that was supposed to kill them both? Why would he want them to die and how did he knew there would be “the other side”?
As I kept writing, I was at the same time thinking ahead, figuring out the most logical choices and flow of events. I still wasn’t sure how the story would end, but at least I had an idea what was going on.
Somewhere in the middle, I finally figured out all the bits and finished the rest of the story much quicker. I was aware of a bit of pace change in the second part of the story. I decided to go with it, for better or worse. The readers would be the ultimate test whether it worked or not.
For some reason, I knew from the start that the main character of this story would be a female. I knew she would be somewhat disillusioned with life and not really a model member of the society. I also knew her voice, because I felt it had to match the initial sentence.
What I didn’t have, was her name. I slapped some syllables together and it seemed good enough for the time being… Until I remembered that Karel is actually a masculine Czech name, an equivalent of English Charles. Amused, I decided to keep it. After all, in my setting, that future-like cyberpunk world, names might have been used more freely. Even nowadays there are names fitting both men and women, so maybe in the future I was writing about Karel would become one of them.
Initially, the story was 7500 words long. I wanted to submit it to a specific market, so I had to trim it down to 7000. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. The next step was. Another market had a 6000 words limit, so I if I wanted to submit there, I’d have to cut 1000 words more. That seemed impossible! After all, I’ve already done away with 500 words, leaving all the bone, right?
I tried anyway, and at the end of the process, I was just below the 6000 mark. The process was quite grueling. I had to figure out how to write things with less words by keeping all the fun and the flavor and the voice I had in there. I have to admit that going through those cuts had made me so much better writer. Not only I learned how to identify all the verbose descriptions and condense them, but I also lost most of my attachment to words. Not a single sentence was worth keeping the way it was: it could have been made better… and shorter, of course.
Looking back, I still marvel on how I managed to cut a short story by one fifth of its size, but I can’t say I was unhappy with the result.
Karel on the Other Side
The title was a bit of a struggle, but that’s nothing new if you’ve read The Title Terror post. The file I worked on had a name after the #FP theme: The Other Side. It wasn’t bad since the concept of the other side reappears throughout the story, but I felt it might be a bit misleading since the story wasn’t about the afterlife. In the end, with no better idea, I expanded it to Karel on the Other Side which reflected the story better. How? I won’t venture into the spoiler territory, so you’ll have to check it out for yourself.