Write a Story in an Hour, Really!

For those fans who, like me, are already missing Dragon*Con 2011 and already pining for Dragon*Con 2012 to arrive, here’s your chance for a bit of dragonish fun.  At the very first panel of the Writer’s Track (WRIT), Fri 10AM, I took copious notes on the interactive workshop “Write a Story in an Hour,” wrangled by author Gary Hayes, a multi-award winner for his short fiction, now engaged in the undoubtedly multi-hour task of polishing his fantasy novel Sleag’s Quest.

Over the course of that hour gracing the opening of Dragon*Con’s 25th anniversary, Gary invited aspiring writer to chime in with ideas for a short story with the goal of having a somewhat workable outline when the panel’s clock chimed at 60 minutes.  Much like the TV news program of the same name, I could hear the clock ticking as fans tossed out ideas to laughter, moans, groans, and overall mischief and mayhem.  But at the end of the hour, as Hayes promised we would, we had a story synopsis with a beginning, middle, and an end, well, sort of, as well as various and sundry oddities to fill in the gaps.  Gary challenged each of us to go home and write the tale and now you can, too.  The Great Dragon is merely sleeping as we while away the time heeding the call to literary fame.

So, without further ado, here’s the outline of the story challenge.  Go forth and write it!

Your story, if you choose to write it, is in the steampunk genre, set in the Victorian era, and must include a shipwreck, fog, and a clock.  Hayes warned us to start in medias res or in the middle of the action and reminded us that our main character should be the one who has the most to lose.

The Point of View (“POV”) character was selected and named Steve.  Steve will probably be the main character as well and this was the working assumption as the outline built its way into a story synopsis.  A stowaway was added as a second character, possibly the antagonist.  It was also suggested that this character was perhaps a love interest.

The aforesaid clock was either off (not working) or turned off.  Sabotage is suspected.

A fan proposed to make the stowaway a runaway slave.  Hayes warned that this might make the story more about the slave than the navigator changing either the POV character or the main character.

Other interesting thoughts had the stowaway running away from an arranged marriage, perhaps from her father to her mother.  Our stowaway does not want to marry her intended husband, but he very much wishes to marry her.  She confides in Steve who wants to help her.

Hayes interjected that the stowaway would not have been as sympathetic a character if s/he were a guy.

And suddenly, the ship is on fire and might explode!  Hayes said, “Tension drives the story” and described the plot as the gradual rise and fall of tension.  Tension rises, the sooner, the better.  We need some bad, immediate event to happen.

A fan yelled “sharks” and Hayes responded vehemently, “Always have sharks!”

The action continued with Steve, our navigator, just waking up.  An idea approached.  Perhaps someone is after “Stowaway,” maybe some snooty lord who is supposed to marry her or perhaps his hired detective?

Ideas continued to spring excitedly, the plot hopping about like Mexican jumping beans, but without the Mexicans…yet.  Maybe Steve was distracted by Stowaway and did not wind the ship’s clock.  This is why the ship wrecked and now Steve is in big trouble.  His life is screwed.  If caught he will receive at least 50 lashes, if not worse, and will undoubtedly lose his navigator’s license.

Hayes started adding “steampunky” appeal.  Alarm bells go off.  There are steam gizmos in the room and the alert is a problem.

Hayes asked, “What makes a story steampunk?” to which a fan immediately answered, “Goggles” to mixed groans and chortles.  Hayes added that the detective, now our villain, could arrive in a dirigible instead of a boat.  Steampunk means gadgets, either as “obstacles or solutions to a problem,” Hayes said.  And the punk means someone “must rebel,” he added.

Hayes wanted to first get off the boat and add something exciting a little later.  Steve could make a fast decision.  Should he go to her and save her?  Was she left behind?  If she’s hiding in the boat, did Steve find her when he was trying to leave?  Are they the only ones left on the boat when the dirigible comes along, bearing the detective?

Hayes wanted to add some good steampunk elements.  Clockwork robots would make the story more steampunky.

A side show erupted with Steve crashing the boat on purpose and almost getting away.  Would he wreck the ship and fall in love with matters complicated because people have now died?  Would he go back and save Stowaway or give up?  Hayes suggested that you could go down this path, but that it would take more back story, perhaps Steve needing money because his mother is sick.  But now that he’s in love, he can’t decide to go through with his plan.

Hayes abandoned this tack and cautioned that the reader will want to know what has happened to Steve and Stowaway, now dubbed “Elizabeth.”  They think they may both die and it is imperative to get out of the ship NOW.  The crew members are gone and this is not a good place to land….

But next, Steve and Elizabeth run together across the beach, coming out of the fog, and see the dirigible land.

The detective needs a name!  Andrew?  Higgins?

No, he needs an evil name, Hayes urges.  Gonzales is suggested. (At this point I had an image of a Mexican-Irish fusion restaurant in Troy, New York, named “Jose Malones.”  Would our detective also be a fusion, Gonzales Higgins?)

Schneider is suggested.  German names seem inherently evil, for some, anyway.  Hayes insisted that, stepping outside the story, “Andrew” was not a name that connoted evil and recalled the parody of Monty Python’s evil magician named “Tim.”

Hayes reminded us that “all we do colors the story.  In a short story, make shortcuts.”  If you change the love interest from a beautiful girl to an ugly one or a gay guy, there is much more to develop.  For example, if a guy walks into a room and starts shooting, there is immediate interest.  That’s why you use conventions to get to the meat of the story.  If you want to name the villain detective “Andrew Schneider,” it would diminish him as a bad guy.

Hayes ended by telling us to “go home, write the story.  Make her a slave.  The navigator’s kitten knocks the clock over!”  He even said the detective could be named Andrew, or did I not hear him correctly?  “Just write the story,” he directed.

And if you do write your version of the tale, it may make the days go by more quickly until the Great Dragon reawakens, just in time for Dragon*Con 2012.

Author of the article

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at http://www.louiseherring-jones.com.