Short stories do not come easily to me. It drives me crazy that something shorter than a chapter in my novel can be such a pain in the arse. I’m currently working on a short story and thought I would share with you how my last one, My Mechanical Heart, came together.
I had been dreaming of Kirra for years. A girl with an artificial heart who doesn’t feel human anymore but somehow learns that she can still love and be loved. I had always imagined this story was a picture book with Quentin Blake style illustrations which is why I had never tried to write it before. But I wanted to enter a competition to test myself, so I started sketching out ideas for how to show her story in 2000 words.
I still have a messy green folder of printed drafts with my scrawl all over them and an electronic folder with all my typed drafts and brainstorming. Looking through my files, I actually wrote My Mechanical Heart from scratch five times before I found the story and I’m not even talking about editing yet.
The first attempt I stopped after two pages, obviously annoyed with what I was writing. The second and third draft, are on a similar thought pattern but were more developed. All of these drafts have elements that remained in the final version; the park, the boy, skimming stones across the water. But it was much darker and I felt there was still too much happening in such a short period of time. In these versions the boy was a cutter and Kirra had the opportunity to meet someone else who felt dead inside and see herself in his actions. It made sense and tied together but it felt like overkill and I hated that.
I sent the third draft for critique with my writing group, while I researched artificial hearts and case studies of youth who have had the surgery. I actually still have the pdf of a company’s artificial heart and its instructions for care that I used for Kirra’s heart.
My writing group gave me suggestions to work on but I still wasn’t happy with the story. Through my research, I came up with the idea that Kirra was the longest-surviving person with a mechanical heart and that it was no longer a transition while she waited for a real heart. I thought this would make her feel more like a freak and add the pressure of the outside world. I also changed to the POV from third person to first person which instantly gave the story more life. This was the fourth draft. I still wasn’t happy with it but I felt that the story was moving forward.
While playing with this version, a few scenes from the Wizard of Oz popped into my head and I remembered the tinman’s heart. How fake it is but the tinman is so excited about it. I still think that this is how the fifth and final version of the story came together. Adding those references, added another layer to the story and is became more honest and grounded. There were also heaps of other changes like setting it during the day instead of late at night that I believe made it more truthful.
I can’t remember how many times I edited this version, but the four earlier drafts and the research seemed to come together. I forced my then-fourteen year old brother to read the story and give me feedback. It took a lot of threats and bribery to get his opinion but eventually he said I needed an ending. Originally, it ended with her falling unconscious – unsure if she would make it to the ambulance but still looked after by the boy. My brother hated that and after much arguing, I added the hospital scene.
I’ve noticed in developing my current short story that I’m working the exact same way. Even without a clear storyline, I need to write out all of my ideas in different versions of the story which usually means different points of view, characters, setting and themes to discover what the story is actually about. This is the hardest part. Once I’m comfortable in the story, the additional research and the editing is so much easier.
It’s also a good reminder that just because there are less words, doesn’t mean it’s easy.