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05 June 2018

I Crushed Story a Day in May 2018

There's something really special about doing a writing challenge you have never successfully completed before. You sign up, and you have that immediate, gorgeous, spacious moment of exhilaration and excitement for what's to follow. You're filled with that feeling that everything is possible, that you're going to accomplish so much, and that it's going to be absolutely amazing. There will be rainbows and puppies, and probably even rainbow puppies.

Then the urge to throw up a little kicks in. I don't know about you, but sometimes that stops me before I start. Sometimes I squirm through it, and manage to complete a day or two before I mess up and fall on my face and curl up into a tight ball that will not loosen until the end of the challenge time frame. That second strategy ("strategy") is basically a description of the first time I tried Story a Day, approximately a million years ago.

At the end of this past April, however, I was looking for something big, to help me stay in my current writing mode. I've passed a few personal writing milestones lately. My track record has been great. When the Story a Day in May reminder email came through, I thought, yup, this is it. This is my year.

Upper lip stiffened and mind not entirely lost, I turned to the same reasoning I always do when I'm about to ace something I think is impossible.

Step One: realise other people are somehow probably magically doing the thing.

Step Two: get over myself.

Step Three: figure out how I can do the thing too.

And so I did. I hit it out of the ballpark, friends. More on how, exactly, in a bit. First, the stats:

Thirty-one stories in thirty-one days. 52,511 words, for an average of 1693 words per day. Nine of those stories were under a thousand words. The longest (and most in need of filling-in) was over five thousand.

All of the stories had a beginning, middle, and end. Some of those parts were a bit sketchy, but not nearly as many as I expected.

One of those stories is non-fiction. (If you want to read it, I posted it here.) One of them is a rewrite of a story I wrote earlier in the month (there was a prompt to pick a story and rewrite it, so no, I was not cheating). The other twenty-nine stories are all original fiction, most of them science fiction, fantasy, or horror, because that's how I roll. With the exception of the non-fiction piece, none of them were based on ideas I had before the month began.

I am absolutely shocked at how much I like most of the stories. Everything will need some kind of polish, of course. There were a few times that I only figured out what the story was about when I was almost done the draft. That is a normal part of writing for me, though, so I don't think it's a product of the speed with which I wrote. All told, I ended the month with upwards of two dozen definitely workable stories that I can finish and start marketing one way or another. (I've already submitted two of them—one to an anthology, and one to a contest.)

All in all, a great month.

Here's what I learned about my process. I wanted to write about this because it is, in my opinion, really cool, and also hey, maybe it will help you.

My main fear in approaching Story a Day was figuring out what to write about. At any given time I might have a few short story ideas kicking around, one or two of which I'm interested in writing. I definitely don't have thirty-one viable ideas in the queue. That fact was the #1 cause of my initial queasiness.

Sometime in the wee hours of Day One, after I indulged a solid bout of my-God-what-have-I-done panic, I decided that things would go better for me if I just followed the daily prompts that Julie Duffy posts on the Story a Day site. I figured maybe I could write to one or two, just to get things started. Then the idea factory would, no doubt, conveniently kick in.

I just want to say that I don't know what kind of internal monster makes me resist prefab prompts. Surely it's some kind of ego trip that causes me to think that it will be easier or better to pull fire out of thin air than use the kindling and box of perfectly dry matches that someone has so kindly laid out for me.

The Story a Day prompts, let me just say, were genius this year. (I can't speak to other years, but I bet they are always great!) They were non-specific enough that they could be applied to any genre of writing, fictional or otherwise. Many of them were structural, exploring different ways to craft a beginning, middle, and end, inviting us to work with the many ways in which short stories are not mini novels. None of them, as far as I recall, required any specific type of content. One prompt asked participants to tell a story entirely in dialogue. Another suggested that a character notice a specific detail that holds significance for them. Whether the dialogue took place in a hospital room or the detail was on a space ship was up to the individual writer.

I loved the first two or three prompts so much, I ended up using all of them. There was no reading ahead, either: the prompt for each day goes up, as far as I can tell, sometime around midnight-ish EST. Generally speaking, I waited until morning to read the prompt; then I would let it percolate until it was time to hit my writing desk. Because I run my own business which entails irregular hours, some days I wrote in the morning or early afternoon, and some days I had to wait until after dinner and stay up late to finish the day's writing.

Some days, I read the prompt, and that was enough to trigger a great idea for what I wanted to pour into that structure. Other days (most of the days), I had no clue. So I turned to random plot generators and story prompt lists to try to fill in the open spaces just a little bit more.

Eventually, I discovered bookfox's The Best Story Idea Generator You'll Ever Find, which is, indeed, really excellent, and I used bits and pieces of a couple of ideas from there. In the beginning, though, I looked for grubby, cheesy, silly ideas. My mantra became it's not the idea that makes it good: it's the execution. I let myself hit refresh on bad story generators no more than three times. Whatever came up, I picked the seed of the day's story from one of those prompts. If I was feeling really confident, I would find a list of horror or fantasy prompts, and take my chances that something on it would seem workable.

The question I asked of each prompt was not will this make a good story? The desperation created by the Story a Day timeline did not allow for such fussiness. Instead, I asked: can I write to this idea today? If the answer was yes, I ran with it.

I hope you can already see that this was so much fun, you guys. The pressure was all in the timeline, and not in any way on the content of what I was writing. I wrote hard, and I had a blast, and I took semi-silly ideas and made them into the best art that I could. Like I said, I'm really pleased with most of them.

Here's why I think it worked: these semi (okay, in some cases very) silly ideas, combined with the no-time-to-waste daily pressure, provided the sort of freedom through limitation that I personally thrive on as a creative person, when I can manage to lean into it. I didn't make up any fancy rules or excuses about how I would go about it. I just ran with the prompts. I gave myself permission to blow past them, if that was what seemed right.

Writing so many different stories let me play with voice in a way I haven't before, because each day of the challenge called for a new perspective, new main character, new tone. I developed a much greater appreciation for the ways in which short stories really aren't just mini novels. Because they can be fragmentary in nature, they have the power to evoke a lot beyond their own frames. I also figured out how to match an idea to a specific length of story. On days when I knew I didn't have a lot of time to write, I learned to skew the idea I was working with to a less ambitious size. The shortest story I wrote was a mere fifty-four words.

And then there was the magic.

I've always loved Jungian psychology and Joseph Campbell's monomyth and the idea that we humans (and possibly other sentient beings, I personally can't speak for plants and animals) are sitting on top of this morass of concepts and archetypes and plot patterns that run as deep as the Marianas Trench. Those depths, over which we all float, contain more oddities and monsters and ways of thinking and conceiving of the world than we can possibly understand. I've always believed that at its holiest, story is a way to tap into all that. When we write, we're sending down a line, hoping that something interesting or maybe even essential will bite.

This is why I think that telling a story isn't about the idea you start with. It isn't about how perfect the opening sentence is or how well organised the plot. It isn't about the exact spot on the surface you choose to drop anchor. It's about beginning. It's about persisting. It's about what swims up from the depths to meet you.

I've never come closer to accessing that trippy, heady feeling of watching something surface as I did this past month, during Story a Day.

tl;dr: Story a Day is awesome. 10/10, would recommend. The next challenge, as far as I understand it, runs in September.

03 June 2018

Chris Kelworth

Do me a favour, and let's pretend I've been here all along, and the last few years on this blog haven't been a combination of absolute void and hesitant posts about plans I haven't followed through on.

I've been writing. I promise. And trying to figure things out, including myself. Details on that will probably pop up here and there, as I start posting a little bit more, but first, I want to tell you about my friend, Chris Kelworth.

You might have met Chris online at one of his blogs. If you ever did Nanowrimo, you might have done some of the word sprints he hosted under the Nano Twitter account (@nanowordsprints), or run into him in his capacity as Hamilton, Ontario Municipal Liason. You might, alternatively, have met him at Ad Astra or Can-Con, or one of several major speculative fiction writers' workshops. If you're part of the Roswell fandom, you might have read some of the fanfiction he wrote for the show, or listened to the podcast Illegal Aliens, that he co-hosted with his friend Claire.

I met Chris about a decade ago, through my local Nanowrimo region. He was the first writing friend I made in real life. Without exaggeration, I can say that he was the heart of our local writing crew. He passed away at the end of March. (March 2018, if you're reading this in the future.)

When I met Chris, I was just beginning to be serious about writing, and I was busy trying to figure out how I could make it a more regular part of my life. Taking on a big challenge that had a social aspect to it seemed like a great idea. (It still does—seriously you guys, do Nanowrimo, and go meet some writers!)

If you're not familiar, during the November challenge, the Nanowrimo site encourages writers to gather in person for "write-ins," meetings where you get together, take up a bunch of tables at a local library or coffee shop, and spend a couple of hours getting raw word count down. It's the most perfectly antisocial social gathering, and suited me just wonderfully, since it didn't force me to choose between hanging out with people and writing. Imagine doing both! At the same time! That's Nanowrimo.

At some point during that first November, Chris and I had a chat about how it might be nice to keep meeting and writing during the part of the year that is not November. For a while—a couple of years at least—the two of us met every other Sunday to talk about writing in general, about whatever we were working on, and to cheer each other on while we wrote.

After those first couple of years, other writers joined us. The core group has shifted, as groups do, but Chris was always a part of it, always interested in getting together with other writers, encouraging everyone to keep going, and to have fun doing it. He was never big on sharing personal details, but along the way, we got to know each other pretty well.

He always had more than one project on the go, and he seemed to flip back and forth between them with ease. He was the only person I have ever seen close a document on his computer, and say, "Well, I think that's enough editing on this story for now," and then switch to another project. I learned from him that I don't have to beat myself up if I don't want to work on a thing until my eyes bleed. He taught me that task switching is not only okay, it can be fun. It can be a bit of a life saver, too.

He took a lot of delight in what he was working on, often reading a sentence or two aloud if he thought they'd come out well, and watching for our reactions with a smile on his face. He was big on accountability. He would always stop at least once or twice in the course of a writing session and ask, "How's it going?" If one of us went into some detail about what we were working on, he would often pause for thought, and then say, "That actually reminds me of..." and head off into a description of some grand speculative fiction tradition, or some story he'd read, or some debate about fantasy plots he'd been thinking about. Whatever it was, I would always end up feeling validated, like we were all participating in something that was bigger than ourselves. (We were. We are.)

The last time Chris came to a write in, the very last time, the group of us ended up having a talk about Golden Age science fiction. His voice was a lot quieter than it once had been. He didn't have the energy to speak at his regular volume anymore, and he was only able to spend an hour or so with us, but he talked about stories, just the same way he always had. He cared about writing. He cared about the way stories work, and he happily shared his enthusiasm for his craft, right up until the end.

Chris was brave. He could be brutally shy, and had some difficulty in social situations, but in the years that I knew him, he went out of his way to be with people. He was a member of the Toronto Browncoats. He volunteered to be on committees and panels at writing conventions. He was active in online writing circles—he was a member of Codex, and an administrator of the writing forum that another member of our local writing group founded (Stringing Words).

As he was in the process of dying, we came to realise how many people knew him. He pushed past his own limits, in a way that was wildly admirable. He didn't complain about it: he just did it. If he hesitated, he didn't show it or talk about it. From where I was sitting, it looked like he just threw himself into things, enthusiastically so.

He worked hard on his writing. He signed up for online courses that he completed with gusto. He followed blogs and podcasts about writing craft. If you listened to any of the many Storywonk podcasts, you've probably heard his voice: he left more than one message that was included in episodes as listener feedback. He underwent formal training at some of the most rigorous speculative fiction writing programs out there: Odyssey, Kansas University's Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop and Science Fiction and Fantasy Novel Writers Workshop.

He made progress. After a lot of years of writing and editing and submitting stories to magazines, he started to gain some traction. He published a few pieces. The last time he came back from Kansas, he told me that he'd pitched a novel idea to an editor or agent—I can't remember which—and she'd invited him to send her pages when he finished it. That book was about a generation ship. He was in the process of rewriting it when he got sick.

Chris turned forty-two during Nanowrimo 2017. He started the month in the hospital, during which time he was diagnosed with the illness that would take his life five months later. He still wrote 50,000 words that November. He managed to attend the party at the end of the month, and there, as he was addressing the group that he'd led for the last time, he told us that he'd really proved to himself that he could write no matter what.

Chris would want us to keep going has become a bit of a rallying cry among our little writing crew. There's no doubt in my mind that that's right. He didn't have anything approaching a bad temper. He was the very definition of an affable fellow. Still, I think if any of us drift away from our best effort, I can picture him looking a bit stern and asking us what he has to do for us to get some writing done.

We've tried. In his last days, we gathered around his hospital bed with our laptops fired up, and talked about what we were working on. It only seemed appropriate, to include him in that. It was important to let him know that we would carry on.

For me personally, Chris's passing is all about remembering the things I learned from him. To do the things I find difficult. To write. To enjoy the process. To work on a lot of things, and push them all forward, and keep trying.

I don't know if Chris really was the optimist he always seemed to be. He wasn't falsely chipper, but he certainly threw himself into his craft with what looked like the idea that all of his hard work would eventually pay off. You know what? It did. He had the beginnings of a career.

I'm not big on wishing things could be different. I try to accept what comes as it comes, but if I could change anything, I would love to be given the chance to see what might have happened next for him. I would have loved to see him publish a book, and another, and another.

It's a raw fact, and a difficult one, that Chris passed when he did. Forty-two is not very old. In writerly terms, for a lot of us, anyway, it's barely long enough to get your feet under you.

So take this for what it's worth; take it as a reminder. Time is limited. It's a good idea, if one is so inclined, to use it for the things that matter. If you're a writer, that means writing.

If you've read this far, which is to say, all the way to the end, thank you. xoxo

17 August 2016

Quick Hits

Hey! I hope you, uh, maybe liked that month-long story that I posted here back in April!

Since then I've been writing up a storm, enjoying ("enjoying") the weirdest, driest summer Southern Ontario's had for a while, and getting ready, among other things, to release a collection of previously published and new stories. (That's coming up shortly. I commissioned a cover for it that is TO DIE FOR. I think you'll like it. Furthermore...and this is just between you and me...it's going to be free. These stories have just been kind of sort of sitting there, unread, for a while, and I want you to have them, if you want 'em, that is.)

In the meantime, I've had two ultra-short pieces published. The most recent is a reprint of "The Bell," just out from Digital Fiction Publishing. It features that old timey coffin technology whereby the buried person could signal the surface if there had been, you know, a mistake. But it's really about melancholy and helplessness. 

Via Snopes

A little while back, my 200-ish word story, "Status: Quarantined" was included in the AE Micro 2016 issue. This little gem of a magazine, published by the absolutely gorgeous AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, contains five ultra-short stories on the topic of Change. You can read my story here, or, you can print out a pdf of the issue and fold it into an adorable tiny origami book.



For my piece, I wanted to explore the transformative nature of parasites, and the behavioural changes some of them create in their hosts. I wrote about that from a host's perspective. The story's a little bit about biological imperative and altruism.

(You know about parasites that change host behaviour, yeah? If you don't, this is the cutest video I could find on the topic. Click at your own risk though. Watching that could cause YouTube to suggest utterly gross stuff to you for longer than you might like.)

30 April 2016

Zero.

You can try to count down from one hundred by sevens, but you can't, not really. You stop at two, or you go too far and end up with a negative number. The ritual is broken.

What seemed to Celia like a green trap looks like paradise to me. You reach a limit in this world, and if you're lucky, you find a door.

I made a promise, written in mud, long ago. A trade: me for her. I didn't remember. I do now. It's time that I fulfilled it.


I'm leaving now. I don't think I'll be back. 

29 April 2016

You can't hang on to anything in the end.

Celia told me the story again. She says she's told me many times, since it happened.

I'm typing as fast as I can, to get it down before it fades.

One day, the last day we walked together, Celia stumbled off the trail, and landed in a green place. Tall strangers fed her herbs, and gave her sweet water. They told her she was theirs.

I don't remember that. I remember pulling her out of the mud, where she had fallen. A simple act.


According to Celia, it was a promise. 

28 April 2016

Xeroxed sheets appeared overnight on my refrigerator. Emergency phone numbers, schedules of appointments, information about what's wrong with me.

Celia is sticking to the clock doctor's program.

She knows another program is running, one that will trump whatever she's planned.

She was waiting for me in the living room this morning, perched on the couch with a cup of coffee. Neat. Efficient.

Last night--last night! I couldn't sleep in my bed. I had to go out, to lie out under the singing stars.


Celia gasped when I walked in. "I know, my love," I said. "I'm full of starlight!"

27 April 2016

Went to the woods again today.

When I arrived at the green place, the voices were clearer than they'd ever been. I'm not sure the words are English, but I'm beginning to understand. I fell asleep, in the grass, to the sound of the singing, the sun warming me.

I saw them. The owners of the voices, dancing on the edge of the clearing. They're taller than I thought they'd be, dressed in such colours.

I told them I would come back, and I would stay.


There's nothing for me in the world now, except pills and hopelessness. And Celia. 

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