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.

1 comment:

TZACK said...

I identify with a lot of your reflections myself! I am glad it was more than you expected!
Happy writing!