A Springboard for Short Story Success – Interview with Alexis A. Hunter

StoryADay regular Alexis A. Hunter stopped by the blog to chat about her writing journey over the past few years, and how she’s used StoryADay to help push her beyond her fears. Over the past few years more than 50 of her stories have been published!

StADa: When did you first participate in StoryADay May?

AAH: 2011 was the first year I participated in StoryADay May.  I heard about this awesome challenge about three or four days into the month and so wrote extra stories to catch up.  I have since then participated in the challenge for a total of four years.  It’s been so eye-opening and rewarding!

StADa: Tell us a little about your successes in the past few years.

AAH: The writing journey works differently for different people; my journey has been a bit slow, but always steady.  I’ve made some good headway, breaking into markets I’ve always wanted to be published in.  This year I’ve had stories published in Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination.  I’ll have a story out in Apex this fall.  It’s really exciting and I don’t think I’d be here (or at least it would have taken me longer to get here) if it weren’t for the StoryADay challenge.

StADa: How have you used StoryADay to help fuel your writing?

AAH: StoryADay taught me things I might not have learned otherwise.  When I first sat down to start writing seriously about five years ago, I was perpetually full of dread about writer’s block.  I had suffered extreme bouts of it before.  Every time I finished a story, I questioned and worried and fretted over whether or not I’d be able to finish another one.

StoryADay taught me that I could do so and that I could do so consistently if I only tried hard enough.  It showed me that if I thought long enough on any given prompt, my mind would rise to the challenge.  It was so…liberating!

I’ve since then used the challenge to fuel my writing by providing a large stock of stories to edit and submit throughout the year. Of course, there are a lot of duds throughout the month of May, but there are also a handful of pretty good stories that I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.

StADa: What advice do you have for someone thinking about embarking on the challenge or longing to boost their creativity?

AAH: To those thinking about embarking on the StoryADay challenge, I recommend a bit of prep before May 1st hits.  I like to do two things in particular to get ready: 1.) Gather prompts.

I love using the prompts provided by storyaday.org, but I also love combining them with picture prompts.  I keep a Pinterest board of photo prompts, which I add to all year long.  2.) Pick some specific target markets.

Last year, I collected a list of (mostly) themed deadlines for magazines I wanted to get into.  Stuff like an anthology about pirates or magical cats.  The themed nature of those deadlines helped spark stories and having a set market to send the stories to, in turn, kept me on the ball in June and July–editing the stories and getting them sent out instead of letting them languish in an abandoned file.

To those longing to boost their creativity–get into writing prompts! Especially photo prompts, if your mind works well with them.  There is so much amazing art out there that I find especially inspiring.  Prompts are a good way to push you out of your comfort zone.  Try writing a genre you’ve never written before–even if it’s scary.

The result might not be so good, but it will stretch you in a way that writing in your normal groove won’t.  Oh, and try StoryADay if you can!

StADa: What’s next for you?

AAH: Well, May is nearing, so I’m staring down the barrel of another StoryADay challenge.  I hope to participate again this year, even if I don’t hit the 31 story goal like I normally do.  I’m also knee-deep in editing a YA Science-Fantasy novel, which I hope to one day do something with.  But in the meantime, I just keep focusing on writing better and better short stories.  That’s where my heart is really at.

Thanks, Alexis and all the best for your future success!

 

Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction.  Over fifty of her short stories have appeared recently in Shimmer, Cricket Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and more.  To learn more, visit www.alexisahunter.com.

Revisiting Morning Pages – Charlotte Rains Dixon

If you haven’t tried Morning Pages, you are likely grousing that you don’t have time for such thing. I hear you.  But I say you’ll create time by doing them.  Because you’ll have more clarity, less anxiety and more of an ability to focus on what you really want to do throughout the day.  So try it:

via Revisiting Morning Pages – Charlotte Rains Dixon.

I first heard about Morning Pages and The Artist’s Way [af] from a co-workers in 1999 — not a writer, by the way, just a guy trying to get his stuff together.

I started turning my sporadic-journalling into Morning Pages and, like Charlotte, have revisited them over the years. It sounds too simple to be any use, but seriously: write three pages of stream of consciousness stuff as close to the start of your day as you can (even if you have to write “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over until you get so sick of yourself that you DO think of something to write) and you will fine yourself more creative, more calm and ready for anything.

I highly recommend the Artist’s Dates that Cameron talks about too. More on that later.

Help! I’m Drowning In Ideas!

Help! I’m suffering an explosion of creativity and I can’t seem to stop myself finding time and ideas for writing!

How It All Began

One recent evening I tucked myself into my armchair, put my feet up, pulled my knitting on to my lap and settled down in the flickering black and white light coming from my television as we fired up a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone — our nightly non-guilty pleasure.

I love The Twilight Zone. The stories are so imaginative, they’re not afraid to take a dark turn (!); they’re stylish, well-crafted and intellectually stimulating.

I’ve been telling myself that they’re great research for my own story telling efforts.

And in a way they are. They’re all about a character (often a man, aged 36, oddly enough) who needs something, lacks something, wants something. Great stuff for storytellers.

But at the end of every Season 1 episode, I keep seeing this little line of text that makes me uneasy.

The line?

“Based on the short story…”

Short Stories Are Not Screenplays

I follow a lot of working writers’ blogs, but people who are getting paid to write the equivalent of short stories now are often working in TV. The influences they cite are other TV shows and writers. I follow those links and spend hours reading about how those other writers write and find success.

But I’m not writing screenplays. I need to remind myself how to show a scene in words, not images.

So I’ve embarked on another challenge (you know how I love a challenge, right?) and I invite you to come along with me.

Following Ray Bradbury’s prescription for writers (watch it here. It’s worth the time) I’m trying to read a short story every day, especially those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — stories with some staying-power. I’m also trying to read one essay a day (though accessible, classic essays are proving harder to find than good short stories) and one poem a day (oddly enough, though poems are shorter, I’m finding it harder to rouse myself to do this part of the program).

The Results Are In

I’ve been doing this for just over a week and, as I said, I’ve been ‘suffering’ under an explosion of creativity. I’ve written one, long-for-me, 6,000 word short story and sketched out ideas for more than 50 more (yes, 5-0!) in a few different themes/genres, started my second story and written four blog posts.

And my kids are on vacation!

But I can’t seem to stop myself finding time to read and write.

I’ve rediscovered the joy of both reading and writing. I’m sneaking off, staying up late, ignoring people I love, to read — and little of it is on Facebook or Feedly or Twitter. I’m reading well-crafted fiction and non-fiction that has stood the test of time. And I’m bursting with ideas, references and imagery — I’m so full of ideas that I can’t hold them back. I simply have to write. (This is not always the case with me. I always feel better when I’m writing but I’m quite good at being lazy and grumpy instead).

Want to join me in being more creative, more productive, and more joyful? Start reading and writing today!

Here are some of the books I’m using to find short stories, poetry, essays and other inspiring non-fiction to read.

Does Thinking Count As Writing?

I asked a friend the other day how her writing was going.

“I’m thinking about writing,” she replied. “Does thinking count for anything?”

Thinking of you

Ouch. Sound familiar?

So, you know what I’m going to say, right?

Thinking…well, actually thinking DOES kind of count as writing. (There, did I surprise you? Wait for it…)

But only if you’re doing it in the right way.

(Oo, you knew there was a catch!)

Thinking Kinda Does Count…And It Really Doesn’t

  • Writers need to think — We need copious amounts of thinking time. We need to daydream and imagine and ‘what if’. Happily, we can do this while attending to all those routine brain-free tasks we have to do every day: you know, the ones that keep us clothed and fed and sanitary. (If you’re an adult you know what I mean. If you’re a kid…no, if you’re a kid you won’t even be reading this. You’ll just be writing your first best-seller. Move along.)
  • Beating ourselves up is not productive — unfortunately a lot of writers (especially the ones who aren’t doing any writing) spend a lot of their thinking time fretting about how they’re not writing, not good enough, a lousy person for not doing more actual writing. This is not only unproductive, it is destructive. The best way to stop this kind of thinking in its tracks is to write something — anything. (Keep reading for ideas on what you can write on a day like this)
  • Capturing ideas is useful — sometimes ‘not writing’ means you’re out living. This is a wonderful thing for a writer. You need experience to be able to write anything meaningful. You need to come home and process the stuff that happened to you today, so that it’s there in your brain ready for when you need it. We need to hate people and imagine all the things we should have said to them. We need to love people and freak out when our imaginations show us what life would be like without them. We need to wonder what it would really be like if our plane crashed on a desert island: how would we wash our clothes and what plant fibers could be spun into thread to repair them?
  • Thought vs.  creativity — There will come a time when you need to look at your work with a critical eye, but that time is not during the initial writing phase. In fact, the less you think while you’re writing your first draft the better. Turn off that brain, move your hands and just let the words pour out.

It’s all very well for me to sit here saying this. But how do you actually move from thinking to writing?

You Must Take Action

You have to actually carve out time to sit down and write. Even if you can’t finish a whole chapter. Even if all you can manage is 100 words, 55 words, 140 characters,

DOING something (i.e. writing, crafting a story and characters) is so much better than thinking. Always.

(You may not feel great while you’re doing it, but trust me, afterwards? You’ll feel awesome.)

How To Take Action With Your Writing

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and beat yourself up because you haven’t finished your first novel yet.

Screw that.

  • Set yourself a tiny goal and meet it. Write a twitter fiction story. Write a 55-word story. Write exactly 100 words (no more, no less). Set a deadline. Do the work. Now tell me that didn’t feel good.
  • Use prompts I know it can seem corny but grab a writing prompt and use it for your own purposes. I assigned everyone on my writing course the same prompt one day and you would have been amazed at the radically different stories that came back from 12 different people.
  • Embrace the first draft — Give yourself permission to write something truly dreadful. Tell yourself no-one is going to see it. Picture a baby learning to walk: they fall down, they get up again, they fall down, they get up again, and eventually they are up more than they are down. We learn by doing. We learn by making mistakes. Write something terrible, don’t show it to anyone. Remind yourself the goal is to write something, not to write something good. Not yet.
  • Get an accountability buddy — life comes at us fast. If you’re like me, there’s nobody knocking down your door to hand you a living wage for your fiction yet. It’s easy to let writing slip into the background and — whoosh! — a month has gone by without a single word written. By finding someone to keep you honest, you give yourself the kind of deadlines that you need. You don’t even have to swap writing samples. Just make sure you find someone who will stay on your case and not be too nice to you!
  • So yes, think. Think about your writing. Think about your characters. Think about what you’ll do when you’ve reached your goals.But most of all, keep writing.

    What one thing will you commit to writing this week? How will you make it happen?

    Leave your commitment below, & I will be your accountability buddy for this week (I will personally check up on you on Wed June 22!)

First Story Cubes Winner(s)

Ack!

There were so many great comments on yesterday’s post about creativity and productivity for writers that I had a hard time choosing a winner.

And in the end I chose two (and am suffering horrible guilt about leaving out all the other people who wrote great comments).

But don’t fret, because you can all enter again to win another copy of Rory’s Story Cubes on the next post, which is all about how to work with an accountability buddy to make your writing life more productive than you ever dreamed.

This next giveaway  will be a drawing out of a virtual hat (red), and you can get extra entries for posting about StoryADay in other places. See the Accountability / Writing Buddy post for more details.

Highlights from the creativity post comments

Thanks for all your great tips on creativity and productivity.

Brenda said,

1) Go someplace (a mall, a casino, etc.) and people-watch. I try to make up backstory for the people I see.

2) Listen to instrumental music. Classical and Drum music work well, as does the genre aptly called “Trance.”

3) I grab a box of cheap colored pencils and doodle. Sometimes the doodles end up being a creature, or a map of a fantasy land, or a character. I’m not an artist, by any means, but even my second-rate scribbles (lol) can cause a spark that becomes a story.

I think the reason that these 3 usually work for me is that they all have one thing in common: they make writing fun again.

Trina, in confessional-mode, spoke for many of us,

I say I have no time, but if I truly go back and look at how much time I spend on Twitter or surfing the Net, I have plenty of time. Guilty as charged.

MJ gave me a reason to stop feeling guilty for gossiping about strangers,

Myself and my boyfriend stole the idea of sitting in a restaurant and making up stories about the other diners from a movie we watched. It can be a lot of fun and generate a ton of ideas and helps with character development.

Janel had two great points,

I plan on pulling several prompts every night in May.

I’ve just decided that I will write to ease the stress instead of looking at the stress as a writing block.

Dominique’s suggestions were,

I overcome theses moments of writers block by keeping a pen and pencil around to writ down any great thought’s , plot ideas, or character lines. I also Take a trip to the bookstore to look through coffee table books full of images related to the subject I am writing

Steven made me feel a little less schizophrenic,

I was telling a friend about some story ideas I had mulling around in my head, she said that it must be busy “in there”. I told her that at times it seems like a cocktail party,…Once I get at least the outline of a guest’s story to paper, they tend to back off and let me relax.

Brandy is, like many of us, a list-maker and note-taker,

1. Keep paper and a pen/pencil everywhere; in the car, my purse, on tables, on window ledges, etc., because I never know when inspiration will strike and not having materials near me could kill or stall a great idea.

2. Install whiteboards with markers in different areas of the house and several larger ones in your office/studio. I have found that having a place where it is okay to write in an nontrational way helps me free my thoughts. ..Having a wall of white boards in the studio/office allows me to write “on the walls” which is something we have been trained not to do since childhood…

3. Write EVERYTHING down…My grocery lists end up with story ideas, character quotes, and settings along with the bananas and soup…

You can read all the comments in full here.

 

I have decided to award today’s prize to Brenda and Brandy, but thanks to everyone for taking the time to share your tips.

 


I’ll Write Any Damned Thing I Want, Thank You Very Much

This tweet and the article it links to got me all riled up on Sunday[1. With all due respect to Colleen Lindsay who is an extremely generous tweeter and knowledgeable publishing person who you should totally be following.And I do sympathise with her points, from her perspective.]

Now the thread goes on to make some valid points, from the point of view of a publishing insider. The article she links to however, gets my hackles right up and I call for a rallying cry of:

“Yah boo sucks to you! I’ll write any damned thing I want”

And so should you!

The Problem With New York[2. Not the whole city, obviously. Just the centralized publishing industry part of it]

The publishing machine exists for a reason (to help authors distribute their work to the masses). For some authors that still works just fine.

For the vast majority of writers, however, the publishing machine is broken. They don’t have a big audience, so they don’t fit the economic model.

The problem comes when publishing insiders forget that the limitations of their system are exactly that: economic.

If something is deemed ‘unpublishable’ it does not mean that,

  • That people aren’t interested in it,
  • That it’s bad,
  • That you shouldn’t write it

It might mean that,

  • Not enough people are interested in it to justify a huge print run, distribution deals and a massive marketing campaign.
  • You won’t sell very many copies. (Although you may. You never know.)
  • It will be intensely interesting to a tiny number of people, who are easily identifiable because they a, live in the place you’re writing about or b, join associations of other-people-who-do-similar-pastimes, etc.

The Soul-Eaters

My problem with “Oo, the peons shouldn’t write their stories” articles [3. Apart from the short-sightedness, a lack of awareness of subaltern studies school of historical research and the insufferably smug arrogance, obviously]  is that they are destructive to the very soul of humanity.

I’m not exaggerating here.

We are a story-telling people. It’s how we make sense of our lives and our world. It’s what separates us from the brute beasts. It is an essential part of our nature.

  • Think about the friend who makes you laugh the most. What is she doing? Telling stories — stories with pacing and suspense and great twists.
  • Think about the most boring person you know. What does she do? Tell stories — terrible, unending, pointless, rambling stories.

Sometimes we make up stories about our origins and pass them on to our progeny. Sometimes we write beautiful epics that explain the human condition. Sometimes we unwittingly preserve a way of life that is destined to die out and be forgotten, except for our stories about it.

What does it do when some arbitrary gatekeeper says, “No, the story of your life growing up in Hicksville with a quirky family isn’t important enough to be published. Don’t even waste your time writing it down.”?

What arrogance! What utter idiocy!

Take Back Your Stories

We’ve been trained by a couple of generations of TV, music labels, and yes, publishers, to believe that we little people aren’t qualified to tell stories, make music or entertain our friends.

  • Homer [4. or the composite historical phenomenon that has come to us in the stories handed down] kept people spell-bound around the fire with tales of Ulysses and his epic journey.
  • Jane Austen catalogued a lifestyle long since extinct but nonetheless fascinating to us all these years later.
  • My grandparents hosted get-togethers where my grandmother played the piano for sing-a-longs, my grandfather told uproarious lies and everyone had a great time.

What do we do? We watch pre-packaged, fake ‘reality’; we listen only to homogenous music on stations that only play one style of music, and we read only the stories that an intellectual elite has chosen for the universality of their appeal.

There’s Room For Everyone At The Digital Inn

There is nothing wrong with best-sellers, nothing at all. I love me some pulpy paperback mystery and sci-fi, and I read the big ‘literary’ hits whenever I can stomach them.

The problem I have with the top-down model of publishing (whether books or music or art) is that it stifles the creative lives of ordinary, gloriously creative people. Because that’s what we are, us humans. Endlessly creative and passionate and social animals.

Luckily, we live in a great age for do-it-yourself distribution of creative products, whether stories, music or video.

No, not everything that people put out into the world is my cup of tea.

Yes, there is a lot more dross to sort through these days.

But it’s also a lot more likely than ever before that I’m going to find something fascinating to read, on a topic of my choosing, by asking around online and getting recommendations from people with similar tastes.

And One Final, Not-Insignificant Point

This flowering of creativity and distribution is going to be an absolute gold mine for anthropologists in the future.

As someone with an MA in History, I am incredibly excited about the breadth of primary sources we are leaving to future historians[5. Part of my Masters’ research was on the travel journals of explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Some of my other research invoved the shopping lists of Ventian guilds and what they could tell us about what was going on in the city and the world at the time. I’m betting the people who wrote those documents never imagined they’d be considered important by scholars 400 years into the future] Imagine if everyone in the Bronze Age had had a handy, dry cave wall where they could have documented their daily deeds. How much more would we know about our ancestors than we do now from a few scratchings in Lascaux and the occasional stomach-pumping of a frozen ice-mummy?

So go. Write your memoirs. Make them as detailed as you like. Make them as vivid as you can. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s all been said before. Because it hasn’t.

Not by  you.

And your story deserves to be written.

Write1Sub1 – A New Short Story Writing Challenge for 2011

This week I’m bringing you news of a great new short story writing challenge from StoryADay member, Simon Kewin.

Next year Simon and his friends Milo James Fowler and Stephen V. Ramey have pledged to Write1Sub1 – that’s Write One Story and Submit One Story every week of the year (actually, Simon’s taking Christmas off, but still…). You can submit to magazines, websites, or short story contests – anywhere that takes writing seriously.

And they’re not keeping this challenge to themselves: they’re inviting everyone to kick their writing career up a notch by joining in. At the end of this year of intensive writing, you certainly should have figured out how to write a short story, don’t you think?

Here’s an interview with Simon to tell you more. Links to more short story writer’s information are at the end.

What were your inspiration and your personal motivation for this challenge?

Ray Bradbury was our original inspiration. He is supposed to have completed and submitted a short story every week for a year while establishing himself.

The idea for Write1Sub1 materialised during a comment discussion on Milo’s blog and it took off from there. The point is obviously to help our own writing : to provide a focus and an incentive, a sense of community. We’re all keen short story writers and this seemed like a great way to motivate us to write more.

What are the ‘rules’?

The idea is to write a story and submit a story every week for 2011. It doesn’t have to be the same story as obviously it can take more than a week to polish a piece! Those taking part can define “story” as they like : it could be as short as a flash or nano piece for example. It could even be a poem. Whatever works for you.

Some people like the idea but have decided to Write1Sub1 on a monthly rather than a weekly basis, which is fine. Hopefully the challenge will still be a help to them.

How do people join in?

There’s the Write1Sub1 blog to follow and there’s also a Linky there to “sign up”. We plan to do a weekly check in post on a Sunday for everyone to share their experiences of the week. We’ll do a monthly one too for those doing it that way. There is also a Twitter hashtag people can follow #Write1Sub1 and there are banners on the blog folks can download.

Where will you submit?

Good question! The people who’ve signed up write a wide variety of different things, so I suppose we’ll all have our own target markets. But we’re putting together a page of useful resources on the blog for tracking down markets, and obviously, sharing our experiences on the blog should be a great help.

How will you stay motivated (esp when the inevitable rejections come in) ?

Hopefully being part of the Write1Sub1 community will be a big help here. It’s definitely a help to know others are going through the same experiences! And of course, the thought of receiving the end-of-year “winner” banner will be a huge incentive!


Thanks, Simon!

There are so many articles in the world already about ‘how to write a short story’,  but I’m a firm member of the ‘learn to write by writing’ school or thought. (And reading, of course!). This is one project I’m not going to be able to resist, although I’ll be signing up for the monthly version (there are banners for that too, at theWrite1Sub1 site).

It should ensure that I don’t get lazy and forget how to write a short story between now and May, when StoryADay starts up again!

Useful Links and Writers’ Markets

Write1Sub1 Rules

About the guys behind Write1Sub1

Market Listings from Write1Sub1

2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market from Writer’s Digest (aff)

Writer’s Market listings from Writer’s Digest (subscription required. Free email newsletter)

Writers Weekly Market Listings (mostly non-fiction, but occasional fiction listings)

An Interview With Robert Brewer, Host of WD’s Poem A Day Challenge

Remember: A little something is still more than a lot of nothing.

Robert Brewer, Poetic AsidesRobert Brewer is the Poetic Asides poetry blogger for Writer’s Digest, and is in the midst of hosting April’s Poem A Day Challenge.

He took a few minutes to talk to me about what this particular creative challenge has meant to him and the poets who took part.

What did you expect to get out of the PAD challenge?

Going into the first challenge, I really didn’t know what to expect. I remember telling my wife (before she was my wife) over the phone the night before the first challenge that I didn’t know if anyone would participate–or even who would participate. Luckily, hundreds of poets participated the very first day, and many of the poems were very good.

What did you actually get out of it?

First, I got 30 poems out of it. Second, I developed a relationship with several poets and found myself with a very active community on the Poetic Asides blog. The best part of these challenges is hearing from first-time poets and poets who have not written in months (or years) who found inspiration in the prompts and then went on to continue writing poems beyond the actual challenge. That’s one of the main things I try to accomplish is to enable poets to easily create their own prompts.

Did you get any surprising feedback from other participants?

I did. The quantity and quality of poems posted always surprises me (even now). Beyond that, I was surprised by how the Poetic Asides community developed as a whole and how some participants created their own Poetic Asides critique groups. One poet even created a database to help poets track their and other poets’ poems.

What should people do to prepare for a creativity challenge like this?

Just try to clear some time each day to write. Outside of that, try to keep an open mind each day, because you never know what the next prompt will be (unless you’re psychic). Also, have fun and don’t worry about revision; there’ll be time for that later.

What are your best tips for keeping going when the novelty wears off around the middle of the month?

I believe in breaking big tasks into smaller tasks. So, think of the month in terms of weeks or 4- to 5-day increments of time. Another trick, write shorter if you’re just struggling in the middle–or get silly. Remember: A little something is still more than a lot of nothing.

Thanks Robert!