This month’s theme, here at StoryADay is “Accountability”.
(If you haven’t yet declared your goals for the month, leave a comment in this month’s SWAGr post and tell us what you’re going to do with your writing for the rest of this month)
Today’s writing prompt includes a built-in accountability trigger.
Contact a friend, right now, and tell them that you’re going to write a short story in the next 24 hours. Tell them you’ll send it to them, or at least check in when you’re finished. Then, write 500-750 words about a character you think that friend will love (or love to hate)
Keeping the story super-short gives you a better chance of finishing it
Focusing on your friend (someone you know well) helps you winnow the choices. What will THEY enjoy? (Too much choice is paralyzing. Eliminate every possible character or situation that wouldn’t interest this particular friend. Then start writing)
Remember that a short story revolves around a single moment in which something changes for your character.
The moment can have happened just before the story starts (in which case you’re dealing with the aftermath and the character’s choices about how to deal with it)
The moment can happen at the end, when we know enough about your character to be able to predict how they’ll react (or at least enjoy wondering)
The moment can happen in the middle, in which case you get a chance to show us the before and the after.
With such a short story you don’t have much room for backstory. Write it as bare as you can. You can punch it up with details and dual meanings, as you re-read and re-write it.
I talk a lot about writing prompts and Story Sparks around here. They are your secret weapons for getting through a month of extreme short story writing!
What is a Story Spark?
It’s a term I coined for something that is less than a story idea and certainly not an outline, but something that you notice while walking the world: things that make you go ‘hmmm’, if you will.
Story sparks are details about the world that you can use either to spark or add richness to a story. They can be:
Fragments of conversation: become a dedicated eavesdropper, if you aren’t all ready.
Details from the world around you: the exact color and shape of a dogwood flower in April; a snippet of conversation overhead, out of context; the rhythm of a 14 year old girl’s speech,
Big Ideas that occur to you randomly: the ‘where are all these people going?’ that pops into your head while you’re sitting in traffic; what if my baby had been born with wings? why do so many of us believe in a deity?.
Memories: spend some time going through old memories and pulling out interesting characters, conflicts, fears, hopes, joys. Gather some of them as Story Sparks.
Some of these, with a little interrogation and development could be come a story or a series of stories, but for now they are simply ideas that flit across your brain.You needn’t have any clue what kind of story they’ll fit into or how you might use them.
Save them for later.
How To Harness The Power Of Story Sparks
To feel the power of Story Sparks you must gather them continuously.
Set yourself a goal of gathering three story sparks every day and you will find yourself seeing the world in a different way (a writer’s way).Aim to have 15 at the end of each week, but don’t collect them all on one day.
By getting into the habit of observing the world around you and capturing story sparks daily, you are training your brain to see the world through an artist’s filter. This will help immeasurably when you sit down to write.
Writing Prompts Are Not Story Sparks
(At least not the way I do them here at StoryADay)
I provide an optional writing prompt for every day in May (If you want to support the challenge and give me a pat on the back, you can grab a copy of last year’s prompts here or stay tuned for the release of this year’s prompt ebook)
My writing prompts are intentionally vague.
I don’t know if you prefer comedy or tragedy, sci fi or contemporary romance. I don’t know if you’re a woman or a man or a child or a nonogenarian. So I keep the prompts vague. Here’s an example:
I’m not giving you a topic or a character or telling you where to set your story. I”m giving you a way into a story.
This is the perfect time to start digging around in your Story Sparks notebook/file and see what might fit with this prompt. Choose a Spark that leaps out at you today, in today’s mood, with today’s time restrictions and today’s challenges.
I also give you tips everyday. They are intended to help you drill down further into the prompt, and figure out how you can make it work for you.
Here’s another example:
Notice, I don’t tell you what kind of character to choose or where to place him/her. That’s up to you. Dig into your Story Sparks and see if you can find inspiration for a character who might have these qualities.
Here are the tips I provided for this prompt:
Again, you’ll need to bring your own ideas to this exercise. It’s not a scenario that dictates any details about the story, but rather a prompt; a way into finding a character and a story that matter to you.
And that is the only way to write a story that matters to readers.
So go now and start collecting Story Sparks: 3 a day. You’ll thank me, around May 14, when the creative well is not only dry but cracking and threatening to implode.
The Writing Prompt eBook – Details!
On Monday, April 20, 2015Updated: Saturday, April 23, 2016 I’ll be releasing the A Month of Writing Prompts 20152016 as an ebook through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program. Its list price will eventually be $6.99, but you’ll be able to get it for $2.99 before May begins (and yes, I’ll send you an email to remind you, if you’re on the list).
The ebook will contain all of the writing prompts I’ve written for this year’s challenge. As with last year we’ll have some guest prompts and those will be exclusively at the website.
I started creating ebooks of the prompts because so many of you told me you wanted to be write to the prompts, but you like to be able to plan ahead. It was super successful last year and I hope you enjoy this year’s edition as much, if not more.
Behind The Curtain
Why Make It Available Exclusively Through Amazon?
A few reasons: One is that it keeps things simple for me. There’s a lot going on around here in April/May and setting up an ebook with three or four different vendors is a LOT of work. I like Amazon. You can get it for Kindle or use their browser-based Kindle app at no charge.
Another is that Amazon is a big kahuna. If lots of people buy the ebook from Amazon (especially if you all buy it on opening day) the ebook shoots up the charts and gets more exposure, and more people hear about StoryADay, which makes the community more buzzy and you more likely to find a writing friend you lurve. (See? It’s all about you).
Thirdly (and this one is less about you), Amazon pays well. If I use their Kindle Direct Publishing and make the book exclusive to them, I get 70% of the list price in royalties in every international market they cover. This money all goes into the running of StoryADay (so actually, it is about you!).
Speaking of money: I intend to keep the StoryADay May challenge free forever. But running it is not. In addition to the hundreds of hours I spend working on this every year, I have hosting and domain-registration costs, support for the times when the web coding gets too much for me, the Mailchimp email list hosting (we’re such a big tribe now that we’ve outgrown Mailchimp’s free service); hosting fees for the service I use to sell workshops and ebooks, and on and on the costs go. I’m fairly frugal but the costs run over $1000 a year.
If everyone on the mailing list bought a copy of the ebook on release day I would cover my costs and have a bit left over to make the site prettier and more functional next year.
So there’s my Amanda-Palmer-inspired begging bowl. Want to support StoryADay? Buy an ebook, course or workshop. Or, if money is tight, spread the word to your writer friends. Get them involved in StoryADay. That’s as valuable to me as a monetary contribution! And more fun.
OK, this was a long post today. Sorry about that, and thanks to anyone who’s still here at the end of it!
Now that you’re all keyed up to write, we turn to the tricky question of how to take all your good ideas and turn them into story drafts.
From Idea To Story
Ideas are great.
Story Sparks are great.
Writing prompts can be great.
But anyone can have an idea.
It takes a writer to develop and idea and turn it into a story. Yeah, uh, how do we do that, then?
The Right Way To Write A Short Story
There is no one right way to write a short story.
That’s the beauty of the short story. It can be anything from a classic three-act narrative to a loosely connected collection of nouns verbs and prepositions.
There are as many ways to write a short story as there are writers. The only right way to write a story is to tell it the way you want to tell it.
Writing a short story that readers want to read, however, is a little more limiting.
1. Play With Structure
Short stories don’t have to follow a particular structure. With a short story you can forget about plot diagrams and character arcs and still end up with a satisfying story.
Why? Because short stories exist to immerse a reader in a moment in a character’s life. Or to make them question an assumption by illustrating its absurdity in miniature.
A list can be a short story. A diary entry can be a short story. A tweet can be a short story. But none of them work without the active participation of the reader.
Think about it: in writing short stories, you have to leave a lot out. You can’t spend a lot of time describing the six layers of undergarments worn by ladies of the court, the way you can in a novel. You can’t give much (any) backstory. You can imply, hint and leave spaces.
It’s up to the reader to slow down, pay attention and supply those details. In that way, the short story is a lot like poetry.Even as you play with the structure you must write for the reader.
2. Write For Readers
I don’t mean ‘write for acquisition editors and publishers’. I mean write for your ideal reader.
Readers expect certain things in a story. They expect setting and character and something to happen. Depending on your reader’s preference and tolerance level, they may expect suspense (or not), character development (or not), and a resolution of sorts (or not).
Literary fiction can get away with more of those ‘or not’s than genre and mainstream fiction. Mainstream readers tend to be looking for a less intense escape from reality than literary readers who are willing to study every line as if there’ll be a test on Friday (which they intend to ace.)
But it’s OK for even mainstream or genres readers to expect their readers to participate in the story.
What Do You Mean, Readers Have To Participate?
Read this oft-cited example of the shortest-short story:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
So what? On one hand, it’s just a classified ad. But if you, the reader really start to think about it, you start filling in the details: why the shoes were never worn; who might have placed the ad; and inevitably, how they must have felt, doing so.
You, the reader, are telling the story in cooperation with the author.
This is a pretty extreme version, of course. But you should be aiming for the same effect in every story you write, no matter its shape or length.
I’ve been hosting StoryADay since 2010 and I’ve read a lot of stories in that time. The stories that immerse me in a character or a world or a moment are the ones that stay with me. The stories that ask a question and make me care about the answer (whether or not they supply it) are the ones I seek out and re-read.
So how do you take an idea (either from your own head or from a writing prompt, or from some combination of the two) and make readers keep wondering about it long after they’ve stopped reading the words on the screen?
3. Ask Questions
If you start with in idea about a particular character or setting, next ask yourself “who cares?”. Who will be interested about a story about that character or setting?
Then ask “why”? What makes this situation different? What makes this person interesting?
For example, The Care And Feeding of Plants by Art Taylor, opens with two people who are having an affair, one is married, the other is not. Ho-hum, right? Except that “During one of their trysts…Robert told Felicia to bring her husband over for a Friday night cook-out.” Wait, what? DURING? What kind of people are these? I don’t know about you but I had to keep reading!
Next take your idea and ask yourself “if…then” questions.
In the example above the author might have asked himself: if the husband does come over, what could happen? If the wife refuses to invite him, then what happens? If the lover changes his mind, then what? Follow this line of reasoning down its most interesting, tangled alleys and see what you can come up with. (If you’re like me you’ll need to start writing round about now, because you’ll be too excited not to!)
4. Leave Gaps
Not literally (though maybe, depending on your story). But leave gaps, as in the six word short story above, and readers will start to ask the questions you leave lying around for them to find.
It might not be necessary to tell readers in the first sentence why your character is standing on a bridge, wind whipping her hair around her tear-stained face, one hand on the thin guide rail behind her. Just put her there and then make us care. You can supply the reasons (or not) later.
You might not need to walk through your character’s entire day to make poignant the moment when they walk through the front door of their home, mussed-up and frazzled.
Think about the minimum amount of information you can give the reader in order to pull them in, and keep them interested, yet still give them room to search for clues in the context as to what’s really going on in the story.
In “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, the entire story is told as a set of responses to questions that the reader never hears. Bob Newhart did a series of comedy sketches based on a one-sided phone call (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnO1lnPH3BQ). He never tells us what happens at 1:41, but I’ll bet you, along with the laughing audience, can guess. You can replicate these ideas or you can use them to remind yourself to leave some things unsaid in your stories, to draw the reader in.
5. Try Something New
If you always write narrative stories with a character encountering an obstacle that clashes with their desires/needs, take a break. Try something different. Instead, write a story made up only of dialogue, or in the form of a memo to the staff, or a series of social-media posts or voicemails.
Challenge yourself to create complete characters or illustrate an absurdity, without talking directly to the reader.
As you write, keep asking ‘what if’ and ‘so what’ questions of your ideas.
6. Getting Unstuck
There’s a point, somewhere in the middle of every story, where it’s very easy to get stuck.
You’ve set up the characters and the situation, but now you’re starting to get tired and the thought of fighting your way to the end (with all the digressions that crop up as you think of objections and things you’ve left out, and things you want to explain) is just too much to bear. (A bit like that sentence.)
At this point, we go back to the questions.
If you don’t know what should happen next, ask yourself: what does your character want? What is standing in her way? How can you make it worse? What is she not prepared to do? Can you force her to do it? How can you resolve the reader’s question of “does she get what she wants” as quickly as possible?
If you’re really stuck, simply finish your sentence then write the words “But then” Finish that sentence and write: “And so” Finish that sentence. Repeat as necessary. You can edit out these phrases and clean up the prose in the rewrite (what else do you have to do in June?), but sometimes a crude, structural approach forms the foundation of a what turns out to be a strong story.
7. Keep Writing
If you are really stuck, the only thing to do is to write. Not brainstorm. Not diagram. Not sketch ideas. And certainly not turn to the next, bright shiny idea.
Write your way out of the problem and get to the end of the story.
It’s a short story. What do you have to lose? No one dies if you get it wrong. No one even needs to see it. But by finishing it, you will have learned so much more than if you give up.
I promise you, from bitter, joyful, exhausted experience, this is the truth.
Use the tactics in this article to blast past your fear, push through the mushy middle, and get to the end of today’s story. It might be a mess. It might be the foundation of something great. It might be a complete mistake.
But the biggest mistake of all is to stop writing.
Fear of making mistakes can itself become a huge mistake, one that prevents you from living.
-Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide To Getting Lost
Tomorrow we talk about how the heck you keep doing this over and over again for 31 days in a row. With tips from past “winners” (Plus: how to be a winner even if you don’t write 31 stories)
[South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone] revealed that although they brainstorm and develop individual funny scenes, the key to turning those scenes into an actual story is in making sure that each scene causes the next scene to occur.
…[they] developed a very simple litmus test for determining whether they had achieved the desired causation between scenes, by seeing whether one of two words could be inserted between each scene:
This seems like a wonderful lesson for short story writers.
We don’t tend to think in scenes (especially in a first draft), but applying this test to your story revisions, will make the difference between it being ‘a bunch of stuff that happens’ and ‘an actual story that pulls readers from the first word to the last and leaves them daydreaming about your characters later’.
Key point: as you revise (or draft) your short story, think about everything that happens and whether each is linked by a ‘therefore’ or a ‘but’.
Read the source article for four more lessons on storytelling from South Park.
I find it useful to read case studies from people who have actually WRITTEN books (and possibly had them published and worked on a sequel). Theory is all very well, but hearing from someone who has actually done it? Much more inspiring. They also tend to be more passionate, less forgiving and much, much more practical.
Here are a bunch of articles from working writers who answer the second-most-asked question they hear. [1. The first, of course, being “where do you get your ideas?”]
There are lots of things I think I’d like to do, and yet if I don’t actually make the time and effort to do them, they don’t get done. This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them. So I guess in really fundamental way I don’t want them, otherwise I’d make the time. C’est la vie.
Jackie Kessler has written 12 novels (not all of them published, but hey, that’s a lot of writing time) and refuses to apologize for taking time to write [link no longer valid].
Screenwriter John August shares his work-a-day experience of becoming a professional writer. (“my general point is that you need to actively clear time in your day to write, which means giving up something.”) It’s not sexy, but it worked.
Chip Scanlan talks about writing in small chunks, lowering your standards, rejecting the Soup Nazi.
And to finish things off for today:
Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn (@creativepenn on Twitter) shares this personal story, which debunks the ‘if I only had time’ myth a bit:
I once decided that I needed time to write my book. I had some money from the sale of my house, took 3 months off and tried to write every day. It didn’t work. I didn’t have anything to show for it, and went back to work disheartened at my inability to write. It was 4 years until I actually decided to try again.
Then I wrote “How to Enjoy Your Job” in 9 months of evenings, weekends and days off while working fulltime.”.
You can find the time – you just need to re-prioritise!
One of my main aims with StoryADay.org was to get you (and me) writing again. It’s about productivity, creativity and becoming the person you were meant to be: a writer.
But after you’ve been writing for a while a new worry creep in. You’re no longer worried about making time to write, or whether you’ll be able to finish stories. You’ve proved that you can do that. You’ve probably found that you’re much happier when you’re writing than when you’re not.
Then comes that next niggling worry.
(And yes, it hit me too, after I’d first used StoryADay to jumpstart my own short story writing).
And what is that worry? All together now:
“What if my writing isn’t good enough?”
Facing Reality/Changing Reality
If you’ve been writing for a while now, you’ve probably sent a story or two away to a publication, a contest, a friend. Maybe you had some luck and got a good response. Chance are though, you to a ‘sorry but’, or an empty inbox.
It’s hard to know why. Maybe it wasn’t what that person was looking for. Or maybe it really wasn’t good enough. So now what?
As I see it, you have three choices:
1. Give up (but that’s not a real choice because you already know you want to be writing. So let’s forget I ever mentioned it.)
2. Never show your work to anyone again (but this isn’t realistic either. We write to connect. You WANT to find an audience for your work.)
3. Become a better writer.
Let’s Do It
Every writer has to face this reality, when the first euphoria wears off: we’re not as good as we want to be. Everyone. From Stephen King to Junot Diaz (who got a McArthur “Genius” grant this year. Think that’s going to make feel like he knows what he’s doing? Nope!)
It’s all just part of the process of becoming a writer.
So it’s noses to the grindstone again: write, read, revise, learn, do it all again. The only way forward is, well, forward.
A Free eBook For You
Earlier this year I posted a long series of articles on the subject of Becoming A Better Writer. They were so popular that I decided to expand them, compile them, and release them as an ebook: the second in the StoryADay.org Guides series.
This guide to becoming a better writer is packed with tips, techniques and exercises you can use to improve your writing– even when you’re away from your desk. With StoryADay’s trademark brand of inspiration, practical help, and humor, this is your go-to guide for whenever your writing life needs a boost.
What’s The Catch?
Well, none really. You need to have a Kindle or download the free Kindle software from Amazon, and I’d love it if you’d leave a review so that more people can find the book next week when the price goes back up to $2.99 (Any kind of review helps. I think it potential readers like to see a balanced set of opinions up there) .
I’m all for big dreams and Big Hairy Audacious Goals [1. A term coined by Jim Collins in “Built To Last”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Hairy_Audacious_Goal] (after all, I’m the one who set herself the goal of completing a short story every day in May!) but not all goals are appropriate at every stage in our development.
What Is Success?
Maybe you will get published in Granta or Ellery Queen or McSweeneys one day. But if you’re still grappling with so-so feedback from your writers’ group perhaps today is not that day. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot for a closer target. Perhaps you can submit to a smaller-circulation market, a newer publication that hasn’t attracted as much attention yet, a regional contest or anthology.
Or maybe you don’t need to ‘be published’ at all right now.
Reasons Not To Publish
Perhaps your version of success is ‘good feedback from my friends’. Perhaps you want to put together a collection of your stories and have it bound by a print on-demand publishing service to leave to your heirs.
Perhaps you can dedicate the next year to writing and revising rather than submitting stories, freeing yourself from the pressure of thinking about ‘success’ in terms of ‘acceptances’. File your stories chronologically and, at the end of the year, look back and see how far they have come. Then—and this is crucial—review your progress and decide what your next set of goals should be. Base your decision on where-my-writing-is-now rather than where-I-wish-it-was.
Reaching and Stretching
Whatever you decide to focus on, try to set your expectations at a level just a little beyond your current abilities. Give yourself something to strive for, but don’t set yourself you up for failure.
Having Said All That…
– Don’t let your inner critic obscure all that is good about your writing.
– Don’t let fear hold you back from finding out if your writing really IS ready for the big leagues.
– Don’t be timid in the face of challenge.
– Do set yourself ‘stretch’ goals that push you to improve.
– Do allow yourself to dream about your perfect reader, curled up in a comfy chair somewhere, transfixed by your stories, feeling the same joy you feel when you read a really great story.
– Do work hard towards your goal of being the best writer you can be.
– Do keep writing.
This post is part of the Becoming A Better Writer series. Find the other parts here or buy the ebookand help support StoryADay May: