To stick to our good intentions and create good writing practices, we have to stay excited about our writing. Meeting a word count goal or an hours-in-chair goal isn’t always enough of an incentive to break through our resistance to sitting down and creating something out of nothing, every day.
So, in this article, I’m offering you some alternative ways to get yourself jazzed about your writing practice.
Photo: Stuart Dootson
Of course, being me, I’m going to recommend you incorporate short stories into your writing practice, but you can use these ideas even when you’re working on a scene in a longer work.
I’m going to show you how you can stay excited about your writing practice by:
- Understanding the purpose of your story and how it affects the final form,
- Experimenting with new formats and new ideas,
- Focusing on your audience (but not too much)
I’m also going to give you one foolproof way to make sure you finish your stories, every time.
And then I’m going to invite you to make a very specific commitment to your writing this year—if it seems right for you—one with built-in accountability and support.
Take A Break
As readers, fiction is like a vacation we take whenever we can squeeze ten minutes out of our day to pick up a story. It’s a temporary escape: from our own obligations; our own worldview; our own experiences.
And, as with real-world travel, the type of trip we take depends on our mood, our available time and resources, and on what we’re looking to get from the experience.
Do you want to immerse yourself in a new culture or climate? You probably want a month-long trip, one where you get to meet the locals and dig into their daily lives. Maybe you’ll do some volunteer work or find a favorite cafe you visit every day, and come to be (temporarily) part of real life in your destination. In fiction, when you’re in this mood, you’re in prime novel territory.
Not every vacation plunges you into the local culture, however.
You don’t take a weekend trip to New York city expecting to come back with a deep understanding of daily life for people in all five boroughs. But maybe a weekend is all you have time for. Or maybe you want a quick hit of spectacle. Or maybe you’re going to buy one particular thing that you feel like you can only buy on Fifth Avenue.
This quick hit, in fiction terms, is where short stories come in.
Think about the different experiences you would have on those two trips. Think about the stories you would tell your friends when you got back.
After your month in Bolivia, you would need to go out for a long dinner and spin complex tales, with backstories about the people you met, to explain why the things that you observed mattered so much to their lives, and as a result, changed you.
But you could tell a story from your weekend in New York while standing in line for coffee: What would you remember from that trip? An outrageous character who harangued you as you walked past? The experience of finding yourself swept along with a group of Japanese tourists for half a minute, separated from your group, not understanding a word; a minority of one for the first time in your life? One flower placed on the 9/11 Memorial, that took your breath away?
These stories are not about understanding a whole world. They are about a moment that took your world-view and spun it around, at least for a minute or two.
That’s what short fiction does for us.
And that’s why it’s so much fun, both to read and to write.
Can you take a moment from your past, and spin a story out of it, to give a reader the same emotional jolt you experienced at the time? Spend some time thinking about your protagonist and what matters to them, what their assumptions are (and why). Think about an incident that could induce that same moment of ‘Oh!’ in them, that you felt. Write that story.
Blow Us All Away
Short stories offer a freedom that doesn’t come in novels—at least, not in novels that hope to be commercially successful.
In short fiction, experimentation is encouraged, even rewarded.
Because the reader is looking for that quick, weekend-getaway hit of adventure, you can stray far from the narrative, three-act structure with rising action and inciting this-es and falling thats, and blah-blah-yawn.
Some writers who have done this with great panache include:
- John Chu, whose The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale blew me away this year. It wasn’t an easy read, but as I got into the story and saw what he was trying to do, I started to feel my brain expand…and my creative possibilities widen. In this case his use of almost-impenetrable engineering-speak, humanized in the footnotes, was a revelation in ways to tell a story that doesn’t look like a traditional chronological narrative.
- Neil Gaiman, whose story Orange (hear him read it here) is a one-sided conversation with the authorities. This story plays with form, reminding us that subtext is everything, and forcing the reader to engage with the story in order to figure out what really happened. Also, it’s funny, full of suspense, and moving –we care about the character, even though all we’re doing is reading her written responses to an Incident Report.
- James Blish, whose story Surface Tension was a ground-breaking story in its day (and still is an unusual approach to the Science Fiction explorers’ romp). It blew my mind with its expanded ideas about humanity and evolution and how easy it is to get sucked into tropes (especially about space travel). And the ending delighted me, mostly because I absolutely did not see it coming, and yet it made perfect sense.
Can you tell a story in a non-traditional way? (Maybe as a series of tweets/updates; Maybe in a one-sided conversation; Maybe backwards.) Can you take a standard trope in your genre and dig deeper? (Maybe a romance story doesn’t end with the couple getting together, but instead starts with it and they still get a Happily Ever After. Maybe in your fantasy kingdom the nobles are pitied, and seen as a burden on society who are nevertheless tolerated because of their obvious feeble-mindedness.) Can you tell a story in which what we are shown, and what we understand to be true are two very different things? Write it now and post in the comments about what challenges it presented.
Who Reads Your Story?
Thinking too much about the eventual reader can be paralyzing.
As with everything else in fiction, however, being extremely specific is the key to success.
Picking a person, a friend, a colleague and write a story for them, can make the different between writing a generic, ‘meh’ story, and writing a firecracker of a tale.
But that’s not all there is to audience.
Sometimes thinking about how you’re going to get your story into reader’s hands (and minds) is a trick that galvanizes creativity, and keeps you excited about your writing practice.
There are lots of options available to us now, ways to get our stories to readers. Picking a channel and writing a story specifically for that delivery method, is an interesting exercise. When you can visualize the story being released in a specific format or publication, it’s exciting. It can make all the difference between finishing a story and allowing it to languish.
Some ways that you can release your stories into the wild:
- Release it directly as a free or $0.99 publication on Kindle;
- Serialize a longer short story and post it on Wattpad;
- Put together a themed collection of stories and release it on every e-publishing channel you can think of (Amazon, iBooks, Smashwords, Kobo, Nook…);
- Write a story to serve as a giveaway to help build your mailing list (use BookFunnel to distribute it directly to readers)
- Target your favorite short story publication. Read all the back issues from last year, analyze the stories and write something specifically for them. Avoid topics they’ve used in the last two years, but look for common threads in the stories they pick (style, emotional impact, wonder vs realism, happy endings vs sad). Write your version of an “XYZ” story, polish it up and submit it. Even if they don’t accept, you’ll have learned a lot about how to write for that specific market.
Think of a channel you’ve never used to get stories to readers: Write a story specifically for that channel. Promise yourself you won’t release it any other way or submit it anywhere else. Follow through with your release plans. Come back and tell us how it felt, in the comments! Did it help you finish? Did it help you find readers? Did that matter?
Finish Your Story With This One Weird Trick
(Yeah, I click-baited you!)
It’s all too easy to start a story with great gusto and never make it to the end. Even if you know what the ending should be, we often get lost in the Dead Marshes.
Why is this?
Often it’s because we’ve forgotten this fundamental truth:
A story can be about only one thing. Short stories especially so.
As you write your story, try to figure out the central issue of your story.
- What is going to change for your character?
- What idea is going to be challenged?
- What is happening that the reader really cares about.And remember, it can only be one thing.
Keep that one thing in mind all the way through, and soon, the freaky little Gollum in your mind that is your creativity, will find the solid ground, lead you out of the mire and back onto the path towards the end of your story. (Hopefully without the giant spider-surprise…)
I hope these ideas have you all excited to create a habit of writing (short stories) regularly. If you need an extra incentive or some accountability, I have just the thing for you.
StoryADay friend and participant Alexis A. Hunter and I have both pledged to write 12 stories in 12 months this year…and to keep each other accountable.
The idea behind the challenge was to build up a stock of short stories that are publishable, not throwaway exercises. (At least, that’s the idea for me and Alexis. If you want to join in, you can set your own rules.)
12 stories in 12 months sounds manageable, but it’s going to take commitment. It’s also going to result in us having more publishable stories a year from now that we would, if we didn’t make that commitment. Are you in?
If you want to join us in this challenge, there’s a group of us following the #12for12Stories hashtag on Twitter, offering support, encouragement and updates. If you’re not into Twitter, you can also use the SWAGr group to chart your progress and feel some accountability.
So lets build excitement and accountability into our writing practice, and let’s get back to writing!
Pick one of the ‘Try It’ exercises and work on it this week. Come back and tell me how you go on, in the comments!