The Short Story Challenge: Why Does it Have to Be So Challenging???

I’m doing this instead of actually working on this week’s short story.  Yup.

Why?  It’s scary.  Short stories are all the hard parts (the getting started parts, the planning out parts), all the time.  Plus, I have to watch my length, leave out things that I’d like to explore, all because of space.

And since I’m working on premise and character voice especially, I’m having to work much harder in my writing than usual.  I have to be more mindful of my text, especially dialogue, which I usually like to just let “flow” at high speed, writing the whole conversation very quickly.  The only problem is, that tends to produce fairly generic-ized conversation that doesn’t strictly keep to the characters’ voices.  That’s tough, at least for me.

Also, I’m not accustomed to starting with a premise, and making sure the fiction sticks to it.  I’m used to coming up with ideas, characters, settings, some kind of inspiration, running with it, writing some scenes, then figuring out a plot around them.  I’m not entirely convinced that this is a bad method, nor that I need to abandon it altogether.

However, much like profanity, I’m “giving it up for Lent” regarding this short story challenge.  I’m doing things a different way to learn how to be the master of the fiction I write (if that makes sense), to prove to myself that my prior methods aren’t just laziness or weakness.

So, the desire to make myself a better writer, to prove myself to myself, is driving me on, and fear of failure (and, honestly, of the difficult, possibly painful work ahead) is holding me back, pushing me to find excuses not to write these stories.  Heh, story of my life.  Okay: break’s over …


The Short Story Challenge: Part One: Embrace the Suck

Having been hit by The Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, I foundered on the rocks of releasing my next work, a novella called Toward Darkness (book one of the Red Lands series).  In case you didn’t follow the link or read my previous post (as if), here’s the tl,dr version:  it became clear to me that every work, not just Blood for Blood (which I previously got all emo-angsty about -link) has a message, whether I try to write one in or not (this doesn’t just apply to me, and it doesn’t just apply to preachy ‘message-stories,’ but everything that’s coherent enough to have any kind of point at all).

About mid-May I hit a point where I was a little burned out in fiction writing, which isn’t surprising, considering I averaged 2,000 words a day for the first five days of May, which included working full time and traveling on the weekend.  That sort of burn out tends to inspire introspection and reflection in me, both good traits in a writer (in a person, period).  Unfortunately, it pretty much put the brakes on my fiction word count (that little meter hasn’t moved much after the first week of May).

I’ve still been writing.  I’ve written quite a lot of nonfiction (in fact, I have enough blog entries for the entire month of June already written).  I outlined a short story, with a premise that reflected my general beliefs.  I even hand-wrote a couple of hundred words of dialogue, and planned out the character voices of the major characters (their general speaking patterns and the attitudes that inform the way they talk).

But every time I sit down to actually write the story, I find something else to do.  Once, I just blamed fatigue, and got nothing done.  Most other times I end up here, writing about writing, like I’m doing now.  Except right now I’m not “supposed” to be writing the short story.  I actually sat down to write this blog entry because I had a bit of an epiphany tonight:  the reason I’m having so much trouble sitting down and writing this short story is because I’m scared.

You see, I’ve never written many short stories, and most of the ones I’ve written have either been flash fiction or garbage.  What’s the difference between flash fiction and standard short stories?  Flash fiction is short enough to survive the lack of a well-developed plot.  How much plot can you really do in 1,000 words?  Characters, ideas, imagery: those things are enough to carry flash fiction, much like poetry.  A good plot is good, but not absolutely necessary in flash fiction.  On the other hand, a standard-length short story lives and dies by its plot, just like everything else does.

And plotting something that short is just hard.   I mean, how do you do a well-developed plot in under 7,500 words?  It seems like a magic trick to me: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve even had it explained to me, but I’m not 100% sure I can pull it off.

I haven’t written a short story in – um, since I started this new phase in my writing, back in 2008 or 2009 … and actually, it was a good while before then.  It’s probably been five years, and the results back then weren’t exactly stellar (to be fair, five years ago none of my writing was worth reading).

So, um, yeah;  I’m scared.  But I’m going to do it anyway.  The words came to my mind (though I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of them), “You’ll never be good at anything as long as you’re afraid to suck at it.  You’ve got to do it to get good at it, and you’re going to suck at first.  So do it.  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.”

So that’s the plan:  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.

Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, or, The Dawn of the Short Story Challenge

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent series of posts called “Think Like a Publisher,” about how independent authors have to, well, think like publishers if they want to get ahead and make money.  That makes sense.  After all, according to one study, half of self-published authors made $500 or less last year from their writing).

Keeping that in mind, I’ve been plugging ahead, trying to build up a list of books to publish (according to Smith, you aren’t likely to reach the critical mass that attracts viewers until you’ve got 20 novella or novel-length works out for potential readers to find), while investigating methods for building up a platform (You Are Not Alone by Karen Lamb was good, but somewhat dated.  I’m hoping Platform by Michael Hyatt will be even better).  I haven’t actually done any of the promotion methods (unless you count blogging semi-regularly), but that’s okay: until I have more than one book “up,” there isn’t really much point in self-promotion.

The thing is, I think I’m putting the cart before the zebra, so to speak.  In a lot of ways, I’m still figuring out what it means for me to be a writer.  Do I really want to pigeonhole myself into writing action horror and urban fantasy because that’s what the first two publishable-quality books I wrote were?  Do I want to make that a big part of my online identity as a writer, knowing that if I do, I’ll have to start over with another pen name if I switch genres?  Do I even want to have to keep different pen names straight?  I already feel a little sleazy with one (I’m currently writing under my middle name, which isn’t technically a false name, but it isn’t what my friends call me, either.  I do have a couple of minor academic publications under my first name, and I didn’t want to cross the academic research and genre fiction streams, so to speak).

And, most of all, what about my conscience?

Fiction should not, as a general rule, be prescriptive or didactic.  It isn’t always as bad as the Left Behind series (you can read the Slacktivist retelling here), but “getting the point across” too often kills the complexity, the ambiguity, and, generally, the emotional impact of the piece, pushing the reader or viewers away by clubbing them over the head with the message.

But every story tells a story, and every story has some kind of premise (I hesitate to use the term ‘moral,’ because the ‘moral’ of a story could be something very immoral, like ‘torture is okay, as long as they’re bad guys’ *cough, cough, 24, cough, cough*).  Granted, some stories are disorganized enough that any premise or moral tone is unintelligible, but that’s hardly something to emulate or brag about.

But if every story tells a story, don’t I have a responsibility to make sure my stories’ premises align with my own beliefs?  Yeah, I know, I talked about this before (link), and I thought I had it solved.  I think that may have been a bit of wishful thinking.  At best, it was a patch to buy me more time to figure the problem out.  By placing Blood for Blood within the context of a trilogy, I gave myself two more books to work out the moral, and I think, so long as I write book 3 well enough, I’ll have a good one (effectively, a rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, which I think will be especially effective, given that Benedict is the kind of vengeful anti-hero you’d often find in action movies).

There are a lot of sub-skills to master in order to be a good fiction writer – character voice, sensory descriptions, pacing – but the most important is finding your own voice as an author, and that means understanding what story you’re actually telling, and making sure the premises of your stories actually line up with who you are.

To that end, I’m setting my long-form fiction aside for a while and just practicing.  My goal is to write ten short stories this summer, working hard on improving specific points in my writing with each one (thanks to Dean Wesley Smith, again, for this idea).   Now, with only demanding 250 words a day from myself, I could easily take 2 weeks or more to write a short story, and it may take me longer than “the summer” to write ten of them. That’s fine; the point here is writing one short story after another, working on improving specific things about my writing, working on hammering out my voice in a series of small, contained experiences, none of which have the high-stakes stresses that come from pouring several months of my life into a novel.

I’ll be posting a bit more about my journey of self-discovery through writing as I go.  I’ll be touching on some varied and possibly even controversial subjects, including the role of profanity in realistic dialogue, sexual content, intentional/unintentional messages, and spirituality.  The point of it all is this: before I work to build up a platform, to build an audience, to get the world to hear what I’m saying, I need to be sure I know what I’m saying, and just as importantly, that I believe what I’m saying.