Writing Challenge Wrap-up or: What Have I Learned From All of This?

Back in 2014 I found myself in a weird place. I knew I wanted to write. I’m told by some of my readers that I’m not half bad at it, so I keep doing it. But, I felt like I was neglectful. I wasn’t writing regularly. I’d completed two manuscripts and stalled out on a third. It was torturous kind of work. I loved the spinning of the tale, but often I’d feel like I’d written myself into a corner. Or that I’d been spewing out so much work that no one would ever want to read any of it.

In 2010-2011 I believe, I was involved with a few creative writing classes from the Liar’s Club. I took two of their classes – Novel In Nine Months and a short story workshop. I learned a lot in both – but the short story class really got me going. I worked regularly. I really enjoyed it.

So, as I slid half-drunkenly into 2015 I thought that maybe it was time to try something new. The short stories came easily and often left room for larger ideas. And more importantly, writing short stories was really, really fun.

With that in mind, I decided to make a resolution right there and then. Some people resolve to lose weight. Others to stop smoking. Some even go to wholly redefine themselves.

I wanted to refine myself.

All for one reason.

If you wanna be a writer, you gotta write. And I wasn’t writing enough.

So I came up with some starting rules:

1 – Write a short story for every week of 2015, with 52 stories in total.
2 – Keep them as short as you can. 3,000 words max (learn to kill your darlings)
3 – Publicly post my work to keep me on track and honest.

And so began a year of work. Here’s what I learned 145,140 words later.

Rules Suck

Not gonna lie – those first weeks were hard. Really hard. I banged out three stories in the first week and thought I’d gotten a good head start. After that, it became a kind of race. Sticking to the rules was not always easy, and sometimes, they changed, got bent, or all around became unrealistic. When my grandfather was on the edge of death in February and when he eventually died later that year in August, those deadlines became impossible. So I had to adapt the challenge if it was going to work.

Guidelines are Better

I decided that Wednesdays were going to be my target story release days if all went well. It didn’t necessarily matter if the stories came out each week – it was more important that I had fifty-two stories (one for each week) at the end of the year.  Additionally, the rule to keep stories short was a good one. Those first few weeks I was actually stricter than I thought. I’d set the rules for 3,000 words max but was paring down to below 2,000. It taught me to keep things concise and to get to the point, but once I got that down, I let the words come back slowly – I just tried to make each word count and it’s immensely helped.

I Hit Consistent Goals

Looking back on things, I realize that I achieved what I was looking to attain. There’s fifty-two stories, and when I take the total number of words (145,000 approx.) and divide it by fifty-two weeks, you get an average word count of 2,788 – which is beneath my desired 3,000 per story word count. I have some that go over (highest I think was a bit higher than 5,000 words) but some were in the 1,800’s when I was really learning how to cut out unnecessary crap. Obviously I have fifty-two stories. Plus, I kept the world informed of progress while I did it.

This is one of the first times I’ve made a plan and stuck with it.

I Failed a Couple Goals – And That’s Okay

I did of course meet with some failures.

The most consistent personal failures I feel came in terms of some stories not feeling like fully fledged stories so much as a glimpse into a larger world. Nano Noir and the Road stories come to mind – but the good news is that in these vignettes, I do feel like I latched onto something larger. There’s a deeper story waiting to be told about Kyle, Butch, Slim, and Auntie Bellum. Nano Noir has an entire arc all ready in my head to be laid out and tweaked.

Additionally, I feel like I sometimes phoned the work in. There are some weeks I just didn’t feel creative as I’d like. Sometimes the Script I used to create stories didn’t jive or I’d start writing them and have to junk it when things didn’t work out right. I could expound on which stories to me were awful – but I’d rather not. You can figure that out on your own I imagine, reader. And, like my dad kept telling me: “Don’t preface things by saying ‘this isn’t my best work’ because no one will read the damn things.”

So, from those failures, I have learned lessons and can begin to correct them.

I Found Out a Lot About My Shortcomings

There are things I am goddamned terrible at. I’ve learned that for some reason, my body is trained to say the same thing twice – sometimes three times – under the false pretense that it adds emphasis. It’s a bad habit I have no idea where I picked it up from. The challenge helped me find it, recognize it, and start gunning it down. It still crops up here and there, but I’m getting better at it.

I also know my most villainous typos, common turns of phrase, and that a lot of the time my first person perspectives often sound too alike.

The great thing about finding out your shortcomings though is that once they’re out and running around your keyboard you can smash the little bastards with a hammer, then get back to writing.

Quite A Bit of My Effort Is Pointless

I sat down with one of my alpha readers at a book club meeting and we got to talking about process as we often do (he being a creative as well). He was really kind of surprised when I told him one of the big things I learned: write the story, then take about the first thousand words out and start there.

I remembered having the same reaction the first time I heard this myself back in the Liar’s Club classes. Can’t remember which teacher told us this – but it’s true. My first thousand words are almost always warm up that doesn’t really convey anything important to the reader. By the time I’m a thousand words in, that’s where interesting stuff is finally happening. Scene setting (different from world building) for me isn’t really important as it was to me any longer. Start with action or dialog. Get people invested in that first paragraph. Sometimes I can hack that stuff out from the get go, and other times I have to murder a thousand words to get things right.

I have learned a lot about killing the proverbial darlings in my life. And I’m getting better every day.

The World Can’t Be the Only Thing Fantastic

Another friend of mine at that very same book club meeting had read my published short stories Kowloon-M and Halfway House and honed in on another realization.

I’ll paraphrase him here – we had all had a beer or two by this point (great benefit of meeting for book club at a bar). He said: Kowloon-M and Halfway House are great setting pieces – but your characters should come through just as developed. Shift your focus a little. Take as much time building them as people as you do building the fantastic circumstances.

He’s right too. When I look back through my stories, the setting and world build the crux of the story while characters facilitate it. To do better, I need to turn that equation around. Let the characters drive through the world and expose it. And make sure those characters have more drive and motivation. Short stories don’t give a lot of room for development – but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done and it’s a goal.

Apparently, I’m a Horror Writer

This is something I think I always knew, but the challenge brought it out where I could see it. As I’ve been writing these stories, I take the finished process and collate them into Scrivener which manages all of my serious work in a manageable format. It’s how  got my final word count and how I divided my efforts up into three general categories: fantasy, science-fiction, and horror.

Surprise! Horror was the biggest category by a landslide. Twenty-three of the stories – almost half – were based around a concept rooted in the macabre. I had one reader actually tell me that when she read ‘Now, Watch,’ that she couldn’t get past a particular scene where there was a rather detailed and gruesome description of someone unsuccessfully trying to keep a nasty wound closed. Another told be they got goosebumps at the end of ‘Take Only One.’ Clearly, I have the capacity to give people the willies.

And, weirdly enough, I enjoy writing those stories. That may sound pretty messed up – but there’s something very cathartic about the horror writing process. I learned a lot about horror these past two years. My girlfriend almost died of a severe pulmonary illness. My mother was struck by a car and developed severe problems with vertigo. Both grandparents rapidly deteriorated and ended up in hospice care or nursing facilities, then died. So much fear and dread and terror built up in me. If I have to have those wretched experiences, I figure I ought to make them useful. These topics and more, old anxieties, unspoken fears, and my always present fear of the unknown pour themselves out into the pages. I’ve learned that if you want to scare the living shit out of people, you have to write about what personally scares you. Death itself, the process of it, loss of control, watching people change suddenly and drastically – it’s bad enough I have these fears, but letting them cling on uselessly?

I plan to chain those things up in words. Put them out there where I can see them like I have with my shortcomings in craft. There’s something about the idea of everything in the process, including my fears, being out in the open that appeals. Because once you can see a thing and can label it, you’ve taken the power of the unknown from it. They’re just as ugly of course, but once everything’s in front of you… you can start dealing with all of it.

You Have To Let Yourself Write What Feels Like Crap Some of the Time

This was hard to learn. But there came times when a story had to come up because it was deadline time, or I was already a week or two behind. Part of the challenge was accountability, and when you are forcing yourself to write, you sometimes don’t come up with the best stuff.

I’ll be the first to admit – I hate some of these stories. I won’t go into specifics, but I really didn’t like some of what came up. Some of my readers did – which stuns me a little. But, it has come to show me that even if it’s not your favorite, people may love it. I’m told that Tchaikovsky absolutely hated The Nutcracker Suite and wished he’d never written it, but every damned Christmas, the world pulls it out and parades it around.  Perhaps I’ve written a few Nutcrackers of my own.

But, this bridges into…

There’s Nothing You Can’t Edit Later

I’m multi-disciplined when it comes to creative stuff. I went to school for training to become an Animator. I have always loved the visual arts (my first artistic love as it were). I’m trained in design. I can draw. If you put a gun to my head, I might even be able to paint you something in acrylic. I’ve done graphic design for print and television, I can take pretty good photos without a big need for equipment. But, all of those mediums seem harder to fix in post than with writing.

I can’t count how many times I had to crumple up a paper or throw away illustration board or waste a canvas because I messed something up so badly it could not be fixed or covered up.  With writing, if I have crap in front of me, I can fix it. In writing, turds can actually be polished with enough drafts. There’s almost never a need to entirely go back to the drawing board because you can raise the corpse of your present story. Amputate its limbs, cut off its head, and rebuild from a tiny sampling of guts – it’s not always easy, but nothing ever worth doing really is.

I Love This

This is something I already knew, but it drove it home. I love this. You can’t be a writer without loving the act of writing. You wouldn’t spend several hours over the course of a week doing it if you didn’t (time in schooling being discounted, mostly). There’s so much other stuff you could be doing – but you find yourself writing, putting one word down after another and you feel something inside you stretching and moving and being born. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, other times it’s like taking a piss after drinking half a six-pack. But, in both cases, I’m never quite as happy as when I’m in front of a keyboard for the explicit purpose of writing things that I hope people will enjoy.

I want to make this my living some day.

New Goals

And it’s taught me that I need to set goals. I work better with deadlines. I work better with accountability. I work better with friends and family reading my work as I go forward. So I’m going to take what I’ve done this year and run with it. I think I have enough work in here for at least two anthologies and I’m setting out my goals here.

In the first three months of 2016, my goal is to select twelve of the stories seen on my Writing Challenge page. I wish to pull them down from the site (sorry – this is a part of the process that has to happen) and get to tweaking. To making them the best stories I can possibly write.

In the fourth through sixth month, I intend to format them, then shop them around. I want to be able to have an anthology of my favorites – most likely from the horror category.

After that, I guess right now the goal is to keep writing. To keep the momentum moving. I may not be placing the stories here, but I want to do an article a week to go over progress or any daft notions that come through my head about the craft of writing or my process. I want to be out there with people from the Delaware Writer’s Group, to Reconnect with the Liar’s Club Coffee House. This should be the year of trying to become a professional at this.

An Invitation To Come With Me

Come with me through the process – because writing shouldn’t be a solitary process. As I’ve also discovered, it’s good to be with others doing the same as I have come to most Monday nights over at a friend’s place.

Thanks and Acknowledgements

There are so many people I really need to thank for the past year’s support and encouragement.

Mom and Dad – Dad, you always get around to the stories and you always have some kind of feedback, good or ill. Mom, you don’t always read the stories (sometimes, this is a good thing) but you always are on me to keep doing this because I love it.

My Girlfriend – You’re always willing to read my stuff right after I write it (unless you’re already asleep) and always ready to tell me without any reservation what works for you and what doesn’t.

Steve Myers (Premiere Alpha Reader) – For extended review sessions and telling me what I need to hear sometimes. Your input is always appreciated!

The Extended List of Alpha Readers – God there’s a lot of you. I’ve received a lot of feedback from the following folks: Dan Bogart, Jacob Jones-Goldstien, Nick Leamy, and Dan Lynn to name a few.

My TeachersJanice Gable BashmanDon LaffertyMarie Lamba, Jonathan Maberry, Jon McGoran, and Dennis Tafoya to name a few.

The Monday Night Crew – Patrick Conlon, Marcella Harte-Conlon, Jacob Jones-Goldstein, Nick Leamy and Steve Myers (Double dipping here to be sure – but they’ve earned it).

Learnings – Writing Challenges

It’s been two months since I started this crazy writing challenge and there’s been a lot of stuff learned. I wanted to set aside just a minute to think out loud, not just for myself, but also for the lot of you that have been tuning in every week.

So, here goes my impromptu session of ‘what I’ve learned during my last two months’ session.

– First and foremost, I’ve been learning to cut things a little closer to their cores. I like to let things reel out and take as long as they take. Unfortunately, in a world of dwindling attention spans, that doesn’t always work.

Skip a bit, brother.

So Brevity is a thing I’ve been working on. In my editing passes, I look for two things primarily. the first is ‘Did I say this already?’ I like to repeat myself, I think for emphasis… but it doesn’t do any emphasizing.  Second, I ask ‘Do I need this?’ If a thing doesn’t serve a function in telling the story, I axe it. I feel these two things have tightened the work. I can even see it coming up as I write, not as I edit. Behaviors are being learned, and that’s good.

– Randomness promotes new ideas. The script has been doing well by me. Putting together things I didn’t think would fit made for things I wouldn’t have otherwise explored. Moneyworkers, for instance, put wizards, the temptation of power, the corporate world, and occult societies in one place in a contemporary setting. Then I had The Ferryman in which I did a horror pursuit story in a starship featuring biotechnology and dogs. I don’t think I would have come up with these on my own. I can write about each component individually – but it’s made me explore familiar components in unexpected ways, which has resulted in sudden intuitive bursts and creative explosions.

– Being on a schedule helps the process. I have a deadline to which I hold myself accountable. Every Wednesday morning, it’s time to post, whether I feel the story is shit or not. I only missed one challenge day so far, and given circumstances, I think it warranted the delay. Plus, the following week I had a double header in which I caught up. It was both gratifying and terrifying to take on 4,000 words in a week, and I finally digested a bit of a story I’d been working on for a very long time. Even if the whole deadline is artificial, it metaphorically makes the occasional diamond out of common coal.

– I also know now that maybe keeping my personal and business lives separate in social media hampers me a little. When I started this thing, I had about forty some odd likes on my Facebook Author Page by sending out invites over the course of two years. I picked up about fifteen more in a month when I took the page to my actual Facebook timeline. And then I saw the organic outreach quadruple in my post reaches. People actually subscribe and read a lot more (or let’s be honest, people click more) when I open myself up to more than just people who like the page.

– If Facebook’s analytics are to be trusted, there may be enough people taking an interest that I can seriously research self-publication of my short stories. If I could turn even a couple of short story clicks from the blog into a paid, ninety-nine cent borrows from programs like Kindle Unlimited, I might actually be able to make beer money of the project.

– If I look at everything I’ve written since I started this, we’re looking at 22,000 words in a little over two months. This is huge progress since my writing slowed down a few years back. If I could keep this type of schedule up for editing and writing, I could finally expand into the spaces I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always wanted to write novel length work, and these little exercises could snowball into the ability to do better work in a longer form.

– It’s made me get back into graphic work again as well. Every week I place an image. It’s usually not mine – the stuff up now is stuff I find in image searches, most times with some touchups or composition work done in Photoshop – one of my first creative loves. But, it’s making me want to look into providing my own illustrations/photos or to collaborate with other creatives in my circles. I want to take all of that stuff from online down and make something I can actually post that I made between my own illustrations and my photo edit skills. Plus, it’d make for good cover art for online publication or eventual print publication.

– People care. I get a lot of feedback from a lot of places. I have a critique from one person in particular just about every week, and several others to boot with more intermittent frequency. A lot of the feedback is very useful, and that feedback often times informs the work as I progress through my challenge.

– It’s rewarding personally. For a while there, I wasn’t writing. I was just numbing myself with Netflix and video games. Wrtiting makes me feel like I’m doing something positive, something constructive. It puts me in a better mood and makes me strive for bigger things creatively.

I’m sure I’ll learn more along the way, but this is what I have for now.

In the meantime, keep reading and I’ll keep writing.

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