jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

Writing a Story a Week for a Year


My presentation at Rainforest was an autobiographical report of what I learned by following Ray Bradbury's advice to write a story a week for a year. After all, he suggested, it is impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row.

I tackled the challenge because I wanted to directly investigate my creative process, and I liked the idea of entering full-time writing status with increased productivity.

Since I knew I was going to be doing the presentation months ago, I started writing what I was learning, which is great for keeping my thoughts organized, but a terrible way to prepare a presentation. What I've pasted below is all the stuff I wrote. On Saturday morning, before I presented, I rewrote all this as a bulleted list because I know if I over-script myself, I'll read what I wrote instead of actually talking to the audience. Oddly enough, I came up with ten lessons (an unplanned round number, really).

I also gave the audience a list of all the story titles, their word count, where they were submitted to now or where they sold, and my number of rejections and sales (126 rejections to 16 sales).

1. Almost every story started feeling small, stupid or insignificant. Even the ones that didn’t feel that way were simple, single-noted or slight. However, after two or three days, my interest in the story grew. What seemed trivial at the beginning took on more significance. Through working on the story, my engagement with the story increased. By the end of the week, I sometimes found I’d tied myself into a much larger and layered story than I thought when I began. A couple times the story turned out to be more than a one-week effort. I learned to trust that the story would become more interesting than it started. No matter what I thought at the beginning, the story would deepen. Here’s a way to try this on your own: use a writing prompt from someone else. All you have then is the merest kernel, but you still grow a story.

2. The malleability of sequence in writing became more evident the more stories I wrote. Details that I included at the beginning just because I needed to invent something to complete the scene (a physical description, a line of dialogue, an action) often became pivotal later ALTHOUGH I HAD NO PLAN ON USING THE DETAILS WHEN I PUT THEM IN. I reinforced the idea that I could trust my earliest decisions and use them to solve problems. Here’s a way to try this out: write richly early. Give your characters pets or eccentric memories and traits. Be specific about setting. Write odd dialogue. You’ll find your own story to be rich with things you put in at the beginning that you can use later.

3. In the same sense, the realization that an early detail needed to be added, altered or deleted when I got to a later part in the story became easier. Because I wrote faster, I became less wedded to the early stuff and more ruthless about removing or replacing it. Writing this many stories this fast revealed to me more thoroughly the wholeness and connectedness of the narrative from the process side.

4. Different impulses got me into the stories. A couple I wrote just because a setting appealed to me. I wanted to describe a place richly. Others started because of a situation. A couple started because I had an idea about language, like I wanted to write a story that built like a song, or I intentionally wanted to be poetic. One story I wrote in first person but never used the pronoun “I” just to see if I could do it. Some came from autobiography, which may be because autobiography is the low-hanging fruit of inspiration, but it’s also the stuff that feels really important as I write. I wrote from writing prompts (there’s plenty of places on the web with writing prompts—just Google for them). I wrote to themed anthology descriptions, and used the theme as a prompt.

5. I found that I wanted to try different things because the previous stories were so fresh in my memory. Like, I didn’t want two first person stories in a row, or if the last story the characters were young, then next one they’d be old. I wrote characters who were different from me (different ethnicity, backgrounds, education, vocabulary, etc.). If my last story had a downer ending, I wanted the next one to have a different feel. I wanted to try different styles.

6. Because of the pace, I grew more conscious of my first readers. The stories started to feel confessional and because my first readers know me well, I became more aware of when I used autobiographical elements I thought they would recognized. Sometimes I used those elements for fun, and sometimes I worked hard to disguise them.

7. I found that I ping-ponged when writing the stories between being really interested in the language I was using, and being really interested in the story I was telling. Weirdly enough, I think I’m a better story teller when I fall in love with the language and just let the language go than when I’m focusing on plot points and structure.

8. Story writing rhythm feels like a slinky’s motion to me, when you hold both ends and then oscillate. Things bunch up and don’t move, and then suddenly rush to the next bunch point. The thing is that I’m very self-conscious about the bunched up points, and they are frustrating or bothersome. To get through them, I sometimes have to trick myself by giving myself some immediate goal, like how much can I write before “Stairway to Heaven” finishes on my CD? Other times I remind myself that I can’t edit nothing, so I’ve got to get something on the page, even if it’s not particularly good.

9. I write better and faster if I type with my eyes closed. This is a lesson I constantly have to remind myself about.

10. My best approach to submitting the work is to absolutely believe the market I sent it to will reject it. That’s a tough state of mind to stay in, but when I submitted so much work so fast, the rejections came back relentlessly. I sold a story about one out of every eight times I submitted, so that meant I could have multiple rejections in the same week. However, even on the day I had an acceptance, a rejection later was discouraging. So, to battle the discouragement, I assumed the story would be rejected. No big deal when it came in; they were going to reject it anyways. Every sale was a pleasant and beautiful surprise.

If you've made it all the way to the end of this long post, you have persistence!
Tags: conventions, process, writing

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