I issued myself a challenge at the beginning of May: turn out a polished final draft of a short story by June 1st for an anthology call for submissions. And because I’m an overachiever when it comes to making things difficult for myself, I decided to write a cozy-type story, meaning limited blood and violence. So no car chases, no shootouts, and no zombies. (Note to self, figure out how to write a cozy mystery with zombies.)
The challenge taught me a lot about writing, and I wanted to share the five biggest lessons that I learned from trying to write and submit a short story in a month.
1. Find Conflict Outside Your (Writing) Comfort Zone
Because I decided early on that I didn’t want to write my typical A-team/Jack Reacher-type story where lives are on the line. I wanted something with a different kind of drama, the kind that could be happening next door and you’d be none the wiser until news crews show up on the front lawn. That isn’t the kind of drama I’m used to manufacturing for my characters and weaving into the plot.
I had to take a step back and ask myself what kind of conflict would compel the main character to act? She’s an expert in reptiles. What if she found and had to protect a reptile that’d been thought extinct for centuries? It took a bit longer to figure out how to make the tension and conflict something that would keep me on the edge of my seat. But I did it. And honestly, I liked how it turned out.
2. Pinterest is Worse than Quicksand, and You’re Better off Avoiding It while Writing
Hi there. I’m S.E., and I’m mildly addicted to Pinterest. It’s my go-to for recipes that may or may not work, the place where I can see hundreds of cute puppy pictures, and a knitting resource if I’m looking for a how-to or a knitting pattern. Occasionally, I’ll use it to give myself a visual reference for whatever character or place I’m creating.
I’ve yet to break myself of the habit of popping onto Pinterest while I’m working, and I usually justify the trip over to the website by telling myself that I need to know what something looks like. That’s exactly what happened when I was working on “Scales.” I was working on the scene where the formerly-extinct reptile shows up and decided that I need a visual. Simple enough, right? Well, I ended up knee-deep in knitting patterns for cryptozoological creatures like the Loch Ness Monster and dragons for a couple hours. It was time that should’ve been spent writing.
3. Worldbuilding is Tough; Stopping is Tougher
Most of my stories take place in the present day or in a world that’s pretty darn close to it. That’s because worldbuilding is not my strong suite. It’s a process that requires knowing things like how magic works, how the culture looks, and the general history of the civilization. You know. little things.
Building the universe in Scales was rough, and it still challenges me when I dive back into the story. The world itself is based upon a modern-day United States but with the addition of magic and cryptids. That didn’t strike me as being too difficult when I first started. Make the gargoyle doorknocker an enchanted sentry? Cute and great show of what’s normal. Have the roommate be a psychic? Hello opportunity for foreshadowing. But the problem arose with another question: where do I stop? Or better yet, how much magic is too much magic? Maybe there are Pegasuses and people carry umbrellas to avoid droppings. Or maybe witches and wizards run supermarkets and there’s been a rash of scandals involving magicked fruit. My head still spins thinking about the possibilities.
4. You May Fail (and that’s Okay)
Deadlines are my best friends as a writer. They compel me to sit down and write until the thing is done. Otherwise I’m likely to write a hundred words here and there, stretching what should be a month-long first draft process into three months (for short stories). Like I said before, I knew that turning out a finished story in a month was a tall order. But I felt confident.
A series of unexpected–but not unwelcome–circumstances meant that I’d finished the first draft and had gotten about 25% of the way through the first revision by the time June 1st rolled around. A small part of me was disappointed. But a far larger part understood that life has a habit of happening, and writing sometimes has to take a backseat. Like when I have to put in extra time at work because I’m taking time off for a convention. And when I meet and start dating my now significant other. I failed, yes. But sometimes such is life.
5. At the End of the Day, Keep Plugging
I’ve hit a point with Scales where I’m spinning my tires, not getting any traction with revisions. The biggest reason is that I don’t know what the story needs. Does it need to start somewhere different? Do I need to weave in a subplot that’ll ratchet up the tension? Or do I need to find a way to amplify the tension in the existing story arc?
I’m not sending Scales to the folder on my desktop that I’ve named “Graveyard.” There’s something about it and its main character that keep me circling back to it. The story just isn’t ready to be told yet. So I’m going to be patient and let the kinks work themselves out in the back of my mind until everything falls into place.