What I Learned From Failing A Flash Fiction Challenge

So, you may have noticed that I got to about day 11 of the FFFTTD and then stopped entirely.  I could make excuses for myself.  I was recovering from a bout of tendonitis.  I was preparing for a giant benefit concert at work.  I was traveling for a week.

 But, truly, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.  I managed my time poorly, didn’t pace myself, and thus burned out halfway through.

Despite flunking out of FFFTTD, though, I still found it to be an entirely worthwhile experience.  Here’s some of what I learned.

 Writing Microfiction is Hard

It is very difficult to write a satisfying story in under 150 words.  One of my major challenges during FFFTTD was trying to keep things short.  I was often so excited about the concepts the prompts would pull out of my brain that I would just want to write and edit for two hours or more.  The trouble is, writing and editing for two hours a day isn’t really sustainable for me.  I need to go to work, and read submissions, and work on contracting projects, and cook food for myself, and call my friends back, and maybe go the gym.

I’ve been really attracted to microfiction as a form and as a challenge to myself, especially after reading great pieces on sites like Wigleaf.  Generally, though, I feel like I need to have a very sharp, compact idea lined up to write a tiny story that works.  I do get ideas like that sometime.  In the past, I used to pack those ideas away because they weren’t big enough to fill 5-20 pages.  Now, though, microfiction feels feels a valid options for those ideas that seem more like a stiletto than a broadsword.

In order to be able to find the right tool for the job, though, it helps to be familiar with all of the tools.  FFFTTD definitely gave me a crash course in the mechanics of microfiction.

Writing Daily Is Not My Thing, But Writing Regularly Is

Sometimes I’m just not feeling it.  My best stories tend to be written in intense, focused bursts.  I enter a state of flow, and before I know it it’s 3 hours later and I have the first draft of a story.  Forcing myself to slog through a piece of fiction makes that state of flow harder to find.

Having a deadline and a sense of urgency, however, was wonderful.  I spent a lot less time after work playing Xbox and a lot more time writing.  Blocking out regular times for writing means I actually get things done, especially the not-so-fun things like proofreading stories and researching markets.  I’m going to try to carry that forward into my future work habits.  I like the idea of committing to planned chunks of writing time that can be spent on research and notes as well as actual writing.

And while the FFFTTD may not have left me with many polished stories, but it did give me an awful lot of ideas to draw from later on.

Community is Awesome

Seriously.  It was wonderful to have a group of people holding me accountable, encouraging me to work, and sharing their own work with me.

Also, reading and giving feedback on the work of other writers gives me energy to work on my own writing.  It’s not a sense of competition, but more like being lifted up by a mutual wave of creative excitement.  The ideal writing community simultaneously encourages you to keep going and pushes you to do better than what you’re doing.  I definitely felt that from the FFFTTD group.

It was also, of course, fascinating to read different writers’ responses to the same prompts.  Even after I dropped out of the FFFTTD, I really enjoyed reading a whole month of stories from the other participants.

I recently joined a bi-weekly writing group down here in Austin, and that’s definitely lit a fire under my shoes.  I’m also hoping to start managing my time well enough to attend a session or two of Write By Night.

Today is both the last day of February and the last day of FFFTTD.  If you missed them before, now would be a good time to go catch up on the work of the other participants.

Tara

Christian

Pinky

Olivia

Why Are You Ashamed of Being A Writer?

Ben Mirov asked this over on HTMLGIANT.  So.

I keep putting off real life and real jobs in order to have “time” to “write”, but I don’t use that time to write.  I then complain about not having any money.  I steal stories from other people’s lives.  I write speculative fiction and feel embarrassed about showing it to anyone.  I write realistic fiction and it’s not very good and I feel like a sell-out.  I have long, inappropriately bitter e-mail conversations with my mentors about the publishing industry.  I inexplicably feel like a washed-out failure at the age of 23.  I will never be as good as the writers I admire.  I write about sex and then my relatives want to read my stories.

And you?

Speculating

I’ve started taking notes on new (or to-be-rewritten) stories for the first time in quite a while.  I spent most of last year channelling my energy into editing and polishing old pieces.  The stress and system shock of moving, however, has jarred something loose in me.  I’m making things up again.

I don’t have a desk yet.  I don’t even have my own computer.  But I’m working.

Lately I’ve been asking myself questions like…

Are werewolves gluten-intolerant?

Is social anxiety partially caused by a hyper-awareness of social hierarchies?

Would a completely digitized public library bother to maintain any kind of physical branch space?

How do agoraphobes feel about underground spaces?

Do robots make good pets?

What’s a good A.V. setup for someone who almost never leaves a studio apartment?

And so on, and so on.

It May As Well Be Me


A few months ago I mentioned that I was submitting stories for publication, and that the process was like “banging your head against a wall until you make a hole and climb through”.

Well, I made a hole.

A story from Satellites, my 2010 undergraduate thesis collection, has been selected for publication by the fine little digital journal Storyglossia.  It’s called “Goodbye, Invisible Man”.  If you’ve been following me here over the last two years, you’ve seen this story go from concept to notes to drafts and beyond.  Now it’ll go live on August 5th in Issue 46 of Storyglossia.

Thanks for sticking around.

More to come.  Watch this space.

Dead Gods

When I was 19, I wrote a story called “Bookgirl and the Mystery of the Dead Gods” that I later expanded and retitled “The Animal Machine”.  It was about a clerk named Beatrice whose head was occupied by mutated fragments of old archetypes.  There was Mr. Bird (Thoth), Mr. Strobe (Quetzalcoatl), and Mr. Trench (Jörmungandr).  She dislikes this possession, but the gods give her someone to talk to.

The story had a lot of problems with structure and pacing and I eventually dropped it.  The ideas were fun, though, and I might go back to it some day.  When I showed it around to people back in the day, they said, “Have you read American Gods?”

I hadn’t.  I’d simply been reading lots of Jung and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.   Then, last year, I finally read American Gods, and then Anansi Boys, and then “The Monarch of the Glen”.  Obviously, I liked Neil Gaiman’s world.

Some time later a story came up on PodCastle called “The Nalender”.  It was about small gods who feed of belief, and a system of power based around that idea.  I liked that one, too.

A few weeks ago, I finished China Miéville’s Kraken.  I liked it.  I really, really liked it.

Gaiman focuses more on familiar, dusty gods and mythical creatures.  Miéville’s world is more animistic: anything that can be a metaphor can have a bit of god to it.  A lightbulb, a key encased in concrete, or a giant squid preserved in formaldehyde.  I love this kind of stuff.  The thing all of these systems have in common is the power of belief: the more believers a god has, the more powerful or real he becomes.

There’s something about theology/mythology that’s really appealing to areligious writers of weird fiction.  If you look at the tenents of religious belief as implausible as say, magic, it’s easy to construct a world based around them.  Lots of speculative fiction asks, “What if magic was real?”  In the last 20 years or so, more speculative fiction writers have been asking, “What if religion were real?”

These People Ought To Know Who We Are And That We Are Here

 

I realize that I hadn’t posted a single solitary thing to A. is A. for a while, and I felt obligated to write something about who I am and what I am doing here.

I started A. is A. when I was an undergraduate as a place to store the fiction I had produced and to talk about my writing process.  It was particularly helpful to me when I was working on my senior thesis.  My adviser asked me to keep track of my process, and it turns out that dated blog entries are a wonderful way to do that.

A few things have changed since then.  The most important two things are that I am no longer a student and that I am currently submitting my fiction to non-student publications.

Now that I’m not in school, I have much less focused time to write.  I am still writing new things, but I’m mainly focusing on polishing existing pieces and preparing them for publication.  Since I don’t have to write for a particular audience of undergraduates and professors, I’ve also been returning a little to my nerdling roots.  I am still writing strange mainstream fiction, but now I can also work on straight up genre fiction as well.  It’s a nice feeling to have that freedom, to return to old ideas of mine from years ago and then to try to write them with the skills I have now.

How’s that been going?  Better than expected.  Due to long waiting times for responses and “no simultaneous submissions” rules, I’ve only submitted my work to various publications about three times.  Each time I eventually received a rejection letter, which was not surprising.  What was surprising is that the majority of rejections letters I’ve received have been personalized rather than automated and tool the time to tell me that, while the story I sent them is not a fit, my prose was strong and they’d like to see more of my writing.  That’s a very nice thing to hear.  It’s that sort of encouragement that keeps me flinging out my work to different markets.  I’ve been told that you should expect to submit a story at least 10 times before it gets published.  It’s like banging your head against a wall until you make a hole and climb through.

By the way, if you are also writing and are looking for markets, I highly recommend Duotrope’s Digest.  It’s an amazingly helpful tool.

As I’ve read more about simultaneous submissions, reprints, and publications rights, I’ve realized that most publications prefer stories that haven’t been published anywhere else before.  Including the author’s website.

I will still update this site, and in 2011 I’m going to try to post more regularly.  But I will no longer be posting full-length, polished stories.  Some previously posted stories that are under consideration for publication may come down temporarily until I kind find a home for them.  I will keep you updated about where they end up, and update the story index page to reflect any new information.  While I won’t be publishing full-length stories here anymore, I will still be posting things that I don’t intend to submit for publication elsewhere.  That includes excerpts, process notes, non-fiction, and other blog-sized bits of writing.

Coming soon: a short essay about owning an animal whose consciousness is entirely alien to one’s own.  And perhaps, finally, an essay on the narratology of video games.

Blast Off

And rays of yellow paper light shone down upon me...

I turned in my thesis Monday.  I was given a shiny golden hat and tomorrow I get a parade.  Really.  The PoPoPo will be there to celebrate too, but I’m not particularly worried about that.

After I attend my orals board next week, I’ll finish my final edits and then start uploading stories here.  I’m not sure if I’ll publish the entire thing as a PDF or post the stories piecemeal over a period of time.

On Wednesday, May 7th, I’ll be giving a reading along with other creative thesis students on campus.  I’m still trying to decide which story I’ll read.

Things are happening.  Eras are ending.  I’m going, going, gone.

The Final Countdown

Strap on your battlesuits, ladies and gentlemen.

Where have I been?  Well, right here.  Portland, Portland, Portland.  Writing, writing, writing.  I’ve taken up bread baking, hiking to hot springs, and playing with action figures.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the narratology of video games.  I’ve been reading the stories of Jon Raymond, Lorrie Moore, and Justin Taylor in quick succession.

I haven’t posted any fiction here this semester because I’m so close to being done.  As opposed to posting nearly finished drafts, I’d rather make the whole finished collection available as a Creative Commons PDF for download.  Then you can read it digitally, print it out, wallpaper your bathroom with it, whatever.

The final collection will contain new versions of “Goodbye, Invisible Man” and “The Fourth“.  It will also contain the stories “Win”, “Satellites”, and “Other People’s Animals”, none of which have yet been published on A. is A.  The collection will also contain a couple of very, very short fake essays concerning various topics within the collection.  I might post those here in the following weeks for fun.  There will also be a critical afterword describing process, intention, and influence.  Because it’s mandatory.

My thesis adviser, Pete Rock, liked it when I said this collection is about “a disappointing sort of fantastic”.

My thesis is due on April 30th.  After I turn it in I’ll receive a golden crown of laurels and then party for three days.  This sequence of events is not a metaphor or an exaggeration.  This is what actually happens.

This Bird Needs Books

Like the feathered occupants of my reoccurring dreams, I’ve flown south for the winter.   For the next three weeks, I’ll be staying with family on the coast of South Carolina.  I stepped into the PDX airport around noon yesterday.  I arrived in Charleston, SC at 3 PM today.  Thanks to strange holiday delays, I spent over 24 hours straight in airports.  While it was certainly an experience, it was not an experience I particularly want to repeat.

The last month has been the sort of time period that zooms forward with little chance for, say, updating one’s half-assed fiction blog.  I did manage to finish a draft of “Champ”, but right now it holds itself together so tenuously that I’m loathe to post it here.  This blog has been helpful as a fiction repository, but not so much as a feedback generator.  I think I’m going to stick to publishing more polished pieces.

While pining for Portland and a particularly sweet distraction that lives there, I’ll probably be doing a fair bit of writing over this vacation.  Mostly, though, I’m interested in reading.  Now that I’m out of class, I can go back to self-edification.  I have a few books that I’m already set on reading, but I could always use more suggestions.

A Reading List

  • The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff – I bought this one on sale in at the PDX Powell’s when I realized that I was going to be the next day in airports and panicked.  The purchase of this book, which is 552 pages long and contains 33 stories, immediately calmed me.  It turned out to be a very worthy investment.  I’m currently about 400 pages in.  Very good stuff.
  • Kafka, by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz – Given to me as a gift right before I left town, this appears to be a biography of Kafka illustrated by R. Crumb.  So, basically, this is one of the most perfect gifts that I have ever received.
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy – I’ve been meaning to read this one ever since I heard that a post-apocalyptic novel won The Pulitzer.  The existence of the movie, which right now I’m not particularly intending to see, had the happy effect of reminding me that I needed to read the book.
  • Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace – I’ve read all the other DFW shorts collections besides this one.  It’s time.  I’m pretty sure they’re making a movie out of this one as well.  The idea of a film version of DFW fiction kind of squicks me out.  I don’t think they’ll attempt to make a cinematic representation of the footnotes.  But what if they did?


Other People’s Art

I went to a Dirty Projectors concert last night.  It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while.  I left feeling like somebody had trepanned me with a golden drill.  In a good way.  Those girls, yelping like machines!

I often have a musical loop of some sort feeding through my ears while I’m writing.  Usually an entire album set to repeat.  I don’t know if the music colors the writing, or if I select the music to reflect the story’s mood.  Maybe I should try experimenting with it and see what happens.

I’ve become very interested in Simon Evans over the last few days.  I’m fascinated by how he subjectively organizes the world through lists, graphs, catalogs, and diagrams.  I really like Symptoms of Loneliness. Also a piece in which he illustrates the process of a love affair via bar graph.  I want to steal titles from him.

I didn’t do any work at all last night, so I’ll be scrambling to catch up until Thursday.  But I do have a draft of “Gainful Employment” sitting on my hard drive that I’ll publish here in the near future.  Pinky swear.