In the middle of everything else going on, Lisa Silverthorne and I have embarked on a short story dare. For the past six weeks, each Monday we’ve alternated giving ourselves a prompt, and written stories (due midnight Sunday). This process is modeled after Heinlein’s Rules, and was advocated by Dean Wesley Smith back in the stone ages when Lisa and I were first learning. Dean (and Kris Rusch) called it “Dare to be Bad.” It was quite controversial in its day.
Sometime later, I think Mike Resnick talked to Dean about the transition to the next level, which he called “Dare to be Good” and which is an interesting topic to consider, too. There’s a different mindset to “Dare to be Good” … some of which might just get touched on below.
I’m writing this today because for the first time in our little jaunt, I was late on a deadline—I didn’t finish the story that was due last Sunday until this morning. My tardiness will not absolve me of my deadline for next week, of course. So I’ll just have to suck that up.
But it happens.
Given that we did six stories in six weeks for a recent anthology workshop and now are on this streak, I can say that while I’ve always found the act of writing a short story interesting, the act of writing a series of short stories in such a relatively short period is even more so. As they say, you never really learn how to write, but that instead you only learn how to write the story you’re working on and then you have to start all over again. I described it in a recent email to Lisa as feeling like you’re a perpetual beginner.
That said, one of the things that this 11+ story jaunt is reminding me is that a lot of what I’m fiddling with is information flow, and that there’s a lot more to basic information flow than just putting words and thoughts into a stream that makes sense. There’s a flow associated with getting to know a story. A feeling, maybe. In addition, so much of a short story’s basic structure makes a lot more sense once I’ve figured out what the piece is about (What it’s about to me, anyway. The reader is welcomed to consider what I write to be about whatever they want it to be about).
I find that I often struggle with a manuscript until I decide what a story is about, and then it often tends to come together quite quickly after that point. It is, unfortunately, more complicated than that, of course. Sometimes issues are related to characters I don’t know, or situations that are skewed some way, or knowledge I don’t have. Sometimes it’s other stuff. Sometimes it’s because I’m having a confidence meltdown.
The issue with doing anything creative, or anything uncertain is that when things go haywire, the cause could have a thousand root sources—and you feel like you have to find the exact root cause before you can make things better.
Such is life, right?
Sometimes it’s a mix of several things.
This was, for example, among the problems with the story I missed my deadline on—I didn’t really know what the story was about (or, in reality, I was changing what it was about like it was oil on a hot skillet…at various points I was writing like it was about three different things). However, I had also made a basic rookie mistake at about the 3,000 word mark, but charged on to 4,500 words and gotten myself stuck on plot points. I beat my head against that barrier for a full day until I finally stopped the insanity, threw away the 1,500 words that sucked, and ran a different direction. A day later the story was “done.”
The point that’s relevant to you, however, is that I think this is the way of all life.
So many people think they know what they are actually doing—they think there’s a process for accomplishing something, and you just sit down and do it. I ran into that all the time in Corporate America. But then you ask what happens when “X” occurs, or “Y” and you find that mostly people just kind of wing things until they work.
And if they miss a deadline, then they might have to listen to the boss bitch a bit, but they still go to work the next day and try to make it up. If you make a mistake, you just try again.
Writers, though—some writers, anyway—can get caught up in the quest for quality and get tied up into knots. They worry. They fret. It’s a double-edged blade: write fast and you’ve been told it’s going to be dreck—but slow writing is often due to the fact the you have no idea what you’re doing, and so it can make you feel incompetent, like you’ll never write a decent sentence ever again in your life. And if they hit a bump, they think the spigot is broken.
The spigot is not broken, though. Not forever. Life goes on. I fixed my problem by letting myself take a step back and look at it from a bunch of ways, but then basically just reminding myself that I can do this, diving in, and trying on ideas that felt right until I saw the light—or at least a light that I liked. And then I charged on.
That’s what I’m carrying away from this stint, though.
Build your craft. Trust your craft. Work as fast as you’re comfortably capable of working.
But create something you’re proud of, regardless of whether it “sells” or not, create something you’re proud of.
You’re capable of more than you might think you are.
And, in the end, if you hit a snag—a real snag … a thing where when you look at something you think it’s truly garbage, then sure, give yourself permission to blow a deadline, and go back. But don’t let the fact that you missed a deadline keep you from hitting the next.
Or enjoying the process.
So, yeah, Dare to be Bad: leap into this big goal of a story a week. Have fun. If you write something that doesn’t work, it’s not a big deal. But Dare to Be Good, too: if you know something isn’t working, give it room to breathe until you can do something you’re proud of.
It’s all so simple right?