write and win
Are you Austin's next literary luminary? Find out by submitting to TheChronicle's Annual Short Story Contest
November (aka National Novel Writing Month) is nearly over, and you never really found the time to finish an entire novel and complain about not shaving all month, did you? Nothing to be done about it, the year’s almost over. Might as well stay business drunk all December and try to make New Years count, amirite?
Wrong. You still have a chance to redeem yourself, by submitting an entry to the Austin Chronicle’s Annual Short Story Contest. You must write a short story of no more than 2,500 words, print it on 8.5 x 11 paper (double-spaced), and include a cover letter with your name, address, phone number and the title of your story. Your name must NOT appear on the manuscript. You must have the story postmarked by December 15th.
Really, 2,500 words is a relatively small canvas to work on. It doesn’t take very long to write—but it has to be lean and focused and accomplish a great deal with a small number of elements. Here are a few helpful suggestions, informed by years of tirelessly working at failure, and trying to find some logic to it.
Stop focusing on other people’s writing habits.
When it comes to the tools they prefer, the time of day they begin work and the spaces and environments they work best in, the habits of famous writers have been documented and catalogued and are available so that you might imitate them. But you will still need to make intelligent decisions about the conditions that work best for you. You might imagine you work best late at night, because you think being a night owl is glamorous, but then find the lifestyle unsuited to a daily writing habit. You might try to carefully outline your work in great detail, like James Patterson or Iris Murdoch, and find that you lose interest once you know the ending. You can love an author, define your life by their work and even seriously consider yourself their rightful literary heir without forcing your creative energies into a mold cast for someone else. There is no shortcut. You will arrive at your odd authorial idiosyncrasies the same way everyone else does: trial and error and error and error.
Learn how to keep a secret and when to start.
There is a difference between the creative daydreaming that is the lifeblood of the creative process and endless destructive fantasizing. Here is how to tell the difference: you aren’t dreaming about the story or the characters, but about having written the story, having finished all the work and being able to enjoy your prize. You’ll have plenty of time to practice witty and charming things to say to Coco on your book tour while you are in the process of writing, I promise, and you will still be able to hatescroll through Facebook pictures of your ex and think about how jealous they’ll be of you when they read it. But you’re not famous yet.
And while you’re walking around dropping hints at your indifferent roommates that this is the one, this is the story that will finally get you your due, the moment is passing. All of the juicy, vivid details you wanted to find a place for slid right out of your head because you didn’t write them down. You thought the idea was so good you could neglect it for a few weeks and enjoying thinking about writing it, instead of writing it. Now that you’ve explained the story to your friends, you’re bored with it. This is the lather, rinse, repeat that produces a thick stack of unfinished stories whose ideas were allowed to wither on the vine.
When do you start writing something? As soon as you decide to write it. The story goes that Roald Dahl found himself without a pen when inspiration struck, writing the plot for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the dust on his back windshield. Imagine how different your childhood would have been if he had said “Oh, I’ll probably remember.”
Don’t cheat the reader.
The reader arrives to your story expecting to experience something, and the quickest way to shut them out of the world you’ve created is to try to explain everything to them. This is how Katie F. Perry, the first place winner of last year's short story contest, describes her main character stowing a sick fish in a cabinet to hide it from the children in her daycare:
"I'll put him where the kids can't see him," I said. "In the cabinet."
When I picked up the bowl the smell of the water made me gag. That's the other thing about that morning–I'd just figured out I was pregnant. Accidental.
In that one word, “accidental”, she compresses a great deal of character detail and forces the audience to complete the rest of the story themselves. In a second you know she wasn’t expecting to get pregnant and doesn’t know what to feel about it now that she is. When you trust the reader to create the story with you, you allow them to take ownership of it, to make a part of it theirs. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Spend time with your words.
When I edited my own work as a younger writer, I would blaze through a sheet of fresh copy, gliding over any thorny patches to get to the well-written portions—the part I enjoyed reading. At the time, I treated editing as if it were about reading over my favorite parts of each draft and saving the difficult questions for later. The parts I skipped were usually betrayed my weaknesses, areas where I had made decisions in order to avoid having to work at things I was terrible at. I would do ludicrous things like write a scene where two characters get into an argument that escalates to the point where physical violence has become inevitable and have them suddenly shake hands and walk away. I dreaded having to describe a fist fight and took the coward’s way out. But the only way to learn how to write a fight scene, to arrive at the right rhythm of choppy, short sentences that properly conveys the interaction of enraged bodies in motion, is to actually write a fight scene. Creative growth is not a passive process. It is about pushing yourself out past the boundaries of comfort, because no one else can or will.
Stop reading lists of writing advice on the Internet and get to work.
Now that you’ve read all that, it is time for that standard disclaimer: my advice may not work for you. You may find you work best trying to imitate the offbeat working habits of all of your literary heroes while blabbing your new story all around town and over explaining every aspect of the it to the reader. Internet writing advice cannot describe your journey to you before you’ve started it, and the solution to that problem is not to consume a lot of it in hopes you’ll be inoculated from failure. If you need something to inspire you, to get you fired up about your work again, watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk or listen to Ira Glass talking about the long road of failure that inevitably precedes creative success. Then spend a few minutes reveiwing the contest rules and reading the work of past winners of the contest, to get a feel for what they have published in the past.
Then get to work.