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Five dollars for your thoughts

This weekend was the Writers Weekly Spring 24-hour short story competition. Pretty self-explanatory: You pay $5, they send out a writing prompt mid-day on Saturday, and you have 24 hours to submit a story that's inspired by the prompt. I did it in 2005, too, and wrote Small Sacrifices, which didn't win anything but a random door prize.

I had my heart set on writing something funny, but the prompt was decidedly dark and mysterious. I decided to go for it anyway, using the prompt according to the rules but trying to turn it around a bit. I mapped out the story out on Saturday, wrote it Sunday morning, did a word count and realized it was two times longer than the 1,000 word-limit. It took a while to edit it down--and the clock was ticking. That's a lot to cut--some of the funny parts had to come out. Not sure if what I was left with was any good. But I think it wasn't bad. Probably worth the $5, at least. It won't win anything because I never win anything.

Anyway, I like this contest because the entry fee is next to nothing and yet it's just enough to motivate you not to blow it off. The deadline forces you to get started right away (late entries are eliminated). And it forces you to finish a story rather than languishing and fussing over it for days and weeks and months.

With non-fiction or reporting the pace is fast. At work, I get pumped up when a story is going well and the deadline is approaching. The parameters are finite: You pick a topic, you gather the facts, you analyze and organize and make sense of the information, and then you put it all together in a format that makes it easy for the reader to understand. You bang it out and you pass it in. You hope people enjoy reading what you've written. But it's more important that you clearly convey to them the information that they need. Ideally, the writing is so clear that it fades into the background, transparent, even invisible. At work I type fast and loud ... the only time I slow down is when I'm doing a final read-through or trying to think of a good headline.

When I'm writing fiction, I type slowly and quietly. I don't have notes or transcripts of interviews or research or background articles. I want the story to make sense but I don't care about making it easy for the reader and I don't want it to be simple. I don't hand them an inverted pyramid of facts. There are no facts. There is nothing concrete, nothing indisputable. It's all in my head. And I'm thinking about everything all at once--the plot and the setting and the characters and the exact right words and phrases. The process of putting those elements on the page (or the computer screen) is delicate and painstaking. If I don't remove them carefully from my head they float away.

And writing like that is exhausting. I took a long nap on Sunday afternoon and slept deeply enough to have that recurring dream about trying to graduate from high school. It makes me laugh when I do spend time writing: What if I wrote fiction for a living? I'd have to write every morning and nap and dream away every afternoon.

Actually, that might not be so bad after all ...

1 comment:

karenology said...

That would be a lovely life indeed :)