Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What StoryADay Has Taught Me

Welcome to Callihoo Publishing's blog!

We've been offline for a while, but are coming back with a blog from Julia West about her experiences with StoryADay.  Questions and comments are very welcome.


StoryADay is a creativity challenge.  It challenges people to write (and finish) a short story every day during May.  StoryADay was founded in early 2010 by Julie Duffy, a writer, blogger and entrepreneur.  Each May since then participants have tried, during the entire month, to write a story a day.  It doesn't matter how long or short the story is, but it should be a complete story, with a beginning, middle, and end.


My daughter discovered StoryADay in 2011, and challenged me to do it with her.

At first, I thought it was an impossibility.  Write a story every day?  Me?  I'm the person who brainstorms a story for a week, then takes a month to write and polish it.  Then I send it through my writers' group, and rewrite it, taking another week to a month.  I can write novels faster than I write short stories!  And my stories all turn out long--9,000 to 15,000 words.  How could I do that in one day?

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I tried an online challenge called Dare to Be Bad (I talk about this at http://www.sff.net/people/julia.west/callihoo/dtbb/index.htm).  In that challenge, a group got together and encouraged one another to write three stories in six days.  When my writer's group did it, we usually picked a holiday weekend when we'd have more time to write.  But never, in all the times I tried it, did I completely finished three stories in six days.  So what made me think I could write 30 stories in 30 days?

But my daughter talked me into StoryADay, and on May 1, 2011, I started writing.  I generated a random occurrence from a story generator (more about them in the next blog post), and began writing.  Much to my surprise, I was able to start--and finish!--a story that day.  It was fairly long--5682 words--and I didn't like it much once it was done, but I had started and finished a story in the same day!

Much heartened by this success, I continued the challenge.  On a few days, I wrote story poems (I had just come from a month of writing poetry for National Poetry Writing Month--NaPoWriMo).  Though shorter, story poems were almost more difficult than writing prose, because not only did there need to be a story, there also needed to be scansion, rhyme (because I usually write rhyming poems), and all those poem-y things.

That first time, I burned out about halfway through the month.  I was trying to write stories that were 5,000 to 6,000 words, every day.  That's a LOT of writing.  And to come up with an idea and write the story, all in one day--well, it was tough.

But even though I didn't write a story every day that month, I learned something about myself and about writing.  I learned that it was possible for me to write a story in a day.  Some of the stories were even pretty good.  Others (like the first one I wrote) I've never even shared with my writer's group.  Another thing I learned about my writing is that, since I've been writing for decades, and I'm used to looking at things, and banging ideas together to come up with something different, I could use that ability in these quick stories.  I learned to trust the storyteller inside of me to come up with a story on the fly, rather than brainstorming and outlining until the story started telling itself.  Without the weeks of brainstorming, some of the stories were a bit bare of bone, but that's easily taken care of afterward.  A maxim I learned years ago is, "If you don't write the story, you can't rewrite the story."  If I don't have anything to rewrite--however badly written, however scant on detail--I can't fix it.  Learning to trust my inner storyteller was the most valuable lesson I learned that first May.

My daughter likes to drag me into writing challenges.  I've done National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, http://www.nanowrimo.org/) since 2008, and "won" every time.  To win, according to the NaNoWriMo graph, one must simply write 50,000 words.  I write long, and it's usually pretty easy for me to come up with word count!  My challenge, for NaNoWriMo, is to FINISH the novel I start.  A novel for adults has to be considerably longer than 50,000 words, so I have usually written more than that--and haven't yet completed a novel in the month.

Several years ago, for NaNoWriMo, I learned to brainstorm for the next day's writing just before I go to bed.  With something fresh to mull over, with new ideas that my mind can work on as I sleep, it's much easier to pick up and continue writing the next day.  I was very seldom stuck, at a loss for what to write.  I discovered that worked so well that I decided to try it for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in April and StoryADay in May.  Generate a prompt, brainstorm on that prompt, then go to bed.  Let my mind stew over what I'd come up with.  Often, by the time I started the story the next day, I'd have new, interesting things that hadn't come up in my brainstorming the night before.  This worked even better!

Another thing I tried was taking days off.  I scheduled days during May that I would finish a story I had started before but not finished, or to rewrite a story I had finished, and had critiqued in my writers' group, but not rewritten.  This way, my brain didn't have to come up with a whole new idea every day!  That worked fairly well.  Also, as some of my other writer friends do, I took Sunday off.  Having a day with no writing helped me be all the fresher when I opened my word processor up on Monday.

I started playing with story structure.  I had judged a Micro Short Short Story contest at the local science fiction convention for decades (http://callihoopublishing.blogspot.com/2012/06/micro-short-short-stories.html), but had never written one.  After all, I write long!  How could I write a story that is only three (however long) sentences?  I analyzed how micro short short stories worked.  They're kind of like jokes, with a setup and a punchline.  I tried to get as much description, backstory, and characterization as possible in the first two sentences (which could be VERY long, with judicious punctuation), then give the payoff in the third sentence.  This actually worked quite well.  So, since there is absolutely no wordcount max or minimum in StoryADay (in fact, flash fiction is encouraged), I found I could write a story that was only 200-300 words!  That was very different from my usual "short" story being 6,000 words.  Always before, I'd approached story writing with the attitude that it should be a story I could fix up and attempt to sell.  Something I could finish, polish, and send off to a publisher.  This time, I was a bit more lackadaisical, a touch more whimsical, and it paid off.  I wrote several short short stories (some more than three sentences, but still only a page or two long).  How freeing that was!

So, what has StoryADay taught me?  It has taught me that I can write short.  I learned that I can get an idea, brainstorm a story, and write that story in one day.  I learned to trust my inner storyteller.  I learned that, with the proper polish, I can sell a story I wrote in one day.  Yes, one of the stories I wrote in May 2011 sold exactly a year later, to the day, to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXVII. (http://www.amazon.com/Sword-Sorceress-XXVII-Volume-27/dp/1938185080/)  I learned (when I handed out some of the stories I'd written that I thought were pretty bad, and found that people actually liked them) that I shouldn't trust my own inner critic.  I should let others read the stories I have written and make the decision as to whether they are worth putting more work into.

Taking the StoryADay challenge four times now has given me a large file of story rough drafts.  All I need to do with them is re-read each one, grind some of the rough edges down, and send it through my critique group.  Before I started the challenge, every story I wrote was a months-long process, and I often felt I had too much invested in them to be able to say, "Oh well, this one just didn't work out."  I can do that with the StoryADay stories.  I can gut the really bad stories for ideas that worked, even if the stories themselves weren't good enough to keep.  I allow myself to do that that because of the sheer number of stories I've generated.  Even though I've burned out about halfway through the month each time, that still gives me about 50 stories that I didn't have before.  Amazing!

I would encourage others to at least try StoryADay.  Read the encouragement emails that Julie Duffy sends out, brainstorm beforehand, work up to it if you must--but at least try it.  If you only get ONE story out of the experience . . . fantastic!  It's one more story than you had before.



Julia H. West has been writing science fiction and fantasy for years, and many of her stories, which have been published in various magazines and anthologies, are available as ebooks through Callihoo Publishing.