Regular readers of this blog may know that I enjoy doing writing challenges on occasion such as the Eight Hour Fiction Challenge or E.P. Beaumont’s “Not Really SF Short Story Challenge”. What I like about such writing challenges is that they cause me to stretch myself as a writer, write something I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise and are generally great for both generating ideas and getting myself into the writing chair.
So I was quite intrigued when Dean Wesley Smith posted that he was planning to write a short story per day in July 2015. And I would certainly have loved to play along. However, there was only one problem. I was massively busy, when Dean Wesley Smith announced his challenge, juggling several translation jobs at once. So it seemed as if I wouldn’t have the time to take part in the July short story challenge.
But then July 1 rolled around, I had finished all my translation jobs and found myself with some free time on my hands, so I wrote an SF short story of 2200 words. It was a great feeling of accomplishment and when July 2 came and I still had no other urgent work to do, I wrote another short story, this time a 1600 words crime short. And so on…
After a couple of days, I had an uninterrupted streak of writing a story per day, a streak I was unwilling to break, so I wrote on, a short story per day all through July, until I found myself with 31 short stories altogether, which is – if I might say so myself – pretty damn amazing.
A few caveats: The stories I wrote for the July challenge were all on the short side. The longest story was 3300 words long, the shortest only 630 words with most of them falling somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words. Altogether, those 31 stories were a little over 50000 words long, i.e. NaNoWriMo length.
The genre range is pretty wide with a focus on the various flavours of speculative fiction:
- Science fiction: 19 stories
- Crime fiction: 4 stories
- Epic fantasy: 3 stories
- Weird western: 2 stories
- Urban fantasy: 1 story
- Steampunk: 1 story
- Historical romance: 1 story
So how on Earth do you come up with ideas for 31 short stories? At first, I scoured every writing prompt site I knew. Chuck Wendig’s regular flash fiction challenges generated ideas for two stories. iO9’s concept art writing prompts gave birth to two more stories. An old exercise I remembered from my creative writing classes at university which involves describing an object and writing a story around it resulted in yet two more stories.
After a few days, I came up with my own idea generators. Since the concept art writing prompts had worked well for me, I scoured Pinterest, Deviantart and Art Station for evocative images. In the end, 16 stories were inspired by artwork of some kind. A lot of the images I used were SFF concept art, which probably accounts for the high incidence of SFF stories.
While looking for more art to serve as a story prompt, I also hit upon an unexpected source of inspiration, namely this art book, which collects covers of men’s adventure magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the source of inspiration was not so much the actual cover artwork (largely because so much of it is massively racist and sexist) but the over-the-top melodramatic headlines found on those covers, for who could resist writing stories to go with headlines such as “Raped in the Black Waves of Terror”, “Women Who Prowl For Men” or “Mock Duck, the Mad Axeman of Chinatown” (apparently a reference to this real life Chinese American gangster). Melodramatic headlines from vintage men’s adventure magazines generated 5 stories altogether, though the headline often did not end up as the title of the story in question, because it turned out that it no longer matched the finished story. For example, of the three headlines quoted above only one, “Women Who Prowl For Men”, actually became the title of the resulting story.
In other cases, the inspiration was more random. For example, watching videos of nuclear explosions for a kaiju story beget an idea for a nuclear armageddon story. In another case, a story was inspired by a particularly funny typo. Watching the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize readings on TV caused me to write some Bachmann Prize style stories with lots of description and reference to family history, only that mine turned out to be crime shorts rather than literary fiction. And with some stories, I simply have no idea how they arose from the muck of my subconscious at all.
After a while, certain themes started to emerge with several stories being variation on a certain theme. For example, I found myself writing a lot of SF shorts set in “lost colonies” with humans living among and interacting with the remains of more technologically advanced civilisations. I’m not sure where that theme came from. I suspect it’s a result of using so many pieces of concept art for writing inspiration, since for some reason I felt drawn to images of crashed spaceships and ruins. At any rate, I’ll have a nice collection of “lost colony” science fiction to publish soon.
Another theme that emerged was science fiction stories about men, women, alien monsters and sex. Most of those stories were parodistic, featuring Campbellian square-jawed spacemen who don’t get the girl, alien monsters who do and women who wear neither brass bikinis nor serve as anybody’s damsel-in-distress. Occasionally, the women are also aliens in disguise who seduce and eat men. In short, it’s the sexual politics of Golden Age science fiction put into the blender. Again, I’m not entirely sure where that theme came from, though I suspect that the fact that I read both The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalastier and Galactic Suburbia by Lisa Yaszek, while doing the challenge, had a lot to do with that. Coincidentally, I also credit the lingering influence of Galactic Suburbia for the two serious sort-of suburban slice of life Cold War era retro SF stories I wrote for the challenge.
A third theme that showed up in several stories involved anthropormorphic cartoon animals with a twist (mostly ducks, but also rabbits), giant monsters and just outright bizarrity. These mostly showed up later in the challenge, which suggest that by then I had simply let go of all inhibitions that would have made me reconsider whether it’s really a good idea to write a story about an alien scientist disguised as an anthropomorphic cartoon character who finds himself forced to work as a mob enforcer. So if there’s one thing this challenge taught me it’s that my imagination can go to some very weird places if I let it.
Interestingly, none of the 31 stories I wrote were part of an established series or set in an established world, which is pretty much the opposite from the experience Dean Wesley Smith had for his challenge. I did start writing a Shattered Empire prequel short as well as a prequel short for an upcoming new SF series, but in both cases I set the stories aside, because I quickly realised that they would be too long for the scope of the challenge. I think the fact that I knew the characters and their worlds so well worked against me in this case, because it meant that they and their stories demanded more space than the challenge allowed. Whereas backstory couldn’t really get in the way with characters I had only created for this particular story.
However, the fact that all of the characters for the various stories were created from scratch doesn’t necessary mean that they were one-dimensional (which is a good thing, because I am not a fan of one-dimensional characters). Particularly the more introspective Ingoborg-Bachmann-Prize influenced stories cram a bit of character depth into such short length. There was also quite a bit of diversity of characters showing up in the stories. There were male and female characters, gay and straight characters, characters of various races and ethnicities as well as a few who were not human at all. Indeed, one of my favourite stories to come out of this challenge is a doomed gay romance on the eve of the apocalypse.
One thing I did notice was a higher than normal percentage of stories written in the omniscient point-of-view. All in all, I have 5 first person stories, 19 third person stories and 7 omniscient stories. I guess I defaulted to omniscient narration for seven stories, because omniscient narration makes it easy to sum up events. And the time limits of the challenge quite often demanded such summaries.
So what did I learn doing this challenge? Well, first of all, I learned that it is possible to write a short story in a day (which, to be fair, I already knew) and do it again the next day (which I didn’t know, since I hadn’t tried it before). I also learned that I can come up with an idea for a story on very short notice, which is certainly a useful skill to have. Finally, I learned that when I let go of expectations and preconceptions and just write, both bizarrity and magic can happen.
Will I do this challenge again? Maybe not for a whole month, but certainly for a week or so. In fact, the relatively dead time between Christmas and New Year might be ideal to tackle something like this again.