Wednesday, January 2, 2013

One-Hundred Words a Week

New Year's resolutions are often ephemeral things, gauzy graspings that vanish as soon as they try to sink their fingers into unyielding reality. Typically I'm terrible with them, often forgetting what I've vowed by, say, January 15th. But last year I came within a hair's breadth of achieving one: I told myself that I'd write a one-hundred-word every week in 2012, and the final tally stood at 51.

Now, I know that penning lots of super-short tales (also known as "drabbles") isn't some amazing achievement. Christopher Munroe has done the same thing for ages, and ISLF friend Nathaniel Lee has earned a reputation for writing them every day. But it was a good discipline for me, one that taught me a number of very basic things about the craft of fiction. If I may have a moment of your time, dear reader, I'd love to share them with you as yet another year begins.

First, consistency is hard. This axiom really shouldn't surprise anyone who's tried to put pen to paper on a regular basis, but it snuck up on me. "Hey, it's only one-hundred words," I told myself. "If life gets busy, I can pound one out in no time." Well, of course life got busy. Typically only the idle rich and the incarcerated get hours of uninterrupted time. For example, I planned to write this post on New Year's Day, which I took off from work. I didn't plan to be woken by my neighbors drunkenly singing "We Built This City" at 2 a.m. or by my sprinkler system springing a fatal leak or by my youngest child yowling ceaselessly whenever I decided it was time to relinquish baby-carrying duties. Not that I'm mining for sympathy here. That's simply the kind of schedule most of us face, and we have to manage it. I wrote "Philately" several hours after my youngest was born and finished "To Rend the Caul of Their Heart" soon after my wife returned home from the hospital. "The Flock" was scribbled during the middle of speech I was half listening to at a conference, and "Room 249" came together on a business trip. I wouldn't consider any of these shorts to be best I've written, but at least I got them done while under time pressure. However, it's also true that ...

You are not the best judge of your own work, although it feels like you should be. The composition of successful stories is just supposed roll on and on, like water flowing off of the proverbial duck's back, right? And, of course, we're only supposed to struggle with fatally flawed pieces. Well, it didn't work that way with me. I expected everyone to giggle over the absurdity of "Ursus Arctos," goggle at the twist in my Lovecraftian pastiche "Shub-Shogyn's Heir" and smirk about the satire in "Contagion Is Magic." Each of them barely elicited a response. Yet I got great feedback on "Silver Sea, Salmon Sky" and "Saint Georgette," stories that I initially thought stunk. Two pieces I struggled the most over ("Each Heart Has Its Reasons, No Matter How Still," and "Pauli's Fallacy") got picked up by The Drabblecast. You just never know.

I enjoy intricate plots and weighty themes, yet I discovered an important axiom last year: It's best to keep things simple all the way around. While subjects such as philosophical pragmatism ("Contextualization"), class warfare ("To Each According") and biomedical curtailment of anthropogenic environmental damage ("Tiny, Happy People") deserve discussion, my attempts at addressing them didn't quite work. Perhaps it was due to space constraints or an overly didactic tone, yet whatever the reason these attempts felt forced. Straightforward stories about telephone service centers ("Technical Support") and a psychic struggling with a nasty manager ("Small Things Matter") worked better. The one exception? "Ordinance," an oh-so-gross satire of Oregon's outlawing of self-service gas, which several people privately praised. They seemed to share my incredulity that topping off one's own tank could cost you a cool $500 in the Beaver State, although the dearth of public comments suggests the short was a bit too nasty for public consumption. Ooh, sorry, bad word choice there.

So I've enjoyed my year of drabbles, but in 2013 I'm cutting back to a biweekly schedule. Why, you ask? Well, for a new ISLF series, one you'll learn more about in a few days ...

(Picture: CC 2009 by jjpacres)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think also the nationwide readership plays a role. I was a bit confused by that story--sure it probably costs a tiny bit more to get self-serve, but don't many states have labor-protecting laws? But $500 per tank?!? If I'd ever experienced something like that, I'd find the story much more engaging.

Of course, I wouldn't comment publicly either, except perhaps in Oregon.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, that could be it. I was just so shocked when the attendant started filling up my tank for me -- while the car was still running!