If you follow my Instagram, you'll know I participated in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge last week. The basic concept is you have a week to write 2500 words, following an assigned genre, character, and theme. You compete against 31 other writers with the same assignment. If you place in the top 5, you move on to round 2 in March. You get another assignment, a shorter time limit, and a shorter story to write. Since I won't know whether I succeeded until March, I have plenty of time to obsess over the terrible story I wrote. I mean, to reflect on the lessons I learned in that week. The whole point of this kind of challenge is to...challenge yourself. A challenge is pointless if you don't learn anything from it, and I learned a lot from this one.
I'm not as good of a writer as I think I am
This is always a bit of a sour reminder. It's easy to start getting fancy when you make progress, to think you've done your share of learning. I spend a lot of time reading about writing, usually online. More and more, I've been noticing things I already know. Rather than being a total newbie, sometimes I can disagree with an opinion rather than just accepting it. After all, I've got the first draft of a novel under my belt, certainly, I know something about writing right?
That opinion changed when I saw my assigned genre. I'm not a fan of romantic comedies. I like writing things with tense atmospheres, awesome vistas, and complicated characters. As far as I know, romantic comedies have none of these. I spent a few hours laying on the couch cursing my fate that first night. I knew I was doomed to fail. Of course, I woke up the next day with an idea I felt was pretty good. I was ready to attack this challenge.
Writing this story was slow. I usually got 2000 words a day with the novel. With this, it was maybe half that. It involved a lot of research, learning the genre, and figuring out the cliches. Lesson? There's always more to learn, and there's always something I won't be good at.
I'm a better writer than I think I am
Ah-hah! Contradiction! I'm full of them, better get used to it. This one's pretty basic. I was pretty distressed while writing a romantic comedy. I knew it wasn't going very fast and the story felt forced. But the characters felt real, and they made sense. It's the kind of thing I didn't notice until someone else read it and gave me that exact feedback. I'm getting better at this writing thing, even if it doesn't always feel like it.
I write long
My romantic comedy needed to be 2500 words long. By the time I finished the first draft, it was well over twice that. I made sure to keep the story simple; it evolved over two days and only involved the two romantic leads as fully developed characters. I take a "full steam ahead" approach to my first drafts. I don't edit as I go; I try not to erase anything. That's why I (usually) write pretty quickly. I'm not sure how I can "think shorter" going forward, in case I need to do a challenge like this again. I think it's a matter of keeping the story extremely simple and focusing on one character. Not sure how one does that in a romantic comedy but hey, I don't know everything and learning's the whole point.
Editing will always be more important than I think it is
It's especially important when your story busts the word count limit. I used to hate editing, mostly because I hated reading everything I wrote. I've managed to get that to a strong dislike now. I used to think I could write without editing and my stories would still be great. That would have been entirely impossible with this romantic comedy. I had to cut it down by half. I remember thinking that was not going to happen. But it did. I ended up cutting an entire scene out and using another to achieve the same purpose. I streamlined two other scenes and deleted a lot of redundant sentences and unclear imagery. I ended up cutting out a bunch of the flowery language.
I've gotten better at spotting and killing my darlings. I've gotten better at streamlining a sentence with way too many adjectives. It's hard to believe I used to avoid editing. My stories are ridiculously better after slamming my head into the wall several times (usually happens once or twice per edit).
I don't take criticism very well
I really need to work on that one. I seek out criticism because I want a clear idea of whether my story is garbage or not. It's hard for me to tell. Even though I look for criticism, I'm always ready to defend my story when I get something negative. In my mind, I'm trying to explain the reason for that weakness or that flaw. It comes across as me deflecting criticism (which it probably actually is). Going forward I'm going to try to shut up when I'm getting criticised. I'll thank people for taking the time, then decide what I'll do with it.
Learning's good. Challenges like this provoke learning. It confirms that I love writing even though becoming a good writer's a difficult journey, one that's a lot longer than I think it is. I'm going to keep challenging myself. Case in point, I'm writing a story for an anthology and a non-fiction text for a contest this month. Both have the same deadline, February 28th. Coincidentally, that's the date I decided to start editing my novel.
Maybe eventually I'll learn to take it easy. Although I feel like I already am.