This was a message I received from Maggie Slater about a week ago. I thought that it contained several gems and proved that even though she is sixty-seven years younger than I, she knows a thing or two about a thing or two. Enjoy.
Guest Posting: A message from Maggie Slater2 11 2011
So…I’m thinking of starting up another Chekhov year when November rolls around. (By Chekhov year, I’m referring to a challenge to write a completed short story a week.) To be honest, I’m not sure why I started calling it a “Chekhov year” except that I think sometime ages ago I’d read that he either wrote a short story a week on a regular basis, or wrote a letter to an aspiring author suggesting they try it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a reference for that. Maybe I just made it up. 🙂 Regardless! I’ve done it before, or attempted to do it before.
In 2003-2004, or give or take a couple years, I managed to write forty-six short stories, and cut out at November/December because I figured if I ever managed to make a living writing, I’d take those weeks off for the holidays and general decompression time. Most of those forty-six were horrible, and during the year (which my mother also participated in, believe it or not–it was our mother-daughter project to trick us into writing more regularly) there were many late Friday nights when I was slamming out a really, truly unreadable piece of crap just to “finish”. These endings are now called “bear endings”–not at all for the lovely Elizabeth Bear, but because many of these stories ended in the wee-hours before Saturday 12AM with a totally random grizzly bear rushing into the story and killing all the characters, because I had to end the story and I hated everything about it. Needless to say, very few of those stories ever saw the light of day. BUT, I actually have sold two of the stories from that year, and I’ve got a handful of others that aren’t too horribly shabby either. (Ki’o Ahi was one of them, as was Earthbound (though you haven’t seen that one, and won’t, until I finish editing it).)
I learned quite a few things from that year, foreshortened or not. The first was how to write a short story. Not a truncated novel. Not a 15k novelette. Not a 20k novella. An actual, honest to goodness short story, which previously I’d had immense trouble accomplishing. “Mimicry” (clocking in at 11.5k, and just came out a little while ago in Leading Edge Magazine) was the second story I wrote during that first Chekhov year. I wrote almost all of it between Thursday-Friday night, and I think had one session that was almost 7k long all said and done. It was murder. After that, I swore to work on coming up with shorter ideas.
I also learned that ideas aren’t really that hard to come by. When you have to write a new story every week, you MAKE UP an idea and go with it, even if it’s shitty (which it often was–I had one short story that was literally about a weird, semi-futuristic, semi-Bill-and-Ted Classic Rock fan having a discussion with a friend about how hard it was going to be to break the news to his father that his fiancee was a Heavy Metal fan, as his father was a staunch traditionalist.–YEAH. That bad.) Despite having some real stinkers, though, I also managed to find some real gems that I hadn’t expected, simply because I *had* to sit down and write, no matter what, and produce something that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even now, though there are some stories that were just… terrible…, there are a few that I’d like to revisit sometime to mine ideas from because the core was good, even if the writing was bad. It also pushed me into genres and weird genre-crossovers I would never have seriously considered before, which was a lot of fun, whether or not I was any good at them.
The last thing (or last significant thing) I learned was the value of writing a lot of junk. If you haven’t picked up on this already, I’m a rather asinine perfectionist when it comes to fiction, and I can really lock up my own creativity freaking out about whether or not a story is “working” or whether or not I’m allowed to use “to be” verbs (thanks to a particularly awesome, though insane, English teacher in high school who took points off essays for having any use of “to be”–seeing “was” on the page still gives me pangs of guilt). I don’t normally let myself write junk, which slows everything down, because ultimately, sometimes you just have to clean out the creative pipes of all the crappy stuff that’s gotten stuck there so the good stuff can get through. I did NaNo last year and *hated* every moment of it because all I kept thinking about what HOW MUCH WORK it was going to take to make what I’d gotten down even remotely readable, and I dreaded it so much, the last 15k of the “novel” is just a long rant about how much I *really* hate this story and how much it sucks and how much I could be doing “useful” writing on something else instead of torturing myself. I’m not doing NaNo again this year, if only because my attention span is still working on that whole novel-length sustainability thing–but THAT is another whine all together, and I’ll spare you for now. The Chekhov year has the built-in benefit of changing projects quickly–so if I hate something, I just have to finish that short draft and move on to the next one. It works well with my flighty attention span. 🙂
ANYWAY, that’s my random rant. I haven’t been able to find any writers in the local area yet (working from home creates this weird vortex of self-enclosure, and working West Coast hours on the East Coast definitely compounds that, since I don’t get out until about 7PM everyday), and needed to brain dump this massive idea-thing on somebody else who might actually–if not find it interesting–at least understand why it’s rather nuts to think about trying when I’m already stretched thin with the day-job, other long-term writing projects (oh, yes! I’m going to try to keep two separate writing sessions, one for this challenge, and one for “other” projects so they don’t cancel each other out), AND trying to actually get to the gym more than once every four years. Oh, and like, being even remotely social.
Also, I’ve noticed I adopt a rather pompous writing style when communicating with you. I think I’m trying to sound smart. (I don’t often use “rather” or “often” in everyday conversation.)
Hope all’s well! Say “Hello!” to the Lovely Lady and the Sweet, Oblong Doggie.
Wisdom. Learning to write a SHORT story can be a real challenge, and finishing is one of Heinlein’s rules. Hope you took notes. There will be a test.
For more Maggie visit her blog.
The Science of Slater