As I write this, the judges are reviewing the submissions to this year’s Wadadli Pen Challenge. This post is inspired by two emails from would-be Wadadli Pen contenders seeking to get better. Time does not allow me to give the desired response to every single message, but I did give some time to these two out of a desire to encourage their efforts to put in the work and improve.
The second emailer wanted to know how she could make her stories shorter. This is a struggle for her, she said, because she likes to include a lot of detail. This is a complaint I’ve heard before with the Wadadli Pen 600 word limit. I do wish that even those who think 600 words is too little would challenge themselves to try it anyway, and that’s the main reason I want to share my response (edited for length, flow, and to excise personal information).
Length does not necessarily translate to more detail. Often, there is a lot of unnecessary detail, or a bloated and meandering plot.
After writing, let it sit for a minute (an hour, a day, a week, a month…however long you need to come at it with fresh eyes). Then, ask yourself, what is the story? Re-read with an eye toward focusing on that – do we need all that backstory? do we need all those asides? what is the pivotal action? does this character really add anything to the telling?
With the short story, you don’t have a big canvas – you’re not telling the story of all the lives of all the people or even your central character’s entire life; just this one chapter in the much more expansive story of their life. You need to narrow (read: sharpen) your focus a bit more in the short story format but doing so is actually good practice for novel writing. Even with the bigger canvas that you have with a novel, you still have to tie off the loose plot threads, and hone in on the details that matter: details that help to reveal character, establish setting or context, enhance mood, or move the plot forward. Moving the plot forward should always be your goal.
In editing, you can see where your plot is stuck in quick sand and where there’s a limb you can use to dig yourself out.
If none of that makes any sense, remember this –
- read a lot; read a lot of different types of stories, different lengths and genres and styles;
- write a lot (some of it will not be fit for public consumption but that’s okay, you’re doing it to build your writing muscles);
- allow yourself the freedom during the writing phase to write badly, to write unrestrictedly, to just write;
- then learn to be honest with yourself so that you can be clear-eyed during the editing phase (get outside feedback if you can).
In time and with practice you will get better.
Write the stories only you can tell (the stories only you can imagine) – don’t be imitative. And don’t think (at this point) of writing a novel (etc.), think what are the stories I have dammed up in me that need to be told that only I can tell…tell those stories and zero in on why it is so essential that you tell them. That will help guide you.
Okay, I did that in under 600 words, so I still have time to add that if you want to be notified of future writing workshops, mine or, potentially, WadPen’s, say so in Comments with your email.
As with all content (words, images, other) on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad!, Musical Youth, and forthcoming With Grace). All Rights Reserved. You can also subscribe to and/or follow the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks. And remember while linking and sharing the links, referencing and excerpting, with credit, are okay, lifting whole content (articles, images, other) from the site without asking is not cool. Respect copyright.