Integrity and ideas

As a beginning writer, I would occasionally think silly things like “I don’t have any ideas for what to write next! Maybe I’ll never have another story idea, ever!” That’s in the same category as when I broke up with a guy at age 18, and thought “I’ll never find anyone else to date, ever!”

While there are certainly plenty of positive things about being single, thinking that I would never find anyone to date again was ridiculous – kind of like thinking that any story idea is the very last one ever. I learned that there were – shockingly – a few other men in the world who I found reasonably interesting, just as I learned that I can always come up with new stories – even when I think I can’t.

In February I took an online short story writing workshop taught by Dean Wesley Smith. One of the assignments was to write a story about solitude. I thought and thought and thought, and after 6 days had two ideas, neither of which I liked. I picked one and started writing it. After a few pages I realized it wasn’t going to work at all. So I went to plan B and started writing the second … and it soon became clear it wasn’t working either. The assignment was due the next day, I couldn’t think of anything else to write about, and I was very, very frustrated. I finally gave up and decided I just wouldn’t have a submission for that week.

After making that decision, my thoughts kept going back to the assignment. Even though I wasn’t going to finish it, I wanted to understand why I’d had so much trouble.

Story idea #1 had been intended to be a scene from a novel I’d like to work on someday. The story is set in a small steel town in Pennsylvania around 1910. A young immigrant girl whose husband recently died is being pressured by her family and friends to get remarried, but she’s still grieving. The ‘solitude’ concept fits in theory, but not enough to justify this story fitting into the parameters of the homework assignment. So I tried to make her feel more sad and alone, and that stifled the story. Trying to force my idea to fit into a box was not working.

Story idea #2 was supposed to be about a man whose wife died but he doesn’t realize it – and nor does the reader until the end. The problem was that I just didn’t want to write that story. I’d read it if someone else wrote it (and if you like creepy and compelling stories along those lines, I highly recommend A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan – it’s all in second person, which makes it even more disturbing). My story felt like I was trying to add creepiness just to achieve the goal of the assignment.

The next day at work I kept thinking about idea #2. If I took out the unsettling parts it could become a decent story. It wouldn’t fit the goals of the assignment, but at least I would feel good about finishing something. After work I rushed home, wrote a little over 2,000 words, and sent it in. To my tremendous surprise, Dean’s feedback was the best I’ve ever gotten from him. I reread the story, made a few minor tweaks, and am planning to submit it somewhere as soon as I have the time to research where somewhere might be. (It’s set in the 1880s in the American West, so it’s kind of historical fiction.)

I learned several things from this experience. First, and most important: never try to force a story to be something it’s not. Once I removed the artificial restrictions I’d placed on myself, I wrote something that actually fit the goals of the assignment much better. Second: I can write a good story from a prompt, no matter what. I’d learned this a few years before, but when I gave up the night before my homework was due I thought maybe I couldn’t work with just any prompt. I was wrong. Sure, my writing is going to have my essence, and it might not fit what everyone would expect based on the prompt. But so what? As long as I’m true to myself, I will be happy with what I create.

Over the past few years I’ve written a lot of stories I would never have thought of if I hadn’t had the assignments I’ve had from the various workshops I’ve taken. Every single time I’ve enjoyed the experience – at least by the end. 🙂 So I decided I would come up with a list of pretend story/anthology names and occasionally pick one off the list just to see what happens. I found a few online story name generators, took a few names from real anthologies, and came up with this list.

  • The Endangered Piano
  • The Dark Bicycle
  • The Perfect Hammock
  • The Haunted Train
  • The Secret Train
  • Falling Destruction
  • The Year’s Mage
  • The Invisible Visions
  • Smooth Thief
  • The Lost Search
  • The Ashes of the Fire
  • The Servant’s Slaves
  • The Dream of the Window
  • Green Girl
  • The Secrets of the Silver
  • The Seventh Door
  • The Dreaming’s Touch
  • Tears in the Cloud
  • The Last Danger
  • Years in the Soul
  • Forgotten Doors
  • The Dangerous Voyager
  • The Fairy of the Game
  • Splintered Thief
  • Gift of River
  • For the Nowhere
  • On the Moonlit Metronome
  • The Mechanical Third Boy
  • The Fall of Yesterday
  • Bad Witch
  • The Selfish Book
  • The Thief
  • The Queen by a Battleship
  • The Unusual Undertaker
  • The Cup of Thoughts
  • Fortification of Whispers
  • The Legend of the Lime Undergarments of Yesterday

I’m sure it’s clear that some of these might prove to be a little challenging to write … but I will have fun!

Jasper and Rosie having fun
Jasper and Rosie having fun

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