A friend recently asked me to enter a very short story writing competition with her. With a lot on my plate from the day job, to being really close to finishing a project I have underway, to a notebook full of my back burner ideas just aching to be worked on once I’ve finally finished the project at hand; my first reaction was, “I can’t do another project right now.” But, as I mentioned earlier, it was a very short story, the 750 words or less type of short. Flash fiction.
Since I’ve noticed that short story competitions are a lot like going to the bathroom in groups; each individual is perfectly capable of finding it, going, and making it back just fine, but it’s rare to see; I ultimately decided to work on a submission too so we could workshop our stuff and both benefit from an added boost of confidence on our respective pieces before submission. It makes perfect sense in a writing situation although I still prefer to pee alone.
I’ll admit, that I’d gone into it a bit on the arrogant side. “It’s only 750 words! I could do that first thing in the morning before coffee with my smoking hand tied behind my back.” I’ll assume the guffaw I’m hearing right now is coming from my own head. Sure, meeting 750 words is easy. Stopping at 750 words isn’t even hard. What’s hard is fitting a beginning, middle, and end into 750 words.
Another thing I must come clean about is that I kind of like to hear myself write. Instead of one sentence that would work just fine, I come up with five or six really pretty ones and try to shove them all in. And, of course, I’m great at pointing it out in other people’s work but completely miss it when it comes to my own. I quickly started muttering, “Why the hell did I think this would be easy? This can’t possibly be done!” Which became, “Perhaps I can come up with another idea. Maybe it’s just the idea that doesn’t fit into so few words.”
To jump ahead and give you a spoiler for this episode, I stuck with the original idea. It absolutely did fit into the word limit. I didn’t have to toss anything I really fell in love with. And, most importantly, I learned something about writing constraints.
Contrary to the definition of “constraint,” it can actually be freeing, especially to a writer like myself who tends to write herself around in circles. I have relearned the importance of the simple sentence. Subject, predicate, period. Certainly, the general flow of the piece is still important. Reading aloud to catch yourself on stumbles is still a really good idea; and comma use is still just as necessary. But realizing that I have a tendency to use the $20 sentence to improve flow rather than cutting down and simplifying the previous sentence, has been incredibly freeing. It’s actually helped my creativity. How can I say in five words what I would have said in a paragraph? What’s the stronger word? Which word carries the right connotation?
Of course, I don’t know how well any of this has worked out. I still have a couple of days before the deadline, and I plan to use every second. If I don’t get anywhere with the competition, I still have a story to use for my other project. You know, pick the topic for the final paper in one class based on its usability for another. Although, in honesty, I probably will flesh it out a bit. It is a little more direct than I would have planned on my own, but it works.