Short Writing Works

Every now and then a challenge comes up to write a piece within a very tight word count. These tend to be part of a writing prompt or contest, and they can provide a good opportunity to flex a different kind of writing muscle. Having a theme to work towards is also a creative challenge, setting parameters that provide a sense of direction for shorter work.

Recently I came across a piece that I wrote last year. The requirements were to write no more than 25 words, and the work had to include ‘winter’, ‘writer’ and ‘silhouette’. This is what I came up with:

A hunched silhouette

Pen gripped tightly

The writer crafts

Her work nightly

Hours are lost

Worlds splinter

As she creates

Stories of winter

I also had a go at a writing challenge put out last year by wonderful mystery writer and blogger Margot Kinberg. This one was limited to 50 words and I used the word count to set a crime scene where something went wrong.

No-one told him about the dog. He’d had a clear run. The so-called secure complex was barely a challenge, the target easily despatched. The dog had been in the lounge room, cowering. He knew he had to get out, timing was everything. But he couldn’t leave the dog.

There is something about writing in a condensed format that is really satisfying. Another 25 word challenge has been issued by the Australian Writers’ Centre, this one with the words ‘victory’ and ‘violin’ to be included. I’m off to have a scribble – it is hard to resist a writing challenge!

Do you enjoy writing very short stories?

[Photo: Avenue of Honour, Ballarat]


Notes On A Writing Retreat

I see distant mountain ranges framed by trees, a spider speeding along a railing. Birds are swooping and swaying overhead, and distant sounds carry on a warm breeze. I am in a space where there is scope to let the words fall where they may.

It is true that you cannot schedule inspiration, but you can create an environment which is conducive to it. Space to let thoughts eddy and swirl, where incomplete projects can be nurtured back into life or new projects commenced. Pockets of time in which the usual miscellany of life is held in abatement – it can and will wait for a few hours. There is freedom and wistfulness and the possibility of the exploration and creation of other times and places.

Time is passed in a casual routine of writing together, sharing what is written, and writing solo. There is something both industrious and intimate in creating in a group environment. Solitary yet not alone.

Giving yourself permission to create: it seems like something so simple but I find it is somehow harder than I expect. I know how fortunate I am to have a home where there is space to write yet these occasional days of being in a supportive and collaborative space is something else entirely, bringing a different element to what I write.

I strongly recommend participation and creation in such a space. Create it yourself if you need to!

Have you ever been on a writing retreat?

[Photo: some writing journals]

Stuff and nonsense*

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of paper shuffling. Well, more like trying to sort out the reams of papers relating to my writing that I’ve managed to jam into a filing cabinet which is threatening to explode.

By nature I like to keep things, and with my writing I like to keep a hard copy to hand. When I’m editing my work, I still prefer to print it out, although I can edit online if I have to. I do try to read my writing aloud – it is staggering the things that you find after reading and editing a couple of times, regardless of how careful you think you are being throughout the process. Online spelling and grammar checks aren’t always entirely accurate, or they may not be able to cope with the context of what is being expressed.

I recently polished off a short story that started out a year or two ago with a ten minute writing prompt. In a folder I have the typed copy of the writing exercise consisting of about 300 words. Then I have a working draft or two of the story, with various markings and scribblings of the pen as I edited and tinkered with the work. There is a copy of the version I submitted to my writing group for feedback. There were pertinent points raised, and I have marked this copy with the suggestions and corrections. Then I have my polished draft of about 1500 words.

Why do I keep so many versions? Thankfully I don’t keep every version I print, but I try to keep a copy of the major edits, just in case I slice out something substantial that I want to reinstate later, or use somewhere else.

Another way to manage this electronically would be to save the various versions as they are edited. I have a vague memory of an established writer being interviewed and saying that all the sections that were cut from the novel during the editing process were put into a separate document so they could be revived or reused if required.

I may not need to go back and revisit the various drafts of a story, but there is a degree of comfort in knowing that I have it filed away. In the future if am stuck on something I can follow the broad strokes of my  working method if required.

What do you do with your working copies?

*With a nod to the song Stuff and Nonsense by Split Enz, with a beautiful version by Missy Higgins also available.

[Photo: detail of stained glass door at the Hydro Majestic showing a variety of styles]

The solution is seldom where you look for it

When it comes to writing fiction, my natural inclination is the short story form. It is a self-contained slice which can cover the transformation of a person or situation, allowing for amazing depth within a confined word count. My starting point is often a writing prompt, a what if, a snatch of conversation or something that I’ve glimpsed.

Early on my journey of writing short stories, I read an interview with a short story writer who said that she took months to write a short story. This surprised me initially, but the more I thought about it, and the more I write, the closer to the truth it is for me. Sometimes I can dash off a first draft that feels deceptively complete. It is the euphoria that comes with writing, particularly whilst in the zone when words seem to appear on the page in a flurry of ink. But it is best to put it aside and come back to it in a day or two, or longer if needed. Some perspective is required to see if the piece really holds together as it should or whether some tweaking or major re-writing is required.

It is easy to become impatient and settle for what you have written, telling yourself it is the best you can do. But there is usually room for improvement and you need to give yourself, and the work, some time for this to happen. It is like giving your subconscious a special project to work on: clearly list what you need to revisit (a saggy middle, a lacklustre conclusion, a twist that isn’t quite right) and leave it to get on with it.

Meanwhile, get on with your life. Start another story or work on a longer project, go and do the grocery shopping or walk the dog. The brain continues to rifle through the options, and will come up with ideas and suggestions as you continue on living. Some of my best fixes have come whilst doing something completely unrelated to writing, such as hanging out laundry, being on a conference call at work or walking the dog. It is invigorating when the idea seeps through, you test it mentally for soundness and realise that it will work.

How do you solve problems in your writing?

[Photo of the railway viaducts near Lithgow, NSW]

The rhinoceros in the room

In interviews with published authors, one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘where do your ideas come from?’ It is the writing equivalent of a silver bullet, as if by being able to reliably generate ideas that are worthy of expanding into a poem, short story, novel, screen play or any other variation, life would be easier. Well, who wouldn’t like an infinite resource that generated ideas?

The source of creativity is as varied as the individuals who spend time and energy expanding thoughts, ideas and inspiration into something tangible that can be shared with other people. Some people keep track of the stray thoughts and ideas that they encounter in a book or online file that they can flick through when they are looking for inspiration at a later date. This can be a few scribbled words, images, or snatches of dialogue that can be expanded upon when ready. Sometimes these snippets form an integral part of a piece of work; other slivers may never be incorporated into something else, but unless you gather and retain this information, how would you know?

In writerly circles there are few things more discouraging than a blank page. By having something – anything – to refer back to can provide a starting point. It works in a similar way to prompts, but usually with a longer lead time. Both approaches can be used as a starting point or a mind-mapping exercise which results in something more solid.

Ideas for me sometimes come from simple acts of observation and imagination. It is often recommended that you spend time in a cafe, watching other people interact, imagining their back stories, making up what you can’t discern. I recently tapped out the following points whilst waiting in a restaurant. An older lady was also waiting:

  • Floral twin set, dark blue camisole, white sandals
  • Cameo necklace, tapestry handbag and matching tote
  • Permed hair, coloured
  • No rings, gold watch, blue stone bracelet, possible medical purposes
  • Looking people up and down, inspecting them, finding them wanting in some way
  • Tapping fingers in a silent rhythm, impatient but controlled

There was something about this woman at the time that made it worthy of recording, and I know that she will appear in my writing in some form (perhaps more than once) in time.

How do you keep track of your ideas?

[Photo was taken at the Japanese Gardens in Cowra, NSW]


Power Prompts

There are times when writing prompts can seem a bit twee. I mean, who has time to sit down and write or tap out words for 15 minutes based on a randomly generated thought or idea?

But there is something about the process itself that makes it worth the investment of time and energy. Sometimes it is just knowing that it is for a short timeframe, or that what comes out of your mind in response to the prompt is probably of limited consequence and may in fact never be used at all – this can be liberating. What does it matter if you write nonsense, as long as you are writing?

Years ago whilst travelling through Daylesford, I stumbled across an excellent bookshop. It had a mixture of old and new books, stashed in various rooms and cubby holes. It was a delight to wander around and in a spot wedged between two rooms I found the writing reference section. There were a couple of books that took my interest but the one that I left with was A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. This book has a writing prompt for every day, interspersed with lots of suggestions around how to incorporate writing into your life.  There are also insights into the habits of famous writers and lots of great suggestions on how to connect deeper with your work.

Some of my best work has emerged out of writing prompts. A writing exercise completed with my local writing group included an unidentified tool, writing from a randomly assigned genre, and the challenge of writing from another gender. From this prompt emerged a short piece which I have significantly expanded upon. It is hard to imagine how else I would have come across such an idea.

It’s all in the power of the prompt. Do you have any favourite prompts?