The short story. You love it or you hate it.
I’m on the fence. I love it AND I hate it.
Short stories (good ones, at least) are like little miracles to me. Some strange wizard has managed to fit meaningful plot and authentic characters into what would amount to a chapter or two in my regular work. Beginning. Middle. End. Maybe there were tears, maybe the characters will haunt me with their vitality, maybe I’ll wonder if I just stepped out of a literary T.A.R.D.I.S. A really good short story is like magic.
What this means is that I struggle when I write them–so, up until recently, I haven’t tried outside of the writing courses I took in undergrad.
All this changed a few months ago.
I decided to write a short story because it posed a challenge and a learning experience. Also, when I get better at writing them, I’m hoping I can get paid to publish them until this whole novel thing gets finished. Needless to say, I relied heavily on my writing group–which was unofficially nicknamed The Wandering Penguins and will be referred to as such on this blog–for feedback.
My story is about a young girl and her father in the wake of a life-altering car accident. It is literary fiction–another strange and unknown land for me–but that’s what the people want. And what the people want, the people get.
Here’s how I thought this would go:
- I write a short story
- The Wandering Penguins reviews it, I make some edits
- Submit the final draft
- Wait 5 months for a response…
- Rejoice or Rewrite and try again
Yes, 5 months. That was a surprise. I entered the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s contest and the winners are published in their winter issue, so they have quite awhile to get through each entry.
Here’s what happened:
- I wrote a short story
- The Wandering Penguins reviewed it and provided extensive edits (thanks, guys!)
- Then the anxiety hit
This is what I didn’t foresee. Like a wall of stones glued together with industrial-strength concrete made from all the little negative thoughts in my head, anxiety stopped me in my tracks.
I typically don’t get writer’s block (but that’s a post for another time). I don’t get anxious about my writing or what many people think of it. I’m interested in growing as a writer and learning how to make my writing better. I don’t shrink from criticism. I love writing and everything about it.
But I froze on this. And it was bad, guys. It was really bad.
I had the words in my head, I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to work on the story.
Because working on the story meant the possibility of failure–failing to finish, failing to make something worth reading, failing to win the contest. A finished product meant a submission to a professional journal and a lot of money on the line. We weren’t kidding around anymore.
Essentially, I realized that this was the first deadline that was at all professional for me as a writer. This was the first time I was writing something with the intent to finish and submit a worthy product by a certain time. Submitting this short story meant I actually did want to pursue a career in writing, no matter how long it took to get that career off the ground.
And that just Freaked. Me. Out.
I did end up finishing the story and submitting it (major props to my mom, who patiently played the role of Motivator via cellphone and nagged me until I succeeded). I doubt it’s going to win because I literally finished it the night before the final deadline. But at that point, it was all about finishing it and turning in something that I thought might have a chance.
No longer was this project about being published. It was about making the deadline. It became a challenge to prove to myself that I could be a professional and make a deadline happen.
And yes, it’s only one deadline. But it was the first one, the one that proves there are no excuses and no do-overs.
I can make a writing deadline. And, as someone breaking into the professional world, that is a powerful thing to have in my pocket for when that insidious stone wall of anxiety crops up again.
I am turning in a (hopefully better) draft of the same story to the Glimmer Train standard submission period later this month, so another deadline looms. There will be other contests and journal submissions, self-imposed deadlines and due dates given by others.
The next step is figuring out how to budget my time and effort so that I don’t go crazy trying to make a deadline.
My biggest takeaway from this initial foray into just trying to be a professional writer is that it’s important to take the first step. If you miss the first one, you’ve given yourself permission to keep missing them.
Missing deadlines. Not even once.