A Short Story a Day: A Post Mortem
In the idiom of video game and software development, a “post mortem” is a review of a completed project. The goal of the post mortem is to look at what went right and what went wrong, with an eye to repeating the successes and avoiding the failures in future projects.
You could also call it an “autopsy”. But that seems so … gory, and a bit gross. Like the project died.
Yes, yes, yes. I know. “Post mortem” means “after death”, but it doesn’t seem so … ick. And there’s no scary squeals of bonesaws and disgusting gloppy sounds and mucking about in– You get the idea.
So, yeah, it’s a post mortem.
I’ll start with a bit of background about the project.
A Short Story a Day
I first had the idea for “A Short Story a Day” (ASSAD) in late January 2006. I had just sent a short story to a local writing competition, and I had just finished the–we’ll call it the third–read-through-with-revisions on my first completed novel.
I knew that I needed to work on my writing. A couple dozen agent rejections seemed to indicate that.
Further, in my latest read-through-with-revisions, I noticed how much my writing had improved from the first 2/3 of the book (written in 2003) and the last 1/3 (written in 2004 and 2005). I’m sure I owe this discovery to restructuring the book, taking parts from the last 1/3 and putting them beside parts from the first 2/3.
Viewed that way, it became obvious (to me, anyway). I had become a better writer in the process of putting 145,000 words down on paper. Which made perfect sense. If for no other reason than because before I started those 145,000 words, I hadn’t written more than about 50,000 words of fiction in the decade prior to that.
I had never, I realized then, worked to improve my writing. That is, I had written stories and even had a non-fiction book published by that time. But–
I had never tried to get better. Never sat down with the intent of improving how I strung words together.
I’d been lucky up to that point, I think, building on a natural love of verbal expression and extensive reading. I could write coherent sentences to present a point, describe a process, or even tell a story in a way that “didn’t suck”.
The time had come, I decided, to take my writing more seriously. To focus on writing as a skill and a craft. To work with intent to get better. To move past “doesn’t suck”.
My first novel, unfortunately, took about eleven non-consecutive months to write. And those eleven months were spread across two years. Three if you add in the original planning period.
I didn’t want to take three years to write another novel and get only marginally better. It just didn’t seem efficient.
About that same time, I read an article about a man who, for no reason I can recall, spent a year designing and constructing one hand puppet a day. I think I read that in a Reader’s Digest while waiting for my wife at a hair salon, but that’s not really important.
There I was, thinking about improving my writing, looking for a way to be more experimental and with a faster turnaround than seemed possible one novel at a time.
So why not, I thought, write a short story a day for a year?
The idea scared the crap out of me.
But it also seemed like the perfect idea.
And here we are, not quite a year later.
What Went Right
1. I wrote a lot of stories!
202, to be exact. Not exactly one story a day, but not a bad average either. Overall, that comes to about 230,000 words of fiction, and about 30,000 words of non-story posts. Here are the month by month totals:
For the first 41 days of the project, I literally wrote one story every day. Then I attended a conference, which lost me a week. When I got back, though, I resumed and wrote one story every day for another 18 days.
Then the pattern broke.
For half of April, and all of May, another project of a sort that I tend to obsess on brought ASSAD to a halt. I started up again in June and remained (mostly) constant after that, with a revised goal of writing 5 days each week.
2. I wrote in a lot of genres!
When I started the project, I figured I would be writing a lot of fantasy (mostly modern fantasy) and science fiction. That’s not how it went down, though. Color me surprised. Here’s the breakdown:
Yes, that adds up to more than 202. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure how to classify a story, so I would list it in both categories that seemed to fit. Or, in a couple cases, when I knew a story was “modern fantasy”, but it could also be seen as “horror”, I would mark it as both.
Speaking of horror … I wrote my first horror story (or what I consider horror, anyway) within the first week of the project. Surprised me. I had meant that story to be more of a modern fantasy, but it went darker than I expected. Horror wasn’t a genre I ever expected to write, certainly not in any quantity.
Neither was “contemporary”, by far the largest part of the content. Most of the contemporary stories, I think, came from the short format. When you’re writing a story in only 500-1500 words, you don’t have room for a lot of setting. And without the setting, or the trappings of the settings (like rayguns, space ships, swords, etc.), it can be hard to distinguish some genres, like science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. In other words, a lot of the stories were about people interacting, which could have been from any time and happened any place. Which is cool, in some ways.
Of course, I’m not saying that genres can’t be done in short stories. Just that from what I’ve seen, most genre short stories aren’t in the “short short” category or in flash fiction. For example, the “info dump” required to distinguish a space opera from a western when you’re using less than 500 words is often hokey. Or just bad.
3. I expanded what I write about!
In the same way that I expanded the genres I write in (compared to what I had written before), I also wrote about many things I had never even considered writing about. The most obvious examples are violence, gore, and sex. I branched out in those areas considerably. But I also wrote about religion for the first time and touched on philosophy here and there.
I wrote about relationships, misgivings, bad decisions, good decisions, life styles, and more. I did slice of life, autobiography, biography, biography-disguised-as-fiction, autobiography-disguised-as-fiction, male viewpoints, female viewpoints, child viewpoints, non-human viewpoints, non-humanoid viewpoints, evil as mundane, people as monsters, monsters as people, …
I’m still a bit hesitant on the topics of religion and intimate sex, but I can see me working past those as I continue forward.
4. I expanded how I write!
Before this year, I was pure third person limited omniscient, past tense only. I’ve now written in first person, and many more variations of third person (varying in how “inside” the head of the viewpoint character the narration is). I even wrote in present tense (twice; still not thrilled with that style of writing, but I can see now that it has its place).
And, because I wrote so many short stories, I think I’ve become much better at structuring and writing short stories. Makes sense, neh? Before 2006 I had written very few short stories. Now I expect to write at least a dozen or so a year. And not just out of habit.
I also think that I became much better editor (at least for myself), which has affected how I write. I’m much more comfortable now hacking away parts of a story (or article) that don’t add to the overall work. And much better at recognizing those parts.
This growth as an editor stems from posting the stories to a public blog, and from the feedback of some readers, especially my wife.
5. I wrote two novels!
Well, one novelette and one short novel, but still: TWO NOVELS! So that they wouldn’t screw up ASSAD, they are novels composed of (mostly) independent and interrelated stories. Before this year, I would never have considered writing such a thing. And now I’ve done it twice. I’m even thinking I’ll do it again.
6. I attracted readers!
Not a lot of readers. At the time I decided to end the project ASSAD attracted a couple hundred readers a day.
But that was without any overt advertising or promoting the blog. The closest I got to advertising was including the link in my NaNoWriMo forums signature.
What Went Wrong
Enough with the self congratulations already, neh? Time to look at what didn’t go quite as planned.
1. I didn’t write a story a day–and it hasn’t even been a full year.
Like I mentioned, I did write a story a day for 41 days straight. That’s impressive. And I wrote 202 stories. Also impressive.
But, yeah, that’s not a story a day for a year.
In fact, the “year” isn’t over until 7 February 2007. And here it is 27 December. What gives?
Mostly, the “give” is the New Year. It’s just too damn convenient.
Plus, there were these other considerations:
2. I never did write a second person, future tense romance.
Or any other kind of romance story. Well, there is one story that might be considered a romance. But it’s a stretch.
Also, I didn’t write as much science fiction as I intended. Not only for the setting reasons mentioned above, but also because the genre intimidated me. I might have to launch a new project in the future specifically to overcome this mild phobia. I started reading SF in 4th grade, and continued all the way to the present (though I haven’t read much lately). I want to write it too.
I only wrote two westerns. But since one had zombies and the other had fantasy elements, I didn’t bother creating a “western” category.
And I’m not really sure what made me tackle poetry. The hell was I thinking?
3. I’m still squeamish.
Religion, sex and politics are topics I’m more comfortable avoiding. Both for reasons of personal discomfort, and because (like most Americans) I prefer to be non-confrontational. Well, non-confrontational-ish.
I’m getting better at looking into the morass of the human soul (and my own) and not averting my eyes. But I know I have a ways to go yet.
4. I didn’t get a lot of feedback.
By posting the stories on a public blog I expected to get more comments than I did. Maybe even some critique. Not much of either showed up, despite the number of daily readers.
I think it means I need to be more controversial.
5. I still have a lot to learn.
That’s obvious. And inevitable. I don’t think you can ever know everything about writing (or anything else).
And that’s it, really.
I’ve had a lot of fun writing a lot of stories, and learning as I go. I’m looking forward to writing more and learning more. And because I like posting short stories to the Web, I fully intend to post stories to this blog. Just not every day.
The “A Short Story a Day” project is now officially ended.