So I did it. I submitted my a short story to a competition: the first ever since I graduated from my teenage years. It was certainly an interesting process, and with the intent to continue competing it will be a process I have to get used to.
I started with 2,000 words of a ‘Story a Day in May’ attempt that I had never quite got around to finishing. I liked the concept, I had devised a dark and tenuous twist for it and felt I knew how to pitch the character just right to accomplish the mood. When I sat down to complete it I was introduced to the habit I wrote about in a recent post – the fact that I procrastinate in my fiction, stalling for time so that I don’t have to end it just quite yet. As I said then, I had to force myself to draw the narrative to a close and eventually I got those final lines down.
Then came the next challenge: Editing.
The competition called for fiction up to 4,000 words. Thanks to my procrastinating skills this story was now over 6,000. I had to rid myself of two scenes I really liked and one that I wasn’t sure even made sense. This necessitated some carefully checking to ensure that the story still got told and that I hadn’t left in any reference to the discarded scenes. In one case, I had to drop a few details back into the work just to ensure the arc of it remained intact. Most of the cut paragraphs came from the final third of the story: which demonstrates my penchant for rambling narrative in order to avoid ‘the end’ (even though I was working toward the perfect final lines!).
Most of what I got rid of consisted of additional characters that really didn’t add too much to the dramatic tension I was attempting, nor did the dialogue really tie in with the inner monologue style that I had determined for the point of view. Mostly, it seems, they had been written to explore how my protagonist would react given certain situations and opportunities to explain himself or to identify what what going on. So, while they were useful in a writing sense, they certainly didn’t need to be included for the benefit of a reader (I hope).
After that very cathartic process, it was the little things: grammar, word placement and description. I know I have a tendency to avoid taste or smell, so I found some really poignant places to slip a couple of those in to heighten the experience of a scene. Having cut the story by a third I had a few sentences that hung abruptly at the end or start of new paragraphs – so I added a few breaks to mark the shifting scenes and hopefully punctuate the action. Then, I asked a couple of people to look over it: my Mum for proof-reading (she doesn’t pull any punches – she always ‘expects’ better), my Dad to ensure it made narrative sense (he doesn’t read much so he’s a good barometer for the ‘big picture’) and my partner to discover if it was ‘gripping’ enough.
Okay, so these are all people who know and love me which generally isn’t the best tester audience. However, in my defence I had to do all of the above in less than a week – so I had to rely on people who had a stake in my success. I also knew they would each pick out different things, so it was useful in that sense too. While my Dad enjoyed it (he would have said that if it had been a shopping list!), my partner (who knew the twist) suggested it lacked narrative clarity toward the end (I’m paraphrasing) and my Mum admitted it didn’t grip her (although it’s not her type of fiction).
One of the most difficult things I had to overcome, however, was my own feelings about the story. I knew it could be good: the concept and character were intriguing and mysterious. But, during the writing process I discovered I really disliked it. Over such a short space of time I leaped from really loving it to seriously considering not submitting because I thought it was utter trash.
C’est la vie.
I suspect we all hate our writing at some point – and I was living in such close quarters with it over this week that the microscope was in maximum magnification and all it was showing were the flaws in my writing. What I really needed was to take that step back and relax: realising that the final reader doesn’t get to know what I didn’t put in, and so won’t miss it. They will never think ‘oh, this is the part where he should have gone to his own funeral’ because they won’t know that this is a section I removed or why he has no issue with looking in the mirror at a face not his own (the scenes I liked). I will only be judged on what was written: and, all said and done, I think that the writing was pretty good. Although, like all writers, I think I could have done it better given more time (recognise the procrastination gene at all?!)
Fortunately, when I sent the .pdf off to the competition, I also attached it to an email to a writer friend of mine. He’s since let me know that he’s read it and liked it – and apparently didn’t know I could be ‘so dark’. That made me smile. It’s also made me believe in myself a little bit more, and I realise now that this is the constant you need to finish the writing – faith: not just in yourself, but also in the words you write.