It’s an off-week in the arena and we’re looking back at our history, all the battles we’ve fought, all the stories we’ve written. It’s no easy feat turning a prompt into a story in ten days but we have been doing it for over a year now, and we decided to cobble a list of tips to help the writers who cross the arena threshold.
1. Read your prompt:
Seriously. Give your prompt email a thorough read. Let it sit for a few minutes. Then read it again. There’s a core idea there that needs to be digested and the sooner you drill it into your head, the sooner you can sit back and let it percolate.
2. Research your prompt:
Sometimes writers contact us a little confused about where we’re going with our prompts. This is fine and we’re happy to answer any questions, however we dump a lot of information into those emails. There are mentions of how the prompt has appeared throughout history and we usually talk about stories which contain examples of the prompt.
Plug some of our examples and historical tid-bits into wikipedia. See how your prompt has already been done by the famous writers of history. It will help to jog your creativity to see other ways that your prompt has been utilized, and it will give you a jumping off point for your own story…or for the subversive out there it will show you what has already been done and what you need to deconstruct and reinvent.
3. Give yourself time. Start typing early. No. Even earlier than that:
Yeah. This. You have ten days to get a solid first draft to us after the email goes out. Now, if you understand how you create stories and how you work and know, for certain, that you can churn out a story over the weekend, then go nuts. But if there’s an inkling of doubt, just jump on an idea and start typing.
You don’t have to go with the first idea you pick, but you’re better off stepping out of your imagination and into the concrete world of words-on-a-page as soon as possible. The sooner you start typing, the sooner you can start making decisions that stick and the sooner you can really flesh out your story instead of constantly toying with ideas. Which brings us to…
4. Lock down one idea instead of constantly expanding your universe:
This one is just good advice for all short stories, and it comes up over and over again in the arena. A short story is just that: short. Yes, James Joyce can write “The Dead” and fill it with details and subplots and characters of intertwining relations, but you are not Joyce and even he didn’t write “The Dead” in ten days. You have a word count and a time limit and you need to zero in on one idea and write the hell out of it.
If you have a love story, write the love story, don’t start poking around in the character’s relationship with her father too. If you have a chase scene, write that chase scene, don’t start world building and fleshing out the culture of the people your characters are running past. Yes, it’s good to have a solid setting, but in a short story you have to do that in quick strokes and it will feel unfinished to you at first. But you have to just take glancing blows at the larger world and focus in on your idea.
Every word counts, whether you put thought behind it or not. 100 words in a 4,000 word story is 2.5% of your story. When you have a 200 word description for something that doesn’t factor into your story, you are dedicating 5% of your work and the reader’s time to nothing. Or, the phrase this in reverse, your reader is going to spend 5% of their time reading about something that you don’t want them to find important. But they will. When you hang on a detail in the small space of a short story, that detail becomes important whether you want it to or not. So try your best to maintain focus and make things count.
5. Have fun!
You’re writing for the arena, we picked you to be here, and we want you to really run with whatever idea you come up with. We like to see people taking prompts in new and innovative directions. We’ve had choose-your-own-adventures, we’ve had candy turned deadly, and we’ve had snowmen contemplating solipsism.
Our readers are much happier watching someone try for something great and fall a little short than they are watching another by-the-numbers story get told. Granted, you could tell a by-the-numbers story really really well and sweep the voting too, it’s been known to happen.
I guess what we’re trying to say with #5 here is that we built the arena for writers. We know it can be tough struggling with how the story in your head doesn’t match the clutter on your page, and we wanted a place where you can step back, take a breath, and just fucking go for it.
When you step into the arena it’s a battle to the death after all, so you might as well stop acting coy and go for that crazy idea you had.
photo credit: Rome – Coliseum & Arch Of Titus from Palatine Hill via photopin (license)