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A NaNoWriMo Flash Story Collection

Last year I had planned on participating in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition by completing the remaining 50,000 words for my second novel this month, which 1/3 done at 25,000 words. I also expected revising my first novel would be done by now, but that didn’t happen since editing a novel-length manuscript is really, really hard. Abandoning the revision of my first novel to continue the second novel wouldn’t be right. Besides, I haven’t reviewed what I had previously written and outlined for the second novel. Skipping NaNoWriMo like I had in previous years was the only option I could see as I wasn’t in the mood to start a new novel to gather dust next to my second novel. Two days into the competition I had an idea: why not use NaNoWriMo to create a collection of 100 500-word flash short stories?

Here’s my “Flash In The Pan Short Story Collection” for NaNoWriMo:

This is a fantasy/horror/science fiction/supernatural collection of 100 flash short stories of 500-word each. The collection itself will never be published. Each flash short story will be edited, lengthen or shorten where needed, and submitted for individual publication in 2011.

Why are writing 100 different 500-word flash stories easier than a novel?

I have written 53 short stories of various lengths over the last five years, with 18 short stories published or slated for publication. I think I will always be a short story writer since it’s easier for me to focus on something shorter than longer. I’m also one of those people who would prefer to see a long credit list of short projects than spending years creating a long masterpiece.

Writing four 500-word short stories for 2,000 words per day will be easy to do. Each story idea will exist in my mind only long enough to write in longhand and put aside without interfering with my novel revision. The writing itself doesn’t take the most time; I can pop out a flash story in a half-hour. Editing the flash story to stay under the 500 word count while telling a good story can take up to three hours to complete. I plan to edit and submit all these flash stories for publication throughout 2011. If I get stuck on revising my novel or run out of ideas for short stories, I can pull out a flash story to finish working on.

The trick for writing 100 flash stories in one month is to make sure I don’t run out of unique ideas. One way to avoid that is to have serial characters.

The first four flash stories I wrote featured the cannibalistic restaurateur owner Charles Goodwin of The Giggling Mongoose (“Salt of The Air,” “Swine of The Earth,” “Honey of The Fire” and “Rice of The Water” published in Elements of Horror anthology). I have since written a 5,000-word short story about Mr. Goodwin and an old goat with three young things following him (“Scarlet Hearts” is still floating in the slush pile).

Writing another set of flash stories would be a good way to explore his character further before plunging into another longer piece. I had also written about two computer science students using Jewish mysticism to create a computerized golem for their class project that ended with a blue screen of death (“Golem Got The Blues” published in Daily Flash 2011: 365 Days of Flash Fiction anthology).  If you fail once with Jewish mysticism and computer technology, try again. Or is that, rinse and repeat?

Tonight I’ll do some brainstorming to line up the first set of story ideas and tomorrow I’ll start writing my flash short story collection. Perhaps the creative rush will help me finish revising my novel.

Letting Short Stories Lie Fallow

This summer I took a break from the boring admin task of keeping 35+ short stories in circulation by letting them lay fallow after coming back with rejection slips. My tracking spreadsheet turned red over the last three months as I revised my first novel. A few recent short stories that garnered positive feedback from editors were kept in circulation. All the rest I didn’t bother with when they came back.

Although it took me a year to write a 120,000-word, 700-page rough draft manuscript of my first novel, it took another year to figure out how to revise it. The next draft after a three-month break had split the book into two volumes and removed all the material that didn’t work or wasn’t developed enough. And then I got stuck. I spent the remainder of the year on a speculative fiction bender that saw many of my recent short stories being accepted for anthologies. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my novel manuscript to revise itself (not surprisingly, it didn’t).

What was the problem? The rough draft was crap. Unlike the rough drafts for many of my short stories, it wasn’t even brilliant crap. Just plain old crap that I couldn’t motivate myself to finish revising. The nagging doubt that haunted me was that the manuscript was too long for a first novel, and, even if it was split into two 80,000-word volumes, was still a hard sell for a first time novelist.

The solution to this problem became clearer over the summer: 1) revising a novel is hard work and not for the faint of heart; and, 2) I’ll need to write a shorter novel to increase my chances of finding an agent and/or publisher.

I spent three weeks summarizing each chapter on a notepad and outlining the first volume in Post-It Notes on a poster board to visualize the overview of the story. This is what I should have done a year ago. I started revising each chapter as many times as needed until it was good enough for me to move on to the next chapter, and update the outline—now spread out on four 30″ x 20″ sheets of mouse-colored paper pinned to a wall—with a breakdown of each chapter. I’m averaging two finished pages a day. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish revising the current draft by the end of the year.

Another reason to let short stories lie fallow is that many literary publications affiliated with universities don’t read the slush piles during the summer. If you sent a bunch of submissions at the end of the school year, don’t expect a response until September or October. Waiting for snail mail responses in the dog days of August is a painful exercise in patience when checking the post office box every week.

If you’re dependent on writing to pay the bills, taking the summer off to focus on a big project wouldn’t be wise. If you’re writing only fiction, you’re not making that much money anyway. (I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there over the last five years.) The long-term payoff for fiction writers is having a successful career as a novelist. As much as I love to write short stories, I had to get serious about revising my novel this summer. If you’re successful enough to make a living from writing, you need a paid vacation anyway.

Now that summer is almost over, it’s time to get those short stories back into circulation. With The Iowa Short Fiction Award accepting submissions until September 30th, I’m reviewing my first collection manuscript as a way to focus my attention on the 32 short stories therein. I should have that done within the next 10 days. I’ll be assembling my second collection from October to December to submit for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series next year, reviewing all 21 speculative short stories that I wrote in the last year. The boring admin task of keeping so many manuscripts in circulation has returned.

Ye Olde Short Story Collection

Last week I got notification that my short story collection wasn’t a winner in the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series. A real disappointment, but I knew the contest was a long shot. The winner was “Destroy All Monsters” by Greg Hrbek, who has such an impressive literary resume that he makes me look like a penny dreadful pulp writer in comparison.  (The title was also that of a 1968 Godzilla movie, so figure out what that prize-winning shot story collection is all about.) Why did I enter this contest that I have no hope in winning?

If you’re a short story writer, you will eventually put together a short story collection. Entering a contest like the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series is a good motivator for putting a collection together if you have enough short stories to exceed the minimum manuscript requirements.

After I got a postcard four months before the contest opened for submissions in January 2010, I pulled together a 186-page manuscript with 27 short stories written from 2006 to 2008, with the shortest being 350 words and the longest being 6,000 words. I learned how to be a better editor after extensively revising each short story before adding to the collection. Some of the revised short stories that got rejected a dozen times before got accepted for publication after being submitted elsewhere. That made the $25 entry fee a worthwhile investment.

Besides, what writer doesn’t want to win $3,000 USD in cash and a book contract?

The biggest challenge to putting together a short story collection was the lack of information on how to put one together, probably because short story collections are the bastard children of the publishing industry. The days of writers making a living on writing only short stories are long gone. Most publishers will not consider a short story collection unless you have several novels that appeared on the bestseller lists, and even then will reluctantly publish one if only as a teaser for the next novel. When looking at various short story collections, the organization of each one is about as idiosyncratic as the author who put it together.

When I put my short story collection together, I kept each short story stapled together in a three-ringed binder. I used a 3×5 card with the title, word count and short description for each short story. The sorting process was the hardest to figure out. Alphabetical (too many titles started with “The”) and chronological (suck more to suck less) sorting orders weren’t considered. I ended up splitting the cards into four broad categories—family, people, spirituality, weird—and shuffling them all together. I further re-arranged the order to ensure a proper balance with alternating categories and length sizes. Satisfied with the order of the short stories inside the binders, I put the final manuscript together on the computer.

That arrangement worked well for me. But keep in mind that some editors and/or readers will reject reading unrelated short stories that don’t have an overriding theme to tie the whole collection together. I selected these stories from the first two-and-a-half years that I started writing, representing my “literary” period. After I put this collection together, I went on a non-stop “speculative” writing bender that will form my next collection for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prizes Series. That collection will fly or sink on the whims of the evaluating editor.

What will I do with my “rejected” short story collection manuscript? Nothing.

I’m still circulating the unpublished short stories to find a home for them. I could find a publisher to publish the collection, but I’m going to hold off until I have an agent for my first novel that I’m working on. Since I started selling my short stories to the anthologies, the contracts I’d signed often contain a year-long exclusivity clause that prevents the short stories from being reprinted elsewhere. Timing becomes a huge factor when pulling a collection together. Having an agent to double-check all those contracts and perhaps negotiate waivers will be useful.

Of course, winning a contest to catch the attention of an agent wouldn’t hurt either.

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