40 minute stories are almost never written in 40 minutes.
Since there’ve been about a dozen of them now, and hopefully many more to come, I thought I’d take the time to share some of my process.
1) Nothing wrong with a prompt – I’m not a giant fan of writing prompt books that go something like “write about your favorite Halloween memory”, but I do like to try my hand at different techniques of telling stories. I’ll try anything from telling a story entirely in dialogue, to playing with synesthesia, to writing side stories of characters from my novels. A book I’ve found useful to thumb through is The 3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. There are a number of exercises based on different perspectives, scenarios, or ways of describing scenes. They’re written generally enough that I don’t feel particularly shoved down a single path, but specific enough to get some real ideas flowing.
2) Don’t try to wrap it all up – Very few of these stories are complete in a narrative sense. They’re intended to capture a moment or a scene in the character’s life. Sometimes that scene is illustrative of the whole, and sometimes it’s just something funny that happened. Especially with some of the sci-fi oriented tales, there can be a temptation to wrap up the story in a neat bow, or to beat the reader over the head with the “meaning”. I’m just happy if you read it to the end and enjoyed it. We can search for meaning later.
3) Outline before writing – I never do this when working on my novel, and frankly I don’t do it here either, at least not in a formal sense. Lately I’ve been waking up at about 5am, driving for 40 minutes to a coffee shop near my job, and writing my posts/stories there. That 40 minute drive is a great time for me to figure out the high points of an upcoming story, the basic plot down to the specific descriptions of objects, or dialogue by characters. 40 minutes can be a tight deadline without this pre-thinking, but I try to do it at a time that’s natural for me rather than try to add it on top of my busy schedule. Forcing myself to write it down will just take time from somewhere else, (though it might not be a bad habit for the novel).
4) Keep titles simple – I’m not pretending I’m some expert on titling posts or stories (I’m still baffled by the title of the post that got freshly pressed). But with a tight deadline spending a whole lot of extra thought on the title takes away time you could be spending on the story. I’ve used a lot of one-word titles (Dust, Pool, Mowing, etc.) and they’ve worked. Even with only 600 words, there has to be one that describes the rest.
5) Let stories flow naturally – There’ve been a couple of forty-minute stories recently. There might be another one in two weeks, or two months. I very much doubt I’ll be announcing a regular schedule any time soon. These stories are probably one of the few things where I allow myself to be subject to my “muse”. Most of the time I’m a believer in discipline and writing every day, but on these I’m a little more relaxed.
6) Keep it to 40 minutes – Some of these have gone right up against the line, making them perhaps feel a little unfinished. That said, the exercise of writing under a tight constraint almost by necessity requires efficient prose, something we all have to learn whether we’re writing for 40 minutes for 40 hours. While efficiency often can come from revision, it also can come at drafting if you really want to hit your end. That’s why I’m going to keep doing a number of these during the year, as I think they will help sharpen some of the lengthier prose.
I used to hate writing short stories because I didn’t feel like they gave me enough time to say what I really wanted to say. Doing these posts from time to time, however, has shown me that was just an excuse, and that actually a short story can say as much or more about a particular idea as any story. Kinda like … poetry *shudder*.
If you write a 40 minute story I’d love to read it! Try it sometime!
Note: I “stole” the idea for doing forty minute stories on the blog early on from my good friend Brian D. Buckley. He writes them too on occasion, and you should check them out on his blog. He obviously types a little faster than me.