Fifty two weeks. Fifty two stories.
As of the middle of July, my Friday flash fiction project had its anniversary. To my utter astonishment, I didn’t miss a single deadline. I came close a couple of times, but not nearly as often as I expected.
What have I learned from a year of whipping up a brand new genre cupcake once a week?
Well first of all, I’ve haven’t learned my lesson, because I’ve decided I’m going to keep going. In the back of my mind, my plan was always to see if I could keep the streak going for as long as possible. I didn’t think it was likely I could complete a year without missing a beat, but now that I have, I want to see how long I can keep the plates in the air. Getting the streak to triple figures would be a heck of a thing.
I wasn’t just writing a new story every week just to see if I could though. There were some objectives. So how did I stack up with those?
Results were mixed, let’s say.
On the positive side, one goal was to build a regular writing habit. I often fall into periods of productivity sitting somewhere between ‘underwhelming’ and ‘utter emptiness like a black hole crushing the core of a dying star’. The weekly challenge of juggling a novel story concept and a constrained word count was a very healthy exercise for me.
I learned to trust the process of polishing a rough idea into something at least recognisably story-like, even if I didn’t always know where I was going with that idea. And I learned to tell the difference between ideas that fit into a thousand-word box and ones that don’t.
(Hint: there’s a reason almost none of the stories have more than four named characters. There’s just no room for them).
I think over the course of the year I’ve improved as a story teller. One lesson having a serious word limit teaches is focus. Within such tight constraints, there’s no time for extraneous description or inconsequential dialogue. Every word has to serve a purpose and earn its place in the story. Otherwise it gets cut. Having to exercise real disciple about what’s in and out makes for tighter writing. Repetition from week to week builds those muscles. Over time, as a consequence of practice, I’ve found myself skipping straight past the fluff to get to the muscle, which makes for much less rambling story telling.
In retrospect the main downside of this project is obvious – while I’ve been writing all these flash fiction stories over the past year, I haven’t written much else. In fact, other than the Friday flash catalogue, I’ve only finished one other story in this whole time.
I had hoped that as I built a reliable writing habit, I might start to stretch myself and simultaneously work on other projects. In practice, what’s happened is that I finish my Friday story some time during the week, rub my hands and congratulate myself on a job well done, and forget to move on to something else.
Making the decision to continue with the Friday flash project has to come with a commitment to keep building on my successes. I know I can reliably knock out a simple yarn once a week; it’s no longer in question. So what harder target do I aim for next? I’m tempted to say I will try to write one other new short story (say, 2000 words or more) a month, but I’ll have to think about it. Many of my stories stray into the 8000 to 10000 word range, which I doubt I could sustain on a monthly basis.
Finally, I had a semi-private goal of converting my weekly flash fiction performance into a regular audience. My hope was that I would see steadily rising reader numbers over the course of the year. In my head, I imagined people coming across the stories from a Facebook share or a retweet on Twitter, liking what they saw and deciding to make it part of their regular weekend reading.
With the greatest of respect for the handful of readers who do just that – you know who you are, and you know I appreciate that sweet trickle of clapplause – this part’s been a complete failure.
I have seen website visits increase over time, but that has more to do with cross-promotion to people who signed up for my mailing list to get a copy of my book. Now, that was certainly the main purpose of the book, so I can’t complain. However it’s pretty clear I need to do a little more than just just fling a story out once a week and post a link on Facebook.
What ‘to do a little more’ means is an open question right now. I’ll have to think about it. I’m open to suggestions.
Seriously, leave a comment. I have *so* much to learn about self-promotion.
So why keep going with the weekly format? Why not work on turning this new-found writing discipline into more marketable forms of fiction?
Good question. Part of it is that the new-story-every-week gives me an outlet for my very attention-deficient writer brain. Like every writer ever, probably, I struggle to keep my focus on the idea at hand, because shiny new ideas come along to distract me with alarming frequency. Exorcising an idea from my brain once a week keeps my twitchy imagination in check.
The bigger explanation is the simpler one: I’m enjoying myself. I’m having fun with the challenge of inventing something new, and I’m constantly surprised and delighted to go from ‘nothing’ to ‘story’ in the space of a few minutes. Some of the stories with the least planning have come out almost fully formed. (Others are like extracting teeth).
Posting up the story each week, and chatting about it on Facebook and Twitter, has been a crucial part of the entertainment for me. I don’t especially crave attention, but I imagine the gratification of seeing readers’ reactions – amusement, curiosity, the odd speculation or demand for a sequel – is a bit like a busker’s tips. You probably can’t live on them, but they might encourage you to try again next time.
I’ll keep going as long as I’m having fun with it. We’ll see where I stand in another year.