Facing my fears at my favorite writers conference…
Photo credit: Susanne Nilsson via Flickr
I recently attended my sixth Southern California Writers Conference (which is held in Irvine CA every September and in San Diego CA every February). While there, I faced up to one of my fears: on-demand writing.
Writing on demand is that horrible thing you might remember from your school days, where you get a writing prompt as part of a test, and you have to write an essay or story right there, from your head, perfectly. You start with sentence #1 and then write sentence #2 and continue until you’re done.
This is pretty much the opposite of the way my writing process usually works. When I start with a story idea or concept, like I do with the flash fiction challenges, I get away from my computer and think it through. I make all the decisions conceptually first: paint the scene, add characters to the scene, change them around from father and son to father and daughter, switch the ending to the beginning… And by the time I sit back down at the computer, I have most of the story already conceived. Then, of course, if I don’t like sentence #1, I can revise it. None of this crap about writing something down and BAM, that’s set in stone now. Hope that wasn’t totally terrible. (Uh-oh, it was!)
Of course, like many fears, I experience my fear of on-demand writing more as a hatred than fear. I’m not scared of it. Pshaw! I just don’t like it. And I don’t like it because it’s no fun. It doesn’t work for me. In other words: because I suck at it.
Well, guess how you stop sucking at something? Right: you practice!
At previous SCWC’s, I’ve growled and grumbled and not written anything during any sessions that surprised me with a “write on demand” exercise. I’d stare at the page, getting more anxious and depressed with each passing moment, listening to the scritch-scratch of everyone else furiously writing. Then afterward, they’d read their scenes aloud. And they were brilliant. How did they do that?!? Clearly I was an idiot and a terrible writer and what was I even doing, pretending I was any good at this, etc. etc. etc.
I started reading the session descriptions for warnings that they might spring this particular trap on me and avoiding them if so. But at this conference, I decided, nope, I’m going to face this hatred –er, fear – head on. Well, that was the idea, at least. The first workshop it came up in was about blending genres. My initial bravery faltered and I mumbled something about not doing the exercise. But it was a small group around a table. Everyone else was writing. So I did too.
I hated it. I could feel myself scowling the whole time. I attacked the page with every word as though this was all the paper’s fault for making me do this. I crossed out words and rewrote them viciously, angry at them for being so stupid, hating every sentence for being so vapid and simplistic and predictable. How dare this first draft off the top of my head not be brilliant? In other words, I was totally immature about it.
But I did it.
Yay for me! Then the other people read their stories aloud. I was sure they were all so much better than mine that I was too embarrassed to read mine. But okay, I still wrote it.
As I learned when I was going through all those medical treatments for my cancer: the first time doesn’t take nearly as much bravery as the second time, because now you know how horrible it’s going to be.
So I went back for more.
This time it was a session on how to write flash fiction. I figured this was practically cheating, given all the flash fiction I’ve been writing for this blog. But CRAP, I was still seriously out of my league. Some of the other people in the group actually go to writing-on-demand sessions every week and write little stories from prompts. On purpose! For fun! Luckily I didn’t know that until after I had written my story.
Then it came time to read them aloud.
Pro tip: GO FIRST. Otherwise all the amazing writers will read their amazing stories first and yours will seem like dog poop by comparison. Oops, too late. The first guy’s story was fricking brilliant! It had complete sentences! And vivid descriptions! And emotions! And tension! I couldn’t bring myself to put up my hand to volunteer for quite a while after that. Ouch.
My other pro tip is: GO LAST. Well, I wasn’t quite last, but it was toward the end before I could get my courage up. That gave me a chance to go over my practically-illegible chicken scrawl and try to figure out what those words were actually intended to be and even (don’t tell anyone) revise a few of them post-hoc.
And the experience was… not terrible. It’s nice to imagine that everyone gives you more leeway than usual, knowing that it was written spontaneously and that first drafts are never as good as what you can shape them into later. At least, that’s how they acted. (Everyone is wonderfully nice at the SCWC conferences. It makes the biggest difference.)
So there it is. I did it. Will I do it again? SIGH. I will try. I hereby make a public commitment that I will definitely keep trying. This is, after all, one step closer to getting better at this. And in the words of the unofficial rallying cry of the SCWC, which we shout at the end of every conference:
Go out and SUCK LESS!
To push myself even farther, I’m sharing my impromptu stories below, along with the prompts. Maybe you can tell where I get totally angry with the first one… If you don’t have time to read these, please skip down to click the like button so I know you stopped by, and leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you about your own write-on-demand experiences!
WOD exercise #1 (genre-bending workshop)
Prompt: Someone is walking through the desert. They’ve been walking away from an inhabited city for 2 days. They have no provisions. Pick one genre and write this story in it. Then pick another genre (or blend the two) and write the same story a different way.
Haresh stumbled forward through the desert, parched. It must be close. They all thought he’d fail, but somehow he had to get there. He tried seeing the nahja plane again, but it was a blur. No help. Why was it never there when he needed it?
The air shimmered. Was that…? No, just a hill. Just an optical illusion. Haresh rubbed his eyes and instantly regretted it, the sand gritting into his dried-out face.
This was useless, just walking. He made himself stop, take stock. Stand still and just breathe. Think. Dig deep for the reason that pushed him forward. [fill that in later]
Deep breath. No, nothing.
Even breathing hurt, but he couldn’t give up. Another deep breath, stay calm…
There it was, in his other eye: the nahja plane. He almost cried with gratitude. Reaching out with his virtual hand he shifted the nahja in the familiar ways. Yes. The path appeared, splitting the vision of the desert in two, pulling it aside like curtains.
He walked through to the green garden beyond, breathing in the fresh air. His sister embraced him. Even his mother smiled.
“I knew you could do it,” someone said, very predictably.
Haresh stumbled forward through the desert, parched. He must be close. Oh, there it was: the man he loved, on top of the mountain. Haresh ran to him.
He said, “I’m so sorry we fought! I’ll always love you!”
“Me too! But wait, don’t you need to succeed at that horrible test of your magical ability?”
“No, not if I have you.”
“Aw, that’s sweet. Let’s run away together to a place with no desert, where it is lovely all the time.”
And they lived happily ever after.
WOD exercise #2 (Flash fiction workshop)
From the five prompts offered, I chose: “a working relationship”
Walking through the kitchen door, fresh from the stables, Linsalla wiped her hands on her skirt without checking how dirty they were. The curse was half-formed on her lips when she realized he was there. From across the table she smelled his familiar sweat. She pinched herself closed.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
But he was speaking at the same time. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Ah, so they were back to ‘ma’am’ now, were they? Linsalla grimaced, standing straighter, willing the stains on her skirt to disappear. If she refused to acknowledge them, he could not admit their existence either.
He looked away first, those deep brown eyes turning toward the floor, then the doorway, then the fireplace. “Shall I…?” He waved his hand vaguely, offering to do whatever she should command.
“No.” Her response was rougher than she’d intended, and she flinched to see his dismay. “No thank you,” she amended. “That will be all.” She slunk away, head still high, true face still hidden.
[Note that I totally cheated with this story by using characters from my WIP novel, Corwallen Manor, although Linsalla and Tor have never had this specific interaction.]