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Short Stories, Motivation and Baby Steps: Making Life Better For Future Me (Part 2)

by Jamie Downes

I’m not writing because I have to,
I’m writing because I want to.
 

It’s a mantra I have recently introduced to myself, and I like it. Trouble is, it doesn’t always seem entirely truthful.

I’m under no illusions; Dickens and Tolkien, I am not; but presumably like all those of a writing persuasion, I like to think that I have a talent for language and structure; an ability to mould words into flowing, well-weighted sentences. While there are undoubtedly schools of other amateur writers out there capable of teaching me a thing-or-twelve (and the rest), I know that at the very least, I have a certain flair for the art.

How demoralising it is then, when upon one’s first meaningful foray into writing short fiction, he realises the requirement for a far greater skill-set than the mere ability to write. Below is simply a meandering snapshot of the issues that threatened my aforementioned new mantra, with equally meandering thoughts on how to solve them.

For a start, there is the obvious need to create. I already had some ideas for compelling, emotive, character-driven tales, but alas, I felt them too intense, and my craft not yet of sufficient quality to do them justice. Leaving those ideas alone however, resulted in an incredibly dull staring contest with a page as blank as my mind. I blinked first, and subsequently recognised the need to shake things up a bit; how could I find a way of stimulating my seemingly anaesthetised creative brain cells?

The best answer was a blatantly obvious one. Read. Particularly short stories; particularly those from the magazines I wished to submit to. Doing so made all the difference. They helped deliver me into the mind-set of the magazine and allowed my ideas to formulate within a more structured paradigm (important, I think, for one new to creating). Trying to bludgeon my way through with force had not worked in the slightest, but taking a step back from the dismal mocking of the blank document allowed ideas to formulate naturally, and made the whole process much more fun.

So, finally armed with a couple of distinct ideas, I was able to begin writing. But alas, just as I was contemplating the completion of both first drafts, I recognised what I’ve since discovered is a common beginner’s mistake. Exposition. And I was torn, because part of me was pleased that I’d spotted the problem myself, but also disheartened that I’d made the error in the first place. Realising how boring my stories really were, I was wholly unconvinced about my chances of salvaging either.

But after almost giving in, I managed to do so. In one, the protagonist changed his personality completely, which simply made him more interesting and easier to write about in the present. For the other (and much better of the two stories), I was able to rid the piece of narrative summary by revealing most key details of the protagonist’s past through dialogue instead.

I will certainly be wary of falling into the same trap in the future, so on that basis it was a mistake worth making early.

I think the reason it is so easy to fall back on narrative summary for us newcomers, is the surprising mundanity of a reasonable percentage of any given work of fiction; I for one, didn’t see this as an obvious roadblock before setting off on my creative-writing journey. There are the major plot points and moments of flowery prose that excite you as a writer, but getting from one to another can be really quite tedious. In my own reading experience, even the vast majority of  published writers are unable to make every single moment of every single scene interesting, so there will almost definitely be boring sentences that I, as an author, must include if I wish to imprint on the reader’s mind a true and complete version of my story. That said, I certainly do not think this means that one should not aspire to spruce up or eradicate such irksome passages.

Maybe the way to achieve this is through having a very clear vision of the atmosphere one wishes to evoke. It’s something I’m big on with all my media consumption; whether it be in relation to books, film, TV or video games. Stephen King’s The Shining was fantastic in this regard, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, also. Both demonstrate a quality that seems to transcend attention to detail; that pulls the reader into the world with such belief, that he can see and understand many elements of the fictional world for himself.

Anyway, I should repeat that these are just thoughts that have already ran, or are in the process of running through my strangely stimulated mind. Given the many days I’ve spent with frustratingly little-to-no useful brain activity over the past five-years, I’m just thankful there is now some exercise going on up top. Successfully making it through a specific challenge, no matter how inconsequential it may appear next to someone else’s, really helps in this respect, as does writing about it.

To finish, and satiate any unlikely curiosity that this article may have instigated, here are the synopses for the stories I have written. The first is my favourite, and with careful preening, I think could be sent off without me feeling like I’m wasting someone’s time. The second needs much more work, but I do like the concept, even if it didn’t quite come off as I’d have hoped.

(Synopsis No.1) A bullied young girl questions the motivation of her only friend when he tells her that their time together must come to an end.

(Synopsis No.2) As a magnificent, mythical-like beast heads towards him, a murderous outcast becomes so greatly committed to suffering a glorious death that he fails to notice a rather significant detail.

Thanks for reading, and if you should wish to raise any similar issues or tackle those I’ve mentioned, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

NB: I purposefully chose ‘he’ as my choice of personal pronoun throughout this article, for the simple reason that I’m a guy. Complete gender-neutrality results in far too many awkward phrasing issues for my simple mind!

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Short Stories, Motivation and Baby Steps: Making Life Better For Future Me (Part 1)

by Jamie Downes

I have decided to write these words, partly for cathartic reasons, but also in the knowledge that life’s spark can be ignited by the most unexpected of sources. If even one person is able to positively relate my sentiments to their own, I shall consider it a thoroughly worthwhile exercise.

This first part is about motivation, or more precisely, the persistent lack thereof. Tomorrows second-part will concentrate on the difficulties I encountered in writing short fiction for the first time since school.

Please do feel free to discuss your own experiences of either issue in the comments.

At the beginning of March, I publicly set myself a challenge for the month via Facebook. The goal: to write two short stories that demonstrated sufficient potential for publication. The consequence of failure: having to watch every hellish One Direction video subsequently posted on my Facebook wall.

Sounds innocuous enough, right?

Well, behind the unexceptional task and silly punishment is a silent menace that has been a part of my life for a number of years. Call it a malaise, stagnancy; perhaps laziness or even a masquerade of depression, but whatever that detestable thing is that means motivation so often eludes me; that makes wasting time a more proficient and immediately appealing pastime than work and self-growth; it is at odds with the qualities I not only admire in others, but expect of myself. Hard work brings rewards, even if it is something as mundane as resting easy at the end of the day, content in the knowledge you’ve made an effort. When one fails to meet the standard he holds the rest of the human race to, it becomes very easy – perhaps even a moral obligation – to take a figurative hatchet, and savagely cut any attachment one might have for himself. If I’d strongly advise others against the sin of sloth, then it begs the question, ‘Why do I not do something about my own?’

It is undoubtedly the most legitimate of queries, yet it’s one that I have great difficulty providing an acceptable answer to. It certainly comes down to a lack of motivation in a given moment, but does this itself only occur because of the following thought process?

‘If only I hadn’t wasted the last X-years, what could I have achieved?’

Perhaps this is a question that should be dismissed very quickly, lest you allow it to find a permanent residency in the recesses of your sub-conscious; nourishing itself on doubts and insecurities in a viciously purposeful effort to stifle productivity. The value of X starts as one-year but rapidly becomes five. It is the devils-spawn and not the least bit welcome.

The trouble is however, that it simply doesn’t give a shit. It is a squatter and will stay uninvited until it is suffocated to death by bigger, better, more positive thoughts; at least, that’s the theory I’m working with at the moment. But when you’re feeling at rock bottom for the umpteenth time – losing the will to try and the joy in, well, anything – how does one go about achieving an optimistic state of mind? How does one set himself on the road to recovery?

This is the quandary I face myself, and the answer, I think, is baby steps.

The completion of my March challenge was no more and no less than a baby step, but that means progress. I’m no just longer a wannabe writer; I’m now a wannabe writer who has written two potential-demonstrating short stories. I’m better off than I was a month ago, because I set a short term target, and met it. Could I have done more? Sure! But I’m not going to beat myself up about that right now; I’d rather focus on the positives of the situation for a change; reward myself for achieving something. And if I can manage that, I’m genuinely sure as hell that anyone in a comparable situation can do just the same.

My personal goal for April? To write every single day. Another baby step, but future motivated me will be mighty thankful I took it*.

*At least, he better be. I’ll not be happy if he isn’t, the ungrateful tosser.