When it comes to the task of writing a short story every day, you can simply become the benevolent tyrant of your own life and make up your own definition of a short story. “A short story is whatever I say it is!” Then you can write pretty much anything you want. Short stories with a beginning, a middle, and end; vignettes, anecdotes, sketches; jokes, good and bad; rants; scenes from an imaginary movie; self-contained scenes from a novel you are working on.
This is partly how I’ve succeeded in writing a short story every day for two years—by giving myself some leeway. Do the math: two years, one of 365 days, the other 366: 731 days, 731 short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my stories have a beginning, middle, and end, a textbook protagonist, and a textbook epiphany. That’s 73 bona-fide short stories. Suppose only ten percent of my bona-fide short stories are any good. That’s seven good stories. It’s the start of a publishable book.
Besides writing a number of bona-fide short stories I wrote sequences of interlinked stories, scenes, or fragments. My wife and I like asking idle questions. “How many times do you think we’ve kissed since we started dating?” “I don’t know. There must be some sort of Divine Computer that keeps track of everything. Don’t you wish you could access it?” I started writing a few improvisations on the Divine Computer, and wrote a sequence of fifteen self-contained pages (“a short story every day, for fifteen days running”). In time these improvisations coalesced into a book project, a novel about a 17-year-old boy who knows how to access the Divine Computer. My fiction editor liked the idea and gave me a contract for the novel.
I wrote a thirty-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for thirty days running”) about a kid who explores a haunted house before being swallowed by it. I don’t want to give away too many details, but the boy’s mother is illiterate; the town’s sheriff may or may not be the—no, I can’t tell you more. I have the makings of a good ghost story here, and I one day I might develop it into a novel or movie.
I wrote a fourteen-scene sequence (“a short story every day, for fourteen days running”) of set pieces for a Hong-Kong-style action movie. Except that the movie has no dialogue—everything is in the visuals and sound effects. Every night I recounted the day’s scene to my wife, complete with sound effects (which for the most part were revolting, since some bad stuff happens to some good people in Hong-Kong action movies). At the end of the scene she’d ask, “And then, what happened?” And I’d answer, “I’ll tell you tomorrow.” Two weeks! Day after day, a short story every day!
Lesson #2: Discipline pays off. You start off with a fixed, narrow goal (“a story every day”), and before long you start reaping a broad array of unexpected benefits (“a fancy book contract for a novel”).
In my next post I’ll tell you how I navigated a stretch of a few weeks in which I felt like I couldn’t write new stories every day anymore.