Wednesday, February 10, 2010


“Write what you care about, what interests and intrigues you.” –  Hallie Ephron in Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel.

I’ve used this quote before. I repeated it because of something that happened this week. I decided to write a story for the Flash Fiction Chronicles String-of-10-TWO contest. Participants are provided a list of ten words, of which they must use four, and a quotation. The story doesn’t have to have anything to do with the quote, but can. Participants have seven days to submit up to three stories of no more than 250 words each.

I need to add a little backstory here. I belong to an online flash fiction group that provides multiple writing prompts each week. On Sundays, the moderator supplies a list of five words to be used to write a story of either exactly fifty or exactly fifty-five words. You read those numbers correctly. I participate most weeks and have had a number of published stories from this exercise. Here’s a recent one.

So the String-of-Ten contest should be a piece of cake. Right? Ha!

The contest began this past Sunday. I printed out the list of words, the quote, and the rules. I wrote the words and quote on a 3x5 card and carried it around with me. Nothing. The words didn't invoke a single story idea. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It wasn’t like this was a new experience. I did it every week! Finally, it dawned on me. The problem was I had a choice. It was easy for me to write a story from a known list of words. It was when I had to decide which ones to use that I stumbled. Interesting.

On Monday, I sat down determined to write a story. I went through the words one more time, chose two that interested me, and began writing. About 270 words later I had a story—sort of—that used five of the prompt words. I edited the text to under 250 words and set it aside. I came back an hour later and reread the tale. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t contest-worthy yet either. Giving it more thought, I decided there was a story to write on the subject, but probably not one I could tell within the required word limit.

So I decided to write a second story and, after 100 words, or so; I determined my idea wasn’t story material. What was the matter? The subject was something that didn’t excite me. It wasn’t something I cared about. It wasn’t a story I could write. Period.

The bottom line is 1) I may have the beginning of a good story, but not one I’m likely to submit to the contest; and 2) I can’t write a story I don’t care about. And I’m okay with both. This isn’t the first story that didn’t pan out, and I came out of the process with something tangible. The prompt did its job. It got me writing.


Gay Degani said...

JIM! Thanks for the shout out for the String-of-10. I loved seeing your process. I'm doing exactly the same thing for the "For Every Year" project with Crispin Best. Pick a year and write about it. I picked 1534 and have made numerous notes here and there and still have squat. Basically I think I'm trying too hard. I'm just going to have faith it will come to me.

You too. Hope you send something in.

Hallie Ephron said...

Very interesting, Jim - I've discovered an analog to the "write what you care about." I've discovered that sometimes I can start a story but I can't finish it...but if someone gives me a deadline and a contract miraculously it happens. And often fairly well. Go figure.
- Hallie