Yes. There are competitions for short stories and essays– in case you’ve written any short stories or essays. An essay is a blog by another name, and you’re reading one right now. With some rewriting of blogs, you can produce a piece of short non-fiction, aka, an essay, and submit it all over the place. And, although this rewriting is not always simple and might even require that you combine two or three of your blogs, for those of us who write blogs and also taught students to write essays, this is good news indeed. Even in the worst case, it is still relatively little labor for a potentially large payoff. And so I believed.
But what about those short stories? Not only had I never written a short story, nor ever wanted to, but I don’t like reading short stories. As an example of this aversion, I have had a subscription to The New Yorker for many years, and I read it nearly cover-to-cover every week. Except for the fiction. I skip the short story without a backward glance.
Still, there are all those contests with low submission fees. If you’re committed to it, you can also find scores of them that have no submission fee at all.
The older I get, the fewer inflexible opinions I have, but I do still hold on to a handful, one of which is that you can’t look up “How to Write X, Y, or Z” on the Internet and have any hope of becoming a writer of much of anything. So I didn’t bother. In fact, although it might be heresy, even those high-end writers’ seminars put on by prestigious universities can’t accomplish much. As I used to admonish my students, “The more you write, the more you write.” My point, possibly not quite clear, was simple. We learn to write by writing.
So, it occurred to me that if I could turn a couple of blogs into an essay, it should be possible to weave a few chapters from one of my novels into a short story. I decided to give it a try: not by reading clever online articles that offered me five steps to success in short story writing, but by following my own advice. If you want to write something, start writing. I was anything but confident, but when I saw that my Google search for “Short Story Contests” produced 12,300,000 “hits,” I almost felt obliged to find out what I could do.
I asked myself “How hard can it be?” Unfortunately, the answer to that question is, “Pretty damned hard,” in spite of which, I got up and wrote every day. And here I came up against the inevitable compliment about how disciplined I am. I am not the least bit disciplined. I have no discipline at all. I procrastinate. I move the tasks I dislike from one day’s list to the next, week after week until I have fallen so far behind that they often no longer need to be done. I really am not disciplined. What I am is compulsive. I can’t not write. That part isn’t a struggle for me. So, I made a beginning.
The challenge, in this particular approach, is first to make a clear decision about what you want this short piece of writing to accomplish. What is the topic of that essay? What characters or events can guide a reader into that universal question we ask of all literature–how is this story my story? How is this story every story?
I have now submitted, to various literary contests, three short stories and two essays, all produced by sitting down and writing. And here’s an idea of how I went about it:
Story #1 Relationship. I decided I wanted to look at the relationship, developed over the course of my two “Jessie” novels, between two characters. It is a fairly complicated relationship, involving some sex, a marriage proposal, a refusal, and a growing friendship. This was clearly too much, and too general, to even attempt. So I read back over all the text about these characters and finally chose to write a story in two parts–The Beginning and The End. It seems to me that the task from that point was a lot of cutting and pasting, but more new writing than I had expected.
Essay #1 Animals. About a year ago, I wrote a short blog about my neighbor’s cat who was in my care for three weeks while my neighbor travelled to Africa. It was an endearing and cheerful blog, with lots of photographs of the cat. In it, I reminisced about some of the cats who had come into my life over the years. By the time I was thinking about essay submissions, the neighbor’s cat had died and I was remembering my own experiences with the death of animals. This meant, of course, that the whole focus of the blog had to be changed, and this “rewrite” became almost a new piece of writing altogether.
A second essay was about writing and expanded on an earlier blog, in which I had compared types of cooks to types of writers. I rewrote largely by adding some of the best bits from at least four other blogs on the subject of writing. I had also experienced, in the meantime, co-authoring a book with my friend, Alison Daniels, whose entire approach to writing, and cooking, is nearly the opposite of mine. The finished essay, submitted, was far beyond anything I had written in the early blogs. It wasn’t just a longer version, or even a more complex one. It introduced new ideas that could only have been the result of my additional reading, thinking, and living.
My favorite story so far is about a specific period of time in one character’s life, and it draws from three or four chapters of my latest novel. The time frame in the story is narrow, although quite a lot of text is devoted to it in the novel. It is an intense narrative in which a great many catastrophes occur. Even in the larger context of the novel, the events are powerful and life-changing. In the smaller vessel of the story, pared down to their basics, they are almost unbearable.
I have concluded, as I settle in to wait the months ahead before the winners of the novel contests are announced, that I like the writing I am doing. It makes me work a little harder. I have recognized that a story is not just an undeveloped novel, nor is an essay a retooled blog.
William Faulkner believed that a novelist is a writer who can’t write stories and a writer of short stories is someone who lacks the skill to write poetry.