While the world shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19, I turned a “what-if?” into a published short story that came out earlier this year. What did I learn from turning a question into my first published short story?
2020 was an incredibly trying twelve months for everyone I know. My teen’s freshman year of high school turned into a chaotic nightmare, as a small-town high school scrambled to figure out how to continue students’ education in the face of shutdowns. My husband found himself facing a quandary, as he tried to balance his employer’s needs with his compromised immunity status and wound up working long hours, having another hand surgery (we started 2020 out with tendon surgery on Jan. 2) with three days’ notice, and, over a year later, we are still trying to catch up on his routine care that was canceled over and over in 2020 due to COVID shutdowns. I am disabled and mostly stay home, working on writing, so shutdowns didn’t immediately affect me, aside from trying to coordinate what everyone needed when they needed it. The repercussions of the shutdowns wouldn’t hit me for several months.
Just as the world was taking notice of COVID-19, I received an invitation from an author friend to participate in a Science Fiction and Fantasy short story anthology. She forwarded her notes, with concepts, some sketches, and a rough opening. Not quite a year later, that anthology found its way to Amazon’s vast shelves, with a short story from my fantasy world between its covers.
Before that book saw the “Publish” button, though, I experienced a great deal of growth as a writer and as an author — and yes, I differentiate between the two. Think professional golf versus hitting the driving range once a month: One gets paid while the other does not.
So what happened in the months between “Would you be interested?” and “We’re live”?
I learned a number of things about myself as an author.
Five things I learned while working on “Eagle Mask” and The Theater of Nok-Mondu anthology:
1. I absolutely need an outline.
As soon as I read my friend’s concept, I had an idea (roughly) of what I could write. I didn’t have to stop and think, “Hmm, what could I possibly write for this…” The idea was immediate and concrete, and within a half-hour, I had several pieces to put into a proposal, and suddenly, I was committed to a multi-author project. That concept was refined further as I developed an outline. And prior to “Eagle Mask,” I hadn’t succeeded at writing with an outline, and as a rule, I struggle with massive word counts. I went into the project knowing that the only way I was going to come anywhere close to my word count limit was to use an outline.
Amazingly, I stuck to my outline, changed it slightly as I wrote, changed it a little more as I revised (after our lead writing read through it and sent it back with copious notes). My first draft was just about at the word count limit. I never would have squeezed under that limit without an outline. The basic framework for the story gave me the advantage of knowing where I was going, what I needed to foreshadow, and what needed to happen when and ensured that I hit all my beats.
2. All the magic happens in editing.
I barely came in under my maximum word count with my first draft. While our lead writer chanted her mantra of “don’t worry about your word counts at this stage,” I couldn’t stop paying attention to where my word counts were, especially as she returned multiple drafts with requests for more descriptions. My word counts bloomed, despite frequent pruning, condensing, and sweating over the plotting. Fantasy isn’t given to concise narrative as you build the world the characters inhabit. Perhaps someday, I’ll be able to crank out fantasy shorts under ten thousand words, but “Eagle Mask” wasn’t that story. In each editing session, I looked at my word counts, comments, and notes with an eye to cutting every single unnecessary word. Characters became better defined. Settings quite literally took on new color and depth. The final word count was … not within the ten-thousand-word limit, but everyone involved in the editing process agreed that further cuts would damage the story and the final compilation of all stories allowed for the overage.
By the time I read the final galley before our launch, I could genuinely say I was pleased with the finished product. I’d believed for a long time (since starting my writing journey about six years ago) that I would never be completely happy with a project, and would have to decide, at some point, to settle for good enough. Does “Eagle Mask” contain problems for me? Sure, it does. However, I’m pleased with how it turned out, and those problems I still have with it aren’t anything I can fix within the context of my current ability or within the confines of a group anthology.
3. I am a control freak.
I launched into my writing journey believing I’d stick it out and go for a traditional publishing deal. As I learned about the publishing world and my options, though, that goal changed for a number of reasons. Working with our lead writer was an overall positive experience. A group project also reconfirmed my previous decision to go indie. Why? Because I need to be in control of the process. All of it. Playing the waiting game grated on my nerves and, from time to time, killed my enthusiasm for the project. I like to know why everything happens at every step when it comes to my creative projects. I pour my heart and soul into every word and paragraph.
4. Short stories are possibly not my thing, but I enjoy writing them.
I’ve mentioned my struggle with the word counts in Eagle Mask. I have a number of short story ideas in my notebooks, several of which are specifically slated for a YA Paranormal series I’m working on. But I don’t see myself doing another group anthology project. The constrictions of writing short-form fiction are a good deal of stress; they’re also good practice at staying concise and focused. Will I write more short stories? In short, yes.
The longer answer is: Only as they pertain to the series I’m working on, and only as I feel truly inspired to write them. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a micro-short story every other month for my newsletter, but I need to do a little more research and learning before I decide. Another anthology? I will eventually compile short stories for the Feladia Chronicles fantasy series and may create an anthology for the mythology cycle of that world. Another group project? Only if I feel truly inspired by a concept and I get a better handle on my writing schedule.
5. My annual writing plan is a real thing and I need to respect it.
Though I enjoyed working with the fantabulous authors in The Theater of Nok-Mondu, I’ve had pretty much the same projects sitting on my writing plan for the last 2 years. This year, I didn’t even finish writing my writing plan until the end of July. And this year’s plan is involved, detailed, and yes, obsessive-compulsive (it’s 150 pages long – I kid you not).
I can honestly say, though, that the plan I finished in July is a thing. It’s a serious thing. I have several microfictions, at least 5 short stories, and 6 novels to write in the next 12 months. The high priority is the YA Paranormal series for Mystic River Witch, about a sixteen-year-old, non-binary witch trying to find their place in a new town where their family has a serious reputation and even more serious rivals. I’m building up the world of Feladia as I work my way through a few writing courses, and I’ll be expanding the stories from the world of Eagle Mask as this year rolls on. As of the release of this blog post, I’ve already knocked out several of August’s to-do list, despite starting a new, part-time job. Stay tuned.
The Theater of Nok-Mondu challenged me to grow as an author. The anthology also got me out of my little writer’s cave and into the big, wide world. I worked with others, created a project from idea to polished product and am now trying to master the art of marketing. It may have thrown some other plans off-track, but ultimately, I got a finished product into the world, and know that I can do it. 2021 will only get better.
Grab your copy of The Theater of Nok-Mondu from Amazon here: