The people behind the A to Z Challenge are asking participants to post their reflections on the month-long effort. What worked and what didn’t, what you liked, whether you’d do it again.
This was my first experience with this challenge. It might well be my last. That is not a reflection on the challenge itself or the way it was organized or whether it was worthwhile. All those things were great. It’s a reflection on the type of challenge I opted to tackle.
If you’re reading this, probably you know I decided to write a piece of fiction, a complete story, during this challenge. Yes, I am well aware of what a bad idea this was, and also experienced enough to know better. I had my reasons.
Someone asked in the comments about my process during the month. I replied that there was no process– it was sheer panic. That’s absolute truth.
I know a good deal about plot and story structure and pacing and character arcs and motivation and scene/sequel and genre expectations and . . . a thousand other things that make for good story. During this challenge, it felt like I took all those things and rather gleefully threw them out the window and just went at it. And left a huge mess to be cleaned up (working on it).
I’d write a post and get to the end and think, “Now what?” Or more accurately, “What were you even thinking here?”
When I wrote the first scene on the beach and there were bats flying in the dusky sky, I was pretty sure there was a cave. I mean, clearly, bats live in caves. But I had no idea when I mentioned those bats that there was also a dragon in the cave. And when I wrote the next scene in the dark of the cave, when I realized there was a dragon, I didn’t know anything about the dragon other than there was one. And it was much later when I realized they weren’t bats after all.
None of that was planned.
When I introduced the ermine character, I called him “Ermie” because I HATE naming characters. I wrote,
“He’s an ermine. Claims to be a royal prince of some country with a name we can’t pronounce, so we call him Ermie.”
I purposely made it ambiguous about whether it was the country or the ermine that had an unpronounceable name. And two weeks later, when Prince died and I realized what I’d written, I was stunned. Some things defy explanation. So I added a small tribute of my own toward the end of the letter V post and hoped it was subtle:
Her thoughts were interrupted when they arrived back at the cliff, where everyone greeted them with cheers and relief. Even Ermie was there, dashing rather frantically back and forth along the cliff edge, getting splashed by an occasional wave. He seemed to be watching Bubbie, now a mere speck on the horizon.
“Is he . . . turning purple around the edges?” Zoey asked.
Ferraro glanced at the ermine. “Only happens when he gets wet. You should see him when it rains.”
Sam diverted Zoey’s attention then, giving her a big hug. The girl was beside herself with excitement now that she knew Zoey was safe.
Most of the “magic” in the story wasn’t planned either. It came about because I’d written myself into a tight spot and in retrospect needed something to make sense. It was like writing an outline in reverse.
And when I wrote the scene where Ferraro tells Zoey to leave, I sat here shaking my head over how stupid that was. I mean, I’m telling a story solely from her point of view and I just ejected her from the story. It was insane. Who does this?
My daughter was reading along and would text me after reading each installment during her commute home from work. After that scene, she said:
DD: I do NOT approve!!
DD: You know what!!!!
DD: I suppose this is one way to tell that your story is having the desired effect on readers
Me: I’m delighted that you care about these made-up people!
DD: Sam better stand up to Mr Meanie-head
Me: Maybe Mr Meanie-head had his reasons…
DD: Like what?
Me: I have no idea.
And I honestly had no idea. I then had to come up with something that would not only explain his reaction, but that would not make him look like a total jerk and would also convince Zoey to stay.
Geez. Talk about pressure.
The entire story was full of situations like that where I just wrote my way into it and hoped for the best, trusted that I could make sense of it later. There was no way to go back and edit things after the fact or delete stuff that didn’t make sense or foreshadow anything.
As nightmarish as all that was, it wasn’t the truly scary part. The worst part was that I had no idea what came next. Several people commented on the cliffhanger aspect of the posts, said they couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Yeah, I was right there with you, wanting to know.
I did know, almost from the beginning, how it was going to end. I knew the “twist” ending, which was the premise for the story. And that helped. Except when I worried that people were going to hate it. I’m still worried that people hated it.
I almost always finished writing a scene with no idea of where things were going from there. No idea of how I’d resolve some ridiculous new problem I’d just created on the fly. I didn’t know from one day to the next whether I could salvage things or I’d have to just give up and say, “Sorry, everyone. I screwed up and can’t see how to fix it. There’s no more story.” It was terrifying and exhilarating, telling a story in real time, in public.
I have to say, this is perhaps not the best way to write a story.
Please note: No one over at A to Z suggested this was a good way to write fiction. That not-so-bright idea is all on me.
In terms of the A to Z Challenge, I can’t say I regret taking part. It was exhausting and terrifying and relentless. Never have I looked forward to Sundays with quite so much desperation. The writing wasn’t even the time-consuming part. It was the editing and polishing needed before posting. The constant focus and thinking: now what?
There were times the need to use an alphabetical prompt word was helpful. It added things to the story that might not otherwise have been there. Like the Chinese junk for J. And there were times it was truly inconvenient. Some of the letters were just difficult, especially since I was writing a story and the word had to fit in.
At times, it seemed like the month would never end, that I’d run out of story ideas long before the 30th. But toward the end, I discovered the opposite problem. There was too much story left and not enough time to do it justice. So, for those of you interested in reading the final version once I finish, don’t be surprised if the last half is significantly . . . expanded. And yes, there will be more dragon.
Looking back at the month, the effort served a purpose and was a great incentive for me at a time when I sorely needed it. I’m grateful for that. I am so damn glad I did it. Would I do it again? Too soon to say. Ask me again next year.
But strictly as a strategy for writing fiction? No. I can’t say using the A to Z Challenge is the best approach for writing a novel. Don’t do that. Unless, you know, you’re hopelessly stuck and doubting your abilities and on the verge of giving up on writing entirely. In that case, I highly recommend it.
13 responses to “A to Z Challenge: Reflections”
Enjoyed reading your post and this does sound like a huge task to take on within a month. Perhaps if you did fancy another go next year you could excerpts of fiction then you could take any ideas from it afterwards without the pressure. However very well done for all the work, you should feel proud
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Thanks, Ginni! I think this was one of those times when I needed the pressure. If I participate again, probably I’ll do something a bit less demanding.
I learned late that you were participating, so I missed the beginning of the story and only read a few posts. April was a hectic time for me. I had no time for extras.
I love what you’ve written here. I can feel the energy. Your courage. What a fantastic way to challenge yourself.
I’d love to beta read or CP for your next version. I’m not writing anymore so CP isn’t correct. As a set of fresh eyes I wouldn’t see the changes.
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Angie, there’s a fine line between courage and idiocy. Not sure I stayed on the right side of it here. 🙂 And I’d be thrilled if you’d beta read for me! I’ll let you know once I finish and see whether you have time to fit it in between paintings.
KD, my hats off to you. It sounds too much for my brain! That’s why I’ve never done the NaNoWriMo in November. November? Jeez, April is busy enough for me, but it sounds as if you might have done the same thing in April. Good for you. I didn’t get to read all you stories, but the ones I read – I liked, found them intriguing. Glad you participated in the challenge and pleased that we met. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
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Sheila, I know what you mean about November. I tried NaNo once and didn’t last a week. Thanks for stopping by!
I already gave you some of my thoughts, but I’ll repeat the ones that stand out most for me: (1) I love your cliffhanger chapter endings, (2) some of your phrases were awesome, (3) I LOVE LOVE LOVE a dragon with attitude, (4) your scenes were wonderful, I could visualize each one. I am probably in the not-really-the-ending-I-wanted camp. It reminded me of a dream sequence that yes, was somewhat of a let-down. It reminded me a little of the movie Titanic, so if you bracket the beginning a little more, it will probably remove that negative aspect. What was the significance of the [I’m going by memory here] dark eyes [?] aspect of the squid and the white wolf? Bring that out more in your revisions, because it was a teaser that wasn’t fully developed but could probably add another layer. Overall, it was a great story and I am sooooo looking forward to reading your final version of it. I’ll CP/beta for you if you want, but if you don’t want, that’s okay too. Congrats for completing the challenge!
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Dena, you make some great points. I really struggled with wondering whether the ending would be a letdown. I’ve always hated that whole “it was just a dream” thing, and that was nagging at me. I decided early on it was a cool idea to have the entire thing be a VR game, but I think part of the reason for that is I’ve never written (or really read much) fantasy before and it felt like I had to tie it to reality somehow. And now I’m not sure whether I could/should change it that drastically and write an entirely different ending.
If it wasn’t a VR game, I could see possibly, maybe, writing more stories in this world. All the characters became so “real” for me during the writing, it was a bit disappointing even to me to say they were merely characters in a game. As opposed to merely characters in a novel? LOL. Just not sure I want to go there, career-wise. Definitely something to ponder.
Yeah, the dark eyes/shadows was one of the things that irritated me and made me want to delete it. Like, what was I even thinking when I wrote that, because now I have to explain it. Yes, one of things I’ll expand upon.
Thank you for the great feedback, and for the encouraging words along the way! It really helped me get through this monster. And I’d be delighted if you want to beta read for me. I’ll let you know when it’s ready. 🙂
Hi KD! Count me in among the beta-reader offerers… in case you’re wanting more! And like Dena, absolutely no offense taken if you don’t.
I’m looking forward to the more expanded second half, especially if there are more VR hints in there. I think I mentioned that to me it felt like the movie THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR, where you find out it’s a virtual world – and then, that itself becomes a huge plot element…
And thanks too for explaining the ‘Prince’ section, above. I hadn’t recognised it while reading – although I must admit, I was consuming your words at a million miles an hour because – duh! – cliffhangers 😀
Anyway, thanks again for helping to make my April reading so delightful. And happy ‘more fiction’ writing!!!
Howdy! I didn’t read your A-Z story; I hardly have time to read Janet’s blog and the comments these days. But I loved, loved, loved the post-mortem, and why you did this, and THAT you did it.
Picking an arbitrary set of rules to follow (or to throw out the window) is a great way to both discover yourself as a writer and to improve. I spent several years writing in a newsgroup (a sort of forum) without even thinking about rules. I later spent a year writing at least one short story a day where I meticulously followed a specific rule for that story. I spent the next year writing at least a short story per day where I relentlessly ignored a specific rule for that story.
I improved a great deal, wrote some gems, wrote some crap, had a lot of fun, and discovered I could write genres and styles I’d previously had no idea I could write.
I look forward to making some time to read A-Z by KD James.
I also snarfed your subheader from Janet’s blog for my web page. With attribution, of course. Brilliantly put!
Hey, Miles! I’m with you on the lack of time. I still feel guilty I didn’t get around to reading more of the other A to Z entries. I agree, it’s important to do this kind of mental calisthenics once in a while, to have fun with the writing. Great for getting unstuck. And thanks for snarfing my words. Cool. 🙂
Kae, I’m honestly feeling very undecided about the whole VR thing right now. The classic Hero’s Journey begins in the normal world, adventure ensues, and ends by returning to the normal world with the character somehow changed. This story didn’t do that. It finished in a world the reader didn’t know existed. There’s a difference between a plot twist and a betrayal of story premise. After a lot of thinking, I realize the latter is what I did here. That’s one of the drawbacks to writing a story this way, on the fly.
So now I’m trying to decide whether the “normal” world is the one where Zoey and Anton are game designers (and if so, I need to set that up at the beginning), or if the normal world is one where she has her own security firm and there are dragons and magic (in which case, I re-write the ending). But… it seems to me that knowing while you’re reading that it’s a VR game would dilute the suspense, especially if there’s no underlying conflict or danger in the normal world. So, I’m undecided. 😦
I’ll let everyone know about beta reading once it’s time. That’s a really big undertaking and I never ask lightly or take for granted anyone has time or energy for it. So let’s wait and see where everyone is then, in terms of other commitments. I’m very appreciative of all the offers. You guys are awesome.
NaNoWriMo does the same thing to me. I write myself into corners, then have no CLUE how to write myself out of them again. It’s all a whirlwind! 🙂
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Juli, that’s the great part about re-writing and editing. You don’t necessarily have to write yourself out of a corner– sometimes you need to knock down a couple walls and make new corners. Which is probably the best argument for not putting a rough draft out in public like this. 🙂