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.