Category Archives: Writing Reflections

Writing Redemption

As the editor of FiftyWordStories.com, I receive a lot of different submissions from a lot of different people. I publish some of them and turn down others, for a wide variety of reasons. Every time I turn down a story, I try to share my reasons for the rejection in a helpful and encouraging way.

Writing these “rejection letters” sometimes turns into an opportunity to share something that I think more writers should be aware of, or think about. Today I had one of those opportunities, and I wanted to share my response here.

I hope this response will be useful and encouraging to you, whether you’re a writer/author or not.


I wrote this email in response to a story submission that was fairly dark and hopeless…

Hi [author],

Thanks for sending this in. I hope it isn’t too closely reflective of your personal experiences…

With “dark” stories, I always go back to something one of my high school teachers told me. I showed him a dark story I’d written, based on a nightmare I’d had. He asked me where the story’s “redemption” was.

It didn’t have one.

I think this story is in a similar place. Life can be dark sometimes, and writing, as a reflection of life, can certainly go to those dark places, too. But as authors and artists, I think it’s important that we find a way to make those dark spots count for something. There should be meaning, hope, growth, or redemption of some sort in the dark things that we write, some kind of encouragement or a call to action, or even a cry for help.

This story is simply a descent into hopelessness, without any of those redemptive elements I just described. I’d like to encourage you to move beyond the darkness of a story like this and find a way to bring out a positive of some kind. Maybe that means finding something to hope in or hope for. Maybe it means calling people to come and do something to make a change or challenge the darkness. Or maybe the only thing you can do is turn it into a cry for help. (For an example of this, see Psalm 88.)

So thanks again for submitting. I won’t be using this story on the site, but I hope sending this in has allowed you to express what you needed to express, and I hope you’re able to find some redemption through your writing in the future.

Tim Sevenhuysen

When “Done” Isn’t “Done”

Hide and Seek is done. Well, very nearly, anyways.

Last night I wrote, and today I posted, the final chapter in my longest Special People story arc yet. It was Chapter 55, and the total length of the story is about 50,000 words.

I have a brief epilogue to write, containing one final scene, and then that’ll be that. The story will be finished and I can move on.

Except not quite.

My long-term goal with Special People is to package up the story arcs into (self-)publishable, printable books and sell them through my Store, alongside my other writing. Why hasn’t that happened yet? After all, I’d already completed three story arcs before I even started Hide and Seek.

Well, put simply, it’s because those stories aren’t ready to publish. It isn’t enough for me to wrap up the serialization of the story and get every chapter up on the website; I also have to deal with editing and, in some cases, rewriting, and there’s nothing that shuts down my creative urges like rewriting… Yuck.

Of the stories I’ve written for Special People so far, I’d say Hide and Seek is maybe in the most publishable shape, though Who Killed Walter Carton? came out pretty decently, too. (Trends suggest that I’m getting better over time!) But before I can release Hide and Seek as a novel, I know for sure that there’s one specific chapter I have to significantly rewrite, because I forgot to factor in the use of a character’s special ability, and I’m pretty certain there are a variety of problems with the continuity and flow of the story, simply due to the fact that my writing time was spread out over such a long time period. I guarantee I’ve forgotten some of the details of the early story, and made some blunders in the later chapters because of it.

Then, on top of all that, I have to consider whether it would even make sense to publish Hide and Seek before putting out the arcs that came before it. This is a tricky one, because Hide and Seek actually takes place 10 years before Hands-On and King of the Dark, and doesn’t require knowledge of those stories, but I feel like those earlier arcs may do a better job of introducing the reader to the Special People “universe” and its primary character(s).

If I decide that I want to publish the stories in the order I wrote them, that means I have to revisit my plans to rewrite Hands-On and King of the Dark. There’s a great road plan laid out for me to do so, but it’s going to take time to do it, and like I said, that doesn’t exactly get my creative juices flowing.

Thankfully, I’m going to have a month to work through whichever set of edits or rewrites I decide to pursue, while the comic, Change, gets posted. I’ll keep everyone updated on my plans as and when I make any decisions.

Learning How to Write Conflict

One of the main reasons I challenged myself to do the Year of Stories was to force myself to practice my writing. I’ve written 11 stories at this point and released 5 of them, with February’s batch of 4 more coming out soon.

Putting together a new short story every single week means that I have to explore lots of different plot types and methods of storytelling. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned so far, relating mostly to developing conflict.


1. Clarify the conflict.

Sometimes I’m tempted to write a story that’s based more on a concept than a conflict. In Burns Mar the Sun-Grasper’s Hands, for example, there isn’t actually much of a conflict: the events of the story take place without a whole lot of tension, and it doesn’t really feel like there’s something at stake.

As a speculative fiction writer, I love a good concept. I love to build a story around an idea, a “what if” scenario, like I did in Diana and the Animal and A Kingdom of White. If the concept is all the story has going for it, though, then it isn’t much of a story.

Conflict and tension keep the reader reading, so that’s something I’m trying to be more intentional about creating as I come up with the ideas for my future stories.

2. Tell the story during the story.

In Discovery Two, a significant portion of the conflict has been played out in the past, and doesn’t happen during the flow of the story. Building a conflict outside the events of the story doesn’t involve the reader in what’s happening, and it’s very important for the reader to feel involved, I think.

In the case of Discovery Two, the “outside-the-flow” conflict was playing out as the backdrop to an active, “inside-the-flow” sequence of events, so I think the story reads okay because of that, but if I was writing the story again I would try to find a way to build those past events more directly into the flow of the storytelling.

3. Make the characters proactive.

Don’t let the story happen to the character. Make them an active part of its evolution and resolution. Having passive characters who simply react to a story playing itself out in front of them is the storytelling equivalent of using the passive voice to build a sentence.

Not to pick too much on one story, but Burns Mar the Sun-Grasper’s Hands is an example of the main character being largely reactive rather than proactive. I don’t think the story is terrible, but I feel like the way I constructed it didn’t allow for the strongest storytelling.

4. Resolve the conflict.

If I do all of the other steps above, building a good conflict, playing out that conflict within the flow of the story, and making the characters proactive in exploring that conflict, it will all come to nothing if I don’t resolve the conflict.

Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Short stories are an especially fertile ground for cliffhangers, partial resolutions, and other forms of alternative plotting. But in general, a reader wants to feel satisfied with their experience when they come to the end of the story. The main questions should be answered. At least part of the conflict should be resolved.

A Kingdom of White is an example of a story that I think does this well. The overall conflict may not get resolved, but the conflict that is actually played out within the story–the character’s internal conflict–does get resolved. The larger, external conflict is left as a sort of cliffhanger. (That external conflict is something I’d love to expand into novel length, if I get the opportunity.)


Obviously I’m not an expert at applying all of these rules to my writing, not yet. I have a long way to go this year, and I expect to learn a lot more. I’m sure I’ll still see some of these weaknesses creeping into my stories here and there, but I’m growing and improving as a writer, and I hope that comes across to you as a reader.

Answers #2 – 50-Word Stories

Jeremy Quinn asked me the following question:

Why did you originally start doing 50-word stories?

I feel like I’ve probably related the history of my relationship with 50-word stories before, but maybe not on my blog, so here goes.

I wrote my first 50-word stories in high school. I think it was in Grade 12, but it may have been earlier. I honestly can’t remember how I first became aware of the concept. It may have been an assignment or class exercise.

All I remember for sure is that I posted a few to my blog, back when I was using a completely different URL, built every page from scratch in Microsoft Frontpage, and had zero audience whatsoever.

Most of the content on that old website didn’t get translated over through the next few iterations of my blog, but in mid-2008 a handful of 50-word stories remained, buried in the archives.

Around the beginning of 2009, a bunch of people on the Loading Ready Run forums decided that they were going to take part in a year-long photography challenge, where they had to take and post a new photo every day of the year. Not being a photographer myself, I realized 50-word stories would be an interesting writing equivalent of that project, so I bought the FiftyWordStories.com domain name, set up a WordPress install, and seeded it with those old 50s I still had kicking around.

On February 22, 2009, I started off on that journey, and now I’m four-and-a-half months through the third year of running the site. (Of course, I only write four stories per week myself, now, instead of seven, but the overall quality has definitely kept improving!)

FiftyWordStories.com has been a really fun project over the last few years. It’s especially cool to hear from people who have been inspired to try out microfiction for themselves, including a couple of creative writing classes and high school English classes. Plus I’ve been able to release two books so far, which has been a ton of fun, as well.

If you haven’t checked the site out before, go explore! There are almost 800 stories on the site (over 550 of which I’ve written myself), so there’s a pretty massive backlog to go through. Enjoy!


Have a question of your own that you’d like to see me answer? Leave a comment or get in touch with me on Twitter.

Answers #1 – Why Write?

I’m going to try out a Q&A feature on my blog. For now, I’ll mostly be soliciting questions via social media (see the top of the sidebar for links), but you can also email me (tsevenhuysen@gmail.com) if there’s something you’d really like to know about my writing, my family, my opinions, or any other aspect of my life.

 

Sean Riley asked me:

Why write?

Wow. What a great, big question. Why do I write? I’m not entirely sure I know. But I’ll try to give some semblance of an answer.


The Answer

Sitting back and thinking about it, I think there are three main reasons why I write. Here they are:

1) I write because I have a need to create.

Ideas pop into my head whether I’m looking for them or not, a lot of the time. I can either let them bounce around for a while until they find their way out my ear and get carried off by the wind, or I can try to put them down on paper or a screen somewhere. I have a drive to create, an urge of some sort, that pushes me to do something with my ideas.

But writing my ideas down wouldn’t mean a whole lot if no one read them, which is why I have reason 2:

2) I write because it’s rewarding.

Any time someone reads a story I’ve written, whether they give me feedback or not, whether they even like it or not, I find it really rewarding. It’s hard to pin down why. Maybe it’s some sense of the reader investing their time in me or showing appreciation for the effort I put into creating that story. Maybe it’s a validation of my creative urge.

Having my stories read makes me feel valued. It even allows me to feel like I’m making a difference in someone’s life, whether that difference is significant or not. It’s wonderfully empowering to know that your words are winding their way through someone else’s brain, especially when I think of all the great experiences I’ve had reading things that other people have written. And that brings me to my third, and maybe most important, reason for writing, which is:

3) I write because I read.

Fiction has been one of the most influential mediums in my life. I’ve read fiction pretty much constantly since I was a kid. Many of my fondest memories are tied to books, or experiences related to books. I remember a kids’ book about a mouse and a ripe, red strawberry, I remember the Berenstain Bears, I remember the Land of Barely There. I remember going to see a play in a local theatre based on The Hobbit, and then finding The Fellowship of the Ring in the class library in Grade 4, devouring it, and hunting forever to find the rest of the series to read. I remember getting Ender’s Game for free at a book exchange during a camping trip and reading it in three-and-a-half hours with literally one single break to go to the bathroom.

I remember The Grapes of Wrath teaching me about tragedy.
I remember Gulliver’s Travels teaching me about satire.
I remember The Life of Pi teaching me about metaphor.
I remember Les Miserables completely reformulating my concept of literature.

The more I read, the more I learn, and the more my life feels enriched. I only first read some of these incredibly influential books in the past couple of years, and I hope to have my life changed in many more ways by the fiction I continue to discover.

I write because I want to be a part of this process. I don’t anticipate that my fiction will ever do for someone what Les Mis or Grapes of Wrath did for me, but maybe by writing I can somehow help those classics to live on, in some small way.


I hope this goes part of the way to answering your question, Sean.

And if anyone wants to get started on enriching their lives through reading, look no further than my 50 Best Books list!