It's Not About You

In the summer of 2017, I enrolled in a writing course with an established author. I wanted to get those creative gears a little more “unstuck” and get some feedback on my writing.

Not feedback from people who love me; feedback from people who don’t give two rats’ tails about me. My husband wouldn’t tell me if I wrote crap to save his life. He loves me too much. I needed a hard-nosed opinion so I could grow and improve.

I also wanted feedback from someone who’s been in the publishing industry—both the traditional and indie arenas—because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet. And if someone has been actively writing long enough to be firmly established in both of those arenas, they have more knowledge and practical, applicable advice to give than a lot of “writers” selling courses who’ve not written much, let alone have anything that resembles a career.

This author, Dean Wesley Smith (and his author/editor wife), were just the ticket. I had followed their blogs for quite a while and knew from their no-nonsense tones that if I turned in something that sucked, they’d tell me. They’d also tell me the blatant truth about why it didn’t work and maybe give some advice on how to fix it or skills to work on.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I learned more in the couple of courses I took from him than I did in all of college. I learned stuff I didn’t even know I needed to know.

Then he put out a challenge last June. Write 30 stories in 30 days and turn each in to him. Dean would be the first reader and give a short critique. If you made all thirty days, you got to take two more courses from him. As of this writing, the shorts I have on Amazon and the ones you may have read on the blog are a result of that challenge.

By far, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in any of my academics. More difficult than organic chemistry. Calculus was a walk in the park, and college exams were a breeze compared to the grueling task of that many short stories in a month.

And do you know just how much “other life” happens in a month? We were flat busy in all avenues aside from this crazy endeavor.

At any rate, I logged over 70,000 words that month and completed all thirty stories. Thirty different settings. Thirty different plots. And way more than thirty different characters with all of their quirks, wardrobes, props and dialog. I think a 70,000-word novel would have been easier—at least I could’ve stayed in the same story world with the same group of people.

Add to that the fact that I hadn’t written a short story since I was in middle school. I can’t for the life of me remember doing a single one in high school.

Not all of the stories made it through the wringer, so to speak. A couple flat didn’t work (though hubby thought them wonderful). A few needed a little more meat. And a few were solid novel starts—ideas too big for a short, but boy will they be great fun to revisit in a longer form.

I passed a few of them around to family members and a couple of friends. Then a strange thing happened. People thought those stories, or small bits of them, were about them or about someone we knew.

Now, remember, thirty tales in thirty days. I wasn’t thinking at all. I wasn’t thinking about mommas or daddies or neighbors or the wayward anyone. The only thing I was thinking about was the midnight deadline and would I even be able to come up with another storyline the next day. And the next. And the next.

I did, however, try really hard with the names of the characters. I didn’t name characters (or at least in the first eight or ten stories) with names of anyone I knew personally. I think that even fell apart by the half-way point. I had to start a notepad next to the laptop to remember a cast of three during one story because all the names used from previous stories were jumbling in my head. At least two characters accidentally changed gender before the final proofing, as well.

I’ve also signed so many confidentiality agreements for work that I really do try not to pull material directly from other people. I try to instead work with generalities and common themes as opposed to “I know a guy who_________” (fill in the blank with something only that one guy did and the whole world knows who it is).

So did I consciously write about anyone I know? Nope. If you see yourself or your dog walker, or college roommate in one of my stories, rest assured: it’s a coincidence.

Are any of them about me? Maybe. Bits of me. Tiny moments from childhood woven into a character’s world. Like in Wouldn’t You Like To Be a Red-Winged Blackbird?, the photo challenge the girls embark on is based on a game my grandmother and I played when I was very young. The raspberry pie Penny’s Place and the petunias in Green Thumb hold a specialness for me, but they’re just tidbits. A prop for a character or a detail to enrich the narrative.

And, quite frankly, my characters often didn’t do what I told them to, so trying to write someone I knew into recognizable fictional form would have been a challenge without giving their address and Social Security number right up front.

But isn’t that the fun part of stories? Seeing yourself, or at least little bits of you, in a character. In the way they speak, dress, move or react? Isn’t that one of the ways we connect?

And even more fun—if we’re honest with ourselves—is seeing our nemesis in the story’s villain and being able to root for that character’s defeat without the guilty conscious of doing it in real life.

And thus, creatives have to be careful, or we’ll get sued.

This is why television shows and movies put that “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead…” disclaimer in small print at the end of the credits. Books often do it at the beginning, usually just to remind us all…

No, it really isn’t about you.

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first Friday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.