So Many Stories, so Little Time (Cecilia Peartree)
As a change from producing whole novels at a ridiculous speed, I have recently completed a month-long event run by The Literal Challenge (https://www.theliteralchallenge.com/), an organisation that specialises in ridiculous writing challenges. I had taken part in their screenwriting event some time last year, but that was 'only' for 14 days while this latest one was 30 days of receiving a writing prompt each day and having 36 hours to complete a short story for the latest prompt and send it in. In case anyone is interested, this event is called 'Like the Prose' and has been happening every June for the past few years.
Although I had sort of thought of this as a form of relaxation after a hectic year of writing and publishing, at first I found it quite stressful. However, things became a little less fraught once I realised I was (a) writing too much each time and (b) trying to write stories that fitted into my novel schedule and told me more about existing characters. The two problems were connected, so once I gave up the idea of giving my regular characters something different to do, I found the stories were getting shorter too. On the other hand, one of my stories ended up providing a possible outline for a novel in one of my series, to be worked on later in the year.
I am not allowed to reveal the actual prompts, but they did vary quite a lot in their nature, sometimes demanding a story written in a certain format and at other times specifying a theme. I found the only thing to do in response to certain prompts was to write a non-fiction account rather than something fictitious. Perhaps because I am more used to writing novels than short stories, the prompts I most enjoyed working from were where the story didn't have to be stand-alone but was linked to a previous one in some way.
The prompts would always arrive by email at 10 pm, so my process was to read the email as soon as it came in, but never to write anything until mid-morning the following day. By the end of the 30 days, I found that once I had worked out where to start, I was able to sit down and write a story of about 1,000 words in the time it took to listen to my new favourite album ('Lost in the Cedar Wood' by Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane). So I think this exercise has been quite good for me.
Some of the resulting stories were better than others, needless to say. I will spare you 'Wait While I Find my Hearing Aid', which was inspired by some of the spam phone calls we've been getting lately, and 'One Song to Bind Them All', a rant brought on by the One Nation One Britain thing I'd seen on Twitter. But here is my final effort, written on the 30th of June in an attempt to prepare for work on the novel I ruthlessly abandoned to give myself time for other things.
Back in the Room
I opened the door very cautiously, hoping they might all be asleep, although it was only mid-morning. Goodness knows what they had been up to while I’d been away. I half-expected them to have got drunk – not that I had left any alcohol lying about, but you never knew how crafty they might be when it came to obtaining the odd bottle of whisky, especially if one or more of them had popped up to the Highlands again and maybe done a distillery tour to while away the time – and trashed the place, but there was no visible evidence of it. Maybe Philippa had got them all organised to clear up the mess.
Three of them were sitting at the table. Philippa was tapping her pen impatiently while William drew a diagram on one of the big sheets of paper that belonged with the whiteboard. Max seemed to be sketching in a notebook. It was probably another of his vole cross-sections. He didn’t even look up as I went into the room.
Fiona was circling the table with the dog, who must have been more impatient than any of the others. He was also the only one who seemed at all pleased to see me. The others were all frowning, some more censoriously than others.
Apart from the four main players, a few more minor characters sat around on the chairs at the edges of the room. I expected them to make more fuss than anyone about the parts they had to play, but on the other hand that was really just background noise. I had to establish what the others were thinking before bothering about these extras, some of whose names I had forgotten in the mean-time.
‘There you are!’ said Philippa.
Max glanced up from his notebook, a bit reluctantly, and nodded a greeting.
‘A whole thirty days this time,’ said Philippa.
‘It was more than that the last time,’ said William without looking up. ‘Years on end.’
‘That was a one-off,’ I said with dignity. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘I can’t stay on here much longer,’ said Fiona. ‘I need to take the dog back, apart from anything else.’
‘I’m just working on a plan to help you with the story structure,’ said William. He held up the piece of paper, which was adorned with various red and green boxes and some writing that, thank goodness, was too small for me to read. He had the air of a model pupil showing off his homework.
‘Good, good,’ I said.
‘I don’t know why you’re bothering,’ muttered Max. ‘She won’t take any notice of it.’
I wasn’t sure why Max was so grumpy. It wasn’t like him to feel neglected, in fact he probably welcomed the respite from haring all over the country trying to solve a mystery. He’d had a whole month to work on his vole cross-sections.
‘Before you say any more,’ I said, advancing towards them, ‘I’ve already made lots of notes, and there’s going to be at least one whole extra chapter. And the denouement is going to be slowed down so that everything doesn’t happen at once.’
‘Can I be in the extra chapter?’ enquired Samantha from the sidelines. ‘I did happen to notice I seem to have been relegated to the substitutes’ bench this time. And I don’t get to wear the slinky red dress either.’
Max was nodding again. ‘It doesn’t seem very fair to Samantha, after what happened to her the last time…’
‘But she plays a vital part in the closing scenes,’ Philippa pointed out, glaring at Max. She had always slightly resented Samantha, although I had talked them into working together by the end of the book. ‘Isn’t that enough?’
‘At least you’ve got something to do in this one,’ Tricia interrupted from a dark corner of the room. ‘I don’t know if I even get a mention.’
‘Oh, you definitely do,’ I assured her.
‘Can’t I actually do something useful, though?’ she said plaintively.
‘Maybe next time,’ I told her firmly.
‘Oh, God, we won’t have to do it all again, will we?’ said Max.
Really, for a character I had liked a lot when I first wrote him, he was turning out to be a bit annoying. If he wasn’t careful he would also be put in a dark corner when I wrote the next book. Though it would be difficult having a nerdy museum curator as the central character if I didn’t give him several chapters of his own.
Anyway, it was time to get the show back on the road, so to speak.
I put my laptop on the table and switched it on. I got my notebook out of my bag and placed it next to the laptop. I put on my headphones and started my playlist, which drowned out the cacophony of my characters’ voices.
Time to begin – again.