Last week I posted a short story called “Do You Want Me to Leave You Alone While You Cry?” I wrote this story in exactly 85 minutes, longhand, with a cheap pen using up just a smidge more than five pages in a cheap spiral notebook, and taking another 55 minutes to type it up and post it to Fantasy Author’s Handbook. I changed a few things in the typing/edit phase—the cot was a couch in the first draft, for instance—and changed the title from “Boyfriends Provided,” but what you saw last week was a grand total of 140 minutes of my life—two hours and twenty minutes from zero to posted.

At only 1193 words (and okay, maybe it’s not the greatest work of fiction ever written or anything) that’s not actually that big a deal, right? But here’s the thing I want to talk about today: That 140 minutes encompasses everything that went into this story, including some WordPress tasks not entirely connected to the writing of the story but necessary for getting it up on the blog. It might be fair to trim that extra twenty minutes off the top and say it took me two hours even to write, type, and revise this story.

Here’s how it went down:

On December 29, 2015 I wrote a post called “Random Behavior Modification Prompts for Authors.” These prompts have been showing up on my calendar every day since, and I’ve reworked, revised, added to, and subtracted from that list several times in the past couple years. Here’s the current list, which I put into action starting February 1:

  1. Do a little dance
  2. Think of 6 “murder methods”
  3. Write a poem, right now
  4. Write a short story, right now
  5. Roll up an RPG character
  6. Spend $20 on yourself
  7. Tweet something funny, right now
  8. Puppy play time
  9. Walk around the block
  10. Transfer $20 to savings
  11. Change your social media pix
  12. Read a pulp story
  13. Read for 30 minutes
  14. Throw something away
  15. Random TED Talk
  16. Read an extra chapter of Heretics of Dune
  17. Organize a drawer or shelf
  18. Stand up for at least the next 30 minutes
  19. Clean one room
  20. Review self help folder

I’ll leave those for you to interpret as you wish. My “completion percentage” on these behavior prompts is probably about 50%, but so what? I set these up as events in my Mac Calendar app, actually rolling seven twenty-sided dice at a time to fill in a week, four times or so at the beginning of every month. They show up as notifications on my computer and on my iPhone. On Friday, January 26 this prompt popped up:

Write a short story, right now

So I opened my notebook to the next blank page and immediately started writing. What you read last week was in no way planned. There was no outline of any kind, no logline, no notes, no character sketches, no elaborate Scrivener set-up . . . nothing.

I just started writing and this is what came out.

I stopped writing when it felt like the story was over.

It made no difference to me if anyone was going to like it; pay for it; nominate it for an award; adapt it into a TV series, movie, or video game . . . or even read it.

I just wrote it.

And you know what? This is how I used to write when I was in my twenties and was regularly publishing in the “zine” universe. It’s what was lost to me, completely, when I started writing “professionally.” I’ve only just rediscovered this sort of thing—now it’s called “flash fiction,” I guess, but I’ve always cringed at that moniker. I don’t want this to be a thing. These are mine.

Some of them come out as horror stories, or science fiction, or little vignettes like “Just Exactly Like,” which I wrote in the same way, in maybe even less time, and that found its way into one of the still-out-there little literary zines.

This sort of writing doesn’t pay. There’s no royalty check at the end of this.

This is writing for the pure joy of it, for the exploration, for the creative and intellectual freedom. This is writing to write, to dig something unknown, unplanned, unexpected, uncritical, unedited, and guileless from within yourself and let it be whatever it is.

It’s not a substitution for a novel, or for more robust short stories, etc.—it’s not the only way I’ll ever write again. But having rediscovered the joy of surprising myself with maybe a couple thousand words or less of pure prose? I can’t believe I ever let that go. What was I thinking? Anyway, I’ll never let it go again.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, freelance editing, freelance writing, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, indie publishing, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, Story Structure, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to JUST . . . WRITE

  1. For what it’s worth, that short story was pretty great.

  2. JM Williams says:

    Sounds like a fun experience. I can’t write by hand anymore. It just doesn’t work. And when I am done, I can’t read half of what I wrote anyways 😀

  3. Adam says:

    There’s definitely something to be said for unfettered creativity. We get so caught up in purpose, meaning, and value, and forget about the fun. I read another post recently that talked about how many writers use unnecessarily clever writing in their stories, but there are definitely times where I like to play with words, the same way another person might flick a coin or card between their fingers. A little time should always be reserved to let go and embrace our first love of writing.

  4. Pingback: Writing Links 2/12/18 – Where Genres Collide

  5. Pingback: THE FIVE-MINUTE STORY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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