John Beresford is one our authors published in I You He She It – a collection of short stories and poems developed out of the Grist project. As part of #OAWeek we asked him to discuss his writing processes and and how he approached the challenge of a short story.

You can read the Grist collection online, open access here.

Dealing with ‘writer’s block’

My Grist anthology piece is part of a “100 Day Writing Challenge” I set myself during a period of writerly inactivity following the publication of my first novel in 2012. I had several ideas for a second novel but while I was trying to decide on a direction, I hadn’t been doing any actual writing. A conversation with my daughter about how important it is to keep your hand in with artistic endeavour, flex the creative muscles, and not worry too much about the quality of the output (at least initially) but instead concentrate on getting it done and trying new things, uncovered obvious parallels between the painting challenge she was working on at the time, and my writing.

Writing as a challenge

Working from a list of 100 themes my challenge was to write for thirty minutes without editing or revision of any kind on whatever the theme suggested to me. There are many examples of such “theme lists” online. The one I used can be found here. Feel free to reuse it if the idea of the challenge piques your interest.

I didn’t intend to restrict myself to narrative fiction. If the theme evoked poetry then I was happy to rhyme for the period instead – I think there’s one example of this; an amusing bit of doggerel (what do you expect in 30 minutes?) entitled Never Again – or if it triggered a personal memory the writing took the form of a blog entry, but the majority of the 100 entries are fictional.

At the outset I expected there to be a large number of unfinished pieces, but it didn’t turn out that way. With some kind of innate writer’s clock I very quickly developed a feel for how much text could be contained in half an hour, and with the exception of three or four early attempts I was able to bring each entry to a satisfactory conclusion in the time allowed. I also hoped to come out of the challenge with a few gems – maybe a scene or two I could use in that novel I was heading towards, or the germ of an idea for a short story. In the end I did use adapted versions of several entries in Gatekeeper, and also began to develop an idea for a collection of short stories with a narrative link.

What I didn’t expect was empirical proof that writing becomes easier the more you engage in it. During the course of the Challenge my average word count for each piece rose from 550 to almost 900. At nine hundred words a day, in only thirty minutes a day, you could have the first draft of a decent length novel in the time I took to complete this challenge.

An absence of editing

I submitted ‘Stirring of the Wind’ to Grist exactly as it stood: still unedited. Looking at it now, to me it’s an object lesson in first drafting. I’d clearly been able to silence my inner editor for those thirty minutes. The piece flows quite well and, if you’ll forgive the self-critique, has some nice descriptive passages. The idea of Neil’s reflection turning into mourning for his lost first love only occurred to me during the writing, and I think brings added poignancy to what was already a subdued piece, with its parallel between the autumn of the year and of Neil’s life. With critical hindsight, it suffers from the lack of editing in what for me is a common slip – the reuse of similar words or phrases in close proximity. ‘Shook – or shaking – loose’ appears twice in the early part of the second (non-dialogue) paragraph. ‘Handfuls’ is not a word you would want to use more than once in a piece of this length, and even ‘leaves’, with some judicious journeying through thesaurus and dictionary, could have been spared its current exhaustion.

But that’s the point of first drafts. As Shannon Hale says: ‘I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.’ And the point of the 100 Day Challenge exercise is to let loose your creativity and try new things, where a degree of discomfort with the theme is probably a Good Thing.

With those few scenes in the bag, I completed Gatekeeper and it was published in 2015. I’m currently working on a sequel, which is proving to be several orders of magnitude more challenging than writing a novel in the first place, but that’s probably a story for another time.

You can read the Grist collection online, open access here.

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