Ramblings, secrets, and not so comfortable comfort zones

Warning: This post is a series of ramblings. Read at your own risk. And if you know my children, please don’t tell them that I rambled in public, for I know I will never hear the end of it. (I have often found myself telling my children (who like to talk, a lot) that some things are better left as thoughts and not really intended to utilize someone else’s fine tuned listening skills – for example, does everyone really need to know that the nubby on your left sock looks surprisingly like President Lincoln, and hey, didn’t someone sell a potato chip that looked like Ben Franklin for quite a bit of money on the internet, and maybe I can make a few bucks that way because I do believe that there is a beany boo out there that I might not own yet, so could you come here right this very second and tell me how anyone could possibly think this is not the spitting image of Mr. Lincoln himself?!) Seriously, I would be most obliged if the following ramblings could be our little secret.

So here’s how it started. A few weeks ago, I entered a writing contest and was reading the FAQ’s (frequently asked questions) to make sure I followed all the rules, when I stumbled across some curious information. While I had entered two novels and a picture book, I noticed that two out of three of the most entered categories were short story (2,000-4,000 words) and short-short story (less than 2,000 words). If you have never tried to write a complete story, this may not matter to you at all, but to get a whole story out, that seemed like a very small amount of words to me.

It made me remember back to the days when I started writing and joined a writer’s group. I wrote picture books (around 700 words) and broke into a sweat whenever I thought about writing something longer. That is until one meeting, when a well published children’s novelist said the unthinkable – she wanted to write a picture book to see if she could get a story across in such an unbelievably small amount of words. She went on to say that writing picture books was much harder than writing a novel…and people in the room agreed with her! What?! Harder?!

Now I am not trying to say any of these things is easy, but it got me to thinking that maybe I should try something longer, get out of my comfort zone. Then, a few weeks later, I got pushed (very kindly) out of my comfort zone when I took a picture book in progress to my friends for advice because I was having a hard time keeping my word count down. “This would make a great novel!” they said. Sheesh. Goodbye comfort zone.

It turned out, though, that with careful planning, lots of advice from friends, and a long life of loving reading novels, I was more prepared than I thought when I sat down to give it a try. That novel, The Runway, was a huge (and it turns out not impossible) accomplishment for me. I can also say it gave me the confidence to write a second one and in doing so has not only gotten me out of my comfort zone, but has expanded that zone.

So here I am, enjoying writing both novels and picture books, when I came across this short story comment in the FAQ section. Instantly, I was intimidated. I can imagine picture books because they have illustrations to tell the part of the story the words don’t, and I have novels to get out all the information I need…but a short story? No pictures? No ramblings? That doesn’t sound comfy. Not at all.

But it wouldn’t leave my head. And because it didn’t leave my head, I spent a lot of energy thinking about what makes a story and how I can fit one into a small space. Hmm, what makes a story? Personal connection, identifiable characters, something old in a new way, something new in an old way, unique point of view, insight into something common that is really not so common? My list went on and I kind of made a game out of adding ideas, until the other day, I was going through my desk looking for a story map I needed to review and I saw the corner of piece of paper. It had my name at the top written in pencil with the word Stokes underneath it. It was an assignment I did for a writing class in college, and believe it or not it was a short story. Now, I had never thought of it as a short story because that wasn’t technically the assignment, but that’s what it was and when I pulled it from the stack of papers on the desk I couldn’t suppress a smile.

The interesting thing about this paper was not really the grade (A+ yay!) or the assignment, but the reason I still had it, and it was really no surprise that it was right there. (It was actually so much a part of my desk that I had forgotten it was there.) The smooth corners of the papers and smudged pencil marks proudly told the story that this paper had been taken good care of and had been read many times. But not by me.

For seventeen years, this paper sat in a slot in my dad’s briefcase, where he once told me was a handy spot, because he always carried the case and it allowed him the opportunity to reread it whenever he wanted. (Parents are the best!) I didn’t realize until then that he had kept it for so long, and I have to say that his secret possession made me proud. It meant so much, in fact, that when he passed away, it wasn’t long before I asked if I could keep that briefcase, thus leading to the paper being on my desk where I could have the happy memory in my own handy spot.

The timing of this whole discovery couldn’t have been better and I instantly began searching for ideas. Being a music fanatic, I turned to my iPod, since in my opinion songs are the ultimate short stories, and began the search for inspiration, hoping this time to push myself out of my comfort zone. I settled on a combination of songs that have given me the right emotions to start my story.

Watching All The Cars Go By, by Keith Munslow – Gave me the idea to make the story about someone traveling to a place only revealed by cryptic description.
One Thing, by Finger Eleven – Gave me the idea to give the story a twist based on the one thing most people would give something up for and the way his motivation is different than expected.
The Last Kiss, by J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – I can’t reveal this connection:)

So my question for you as I embark on my short story (and my comfort zone cries out for help) is where is your comfort zone and what would make you push yourself out of it? What songs make you feel like they are a short story that you cannot forget? What do you feel most comfortable writing or reading and what intimidates you? (Science fiction intimidates me and I just put Ender’s Game on my nightstand.)

Today is a good day to scare the pants off your comfort zone:)

Happy writing!

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