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[GUEST POST] James Van Pelt, author of PANDORA’S GUN, on His 52-Week Writing Challenge

jamesvanpeltJames Van Pelt is a full-time writer in western Colorado. His fiction has made appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. He has been a finalist for a Nebula Award, and been reprinted in many year’s best collections. His first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, was released in 2006. His third collection of stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, received the Colorado Book Award in 2010. His latest collection, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, was released in October of 2012. His first Young Adult novel, Pandora’s Gun, was released from Fairwood Press in August of 2015. James blogs at and can be found on Facebook.

The 52-Week Writing Challenge

by James Van Pelt

Twenty-seven weeks ago, I finally decided to follow Ray Bradbury’s advice when he said, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I started writing short stories seriously in my late twenties. Since I’m sixty-one now, that’s over thirty years of story writing. During that time I taught creative writing to high schoolers and college students, earned a MA in creative writing from the University of California in Davis, sold stories to most of the major science fiction markets, have had work chosen for numerous year’s best anthologies, and been a finalist for several major awards, including a Nebula.

Which is really a long and odd way to tell you that despite that background I still feel like a beginning writer with tons more to learn about this fascinating art form. That’s why I took up Bradbury’s challenge.

When I was in grad school, I hung out with the poet, Eric Schaeffer. He told me that when he died, he wanted all his manuscripts burned. This seemed radical to me. After all, grad students the world over make their careers on the notes, letters and rough drafts of the people they are writing about. What would scholars of the future have to look at if his manuscripts were burned? His argument was that your past work is like animal scat. It only tells you that the animal was there, not where it is now. What I took from Eric is that writing, like all the arts, is a growth activity. There’s no craft finish line a writer crosses and then says, “I’m done learning. From now on, I will use the skills I’ve obtained and write only professional level stories.”

Also, I like to be productive. When I’m drafting a novel, being productive is easy. I write every day. If I’m not sure how to push the story forward, I can deepen what I’ve already done. Short stories, though, can finish quickly. To be productive, I have to be in story generation mode all the time, which is an interesting place to be.

Some people are natural novelists while some like the shorter stuff. I’d like to be able to do both, but I think my tendency is for the short story. They don’t make much money. However, they do keep me involved with editors and the publishing world (you don’t think I write them and then trunk them, do you?).

Finally, writing a successful short story requires skills in sentence wrangling, character building, plot structuring, and everything else. Repetition can help develop those skills.

So, on March 3rd I started the first story.

I didn’t have a plot, but I did have a setting. I’d been at the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat that Fairwood Press sponsors each year, and during that time I’d taken a hike through a cemetery. Cemeteries are incredibly evocative. The tombstones with names, dates and epitaphs are moving. At one tombstone, someone had left a Mylar helium balloon that said “Happy Birthday.” The gentleman buried there had been born a few days earlier in 1927. The stone was one of those where his wife’s name was carved next to his. She was born in 1930, but there was no death date. It occurred to me that she had put the balloon on her husband’s stone. He’d died in 1998. The image that played out in my head was of an eighty-five year old woman coming to the graveyard for the last seventeen years to mark her husband’s birthday. The stone said they’d married in 1950.

The image made me sob, and I knew I had a story. I didn’t know what it was, but all I need is the spark.

I wrote it in a week, of course.

On Monday of week two, I found myself thinking about what drew me to science fiction in the first place. By that afternoon, I was five hundred words into “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.”

I picked up an H.P. Lovecraft collection from my bookshelf on the next Monday, and by the end of the week, finished “Skinny Dipping with the Old Ones.”

As I mentioned, I’m on story twenty-seven as I write this post. It’s a combination of the 1976 flood on the Big Thompson River in Colorado, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and a boy dealing with an abusive mother.

Writing fast and completing a story a week has produced benefits. First, I’ve become more experimental. Short stories are like little lab experiments anyway, but when I know that the story I’m working on this week will become another story next week, I’m not so hung up on missteps. I learn a bunch more from making bold failures than I do with cautious successes.

Second, I’ve really started to see the plastic and pliable nature of stories. Do I add a scene? Go ahead. What about a new character? Why not? What if my characters just act during this scene instead of talking? Sounds good. Being productive has given me permission to dive in. After all, according to Bradbury, I might only get a couple good stories from the exercise anyway (I’m hoping for a much higher rate of good to crap, but we’ll see).
And finally, I think creative writing is like any other performance art. You can get to a certain level and then hang out doing the same sort of stuff (like Louis L’Amour or Norman Rockwell) or you can keep growing. The comedian Louis C.K. said that he learned a lot from another comedian, George Carlin. Carlin came first and was already a legend when Louis C.K. was starting his career. Louis heard an interview Carlin did where Carlin said that he was writing new material for this year’s special. He’d thrown out everything from the year before and was writing totally new jokes. This astounded Louis C.K., who had been slowly adding to his act for ten years, polishing the old material. Why would a giant like Carlin throw out the old jokes when they were so good and were laugh proven?
Louis decided to try the Carlin method, though, so in his next show he tossed his old set. What was he going to say? The first jokes had come from digging into himself to see what was vital. What he learned was with the old material gone, he had to dig deeper for new things to say. Once he said those, he had to delve even deeper than before.

Art is in the revelation. If I kept doing the old stories, or doing stories that relied on the same techniques, I’d be no better than those artists who have discovered one image that is commercial, and then spend the rest of their careers doing that. They cease doing art and instead became practiced at a craft.

I don’t want that to happen to me.

Most of my career, I’ve been a high school English teacher. I met some veterans when I started who had been at it for thirty years. That’s an extraordinarily long time to teach kids. But differences existed between the veterans. Some had thirty years of experience and had become marvelous. The others had one year of experience thirty times and were terrible. I remember looking at the yellowed lesson plans from one old teacher. She proudly told me they were the same ones she’d used her first year. Even in my first year, I thought that was pathetic.

The plan is that by the end of February next year, I’ll be fifty-two stories wiser.

Writing is a growth activity. I don’t know why anyone who got into story telling wouldn’t understand that.

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