How I Dove Back Into Fiction with Vocal's Summer Fiction Series
This summer, I rediscovered my love of fiction writing.
When I was a kid, I wrote stories all the time. They seemed to bubble to the surface constantly, completely out of nowhere. Looking back, I'm envious of my younger brain. I never stopped thinking of characters, names, plots, settings, and fictional worlds. I never seemed to run out of ideas, and I never got discouraged. I miss this creative younger version of myself.
Somewhere along the way, I lost the motivation to write fiction—or perhaps I just ran out of ideas. Instead of pursuing creative writing in college, I studied linguistics and psychology, and in graduate school I studied Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). These fields tend to focus on empirical data rather than the made-up world. I became interested in research, APA style, methods, and second language pedagogy. There wasn't much time for stories or character development.
After my TESL program ended, I began another degree in Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies. Though this program was still academically rigorous, it explored the creative, subjective side of English—a side that I had dearly missed. Finally, I could breathe again. I started wondering again, started dreaming again, started writing again.
But I didn't turn back to fiction, at least not in any serious way. It felt too scary; writing about my own life was much safer. People would believe me when I wrote about my own experiences, but fiction? I didn't think I could create a believable fiction tale anymore.
Then, in May of this year, I joined Vocal.
I stumbled upon an ad for this creator platform on social media and I was intrigued. It turned out to be exactly what I needed to dive back into my creative writing.
Not long after I joined, a new community was added: Fiction. To celebrate its inception, Vocal launched the Summer Fiction Series. This series of eight short fiction writing challenges was inspired by classic works of traditional summer reading literature like The Great Gatsby and Matilda.
In classic Vocal style, each challenge only had one small requirement, usually the presence of a specific object or motif. The "Green Light" challenge, based on The Great Gatsby, required the story to have some kind of green light. The "Raging Bull" challenge, inspired by The Sun Also Rises, had to have a bull. And so on.
I was delighted by the deceptive simplicity of these Challenge prompts. I sometimes struggle, as many writers do, to come up with ideas out of the blue, but I also struggle with overly specific prompts that leave little room for interpretation. It has been a while since I paid attention to my fiction craft, and these prompts were the perfect balance of direction and freedom.
I had a busy summer, so I was not able to enter all eight challenges. I just barely managed seven, though, which I'm pretty proud of after a years-long fiction drought.
I submitted some of the stories right before the deadline; I revised others over the course of a week or more. Some of them are much less than great, and couple are pretty good. None of them placed or were selected as Top Stories, but I wrote them and I had fun, and that's what matters.
It Begins: The First Three Stories
SFS 1 was called Old Barn. The requirements were as follows:
This Challenge is inspired by the terrific, radiant, humble childhood favorite, Charlotte's Web. So, we’re asking you to set your story in an old barn. What happens in that barn is entirely up to you - maybe two characters fall in love, maybe one witnesses a murder, or maybe your characters are all barnyard animals. The only requirement is that the setting, for all or part of your story, is an old, run-down barn.
This challenge dropped right as I was about to leave for a road trip, and I didn't have any new ideas yet. I remembered that I had written a creepy horror story about a shelter on the Appalachian Trail made from a converted barn. It would work perfectly for the Challenge. I dusted it off and started revising.
It was fun to revisit this story. I based it on my experience at Overmountain Shelter while thru-hiking the trail in 2019. Reviewing the story, I cringed at some of the dialogue but cherished the memory of my hike and the experience of writing. When I felt that it was adequately edited, I submitted it to the challenge.
This story, "The Arbiter," was doing triple duty here: not only did I submit it for the challenges, but I also wrote it in response to the Vocal Creators Saloon short story—a tale written in multiple installations by members of the Facebook group of the same name.
This story was a delicious challenge. I had never written a collaborative short story before. It was so interesting to read the installments that came before mine, and it stretched the limits of my fiction brain to come up with ideas for the characters, to decide which angle I wanted to take, and to determine what would happen next. While the end result is not my best writing ever, I had a ton of fun with it.
The Tales Continue: SFS 5 and 6
I got off to a somewhat rocky start—only to be expected after a long fiction hiatus—but by the time I got to SFS 5: Raging Bull, I was in my stride. This Challenge required just one thing: the presence of a bull.
I've spent a lot of time in Spain, so I knew I had to incorporate my experience there somehow. As I reflected on my travels in the Iberian peninsula, one image kept sticking out to me: the huge, ubiquitous black bull billboards along the roads throughout the country.
I started googling them and began to piece together a plot. It was shaky. It went something like this: A woman who has suffered a great loss goes traveling in Spain and breaks down next to a bull. No, a woman who becomes obsessed with the huge bull billboards. Oh! I got it! A woman, a former comedian, who goes viral out of nowhere and can't handle it. Her relationship crumbles, and she books a flight to Spain on a whim. She travels from town to town, and along the way she sees these huge bull silhouettes and becomes oddly obsessed with them. It's a little weird, but it'll work.
By the time I reached the final draft, I was fairly satisfied with the result. My protagonist feels a little underdeveloped, and the connection to the bulls is a little ham-fisted, but all in all, it feels generally solid to me.
Similarly, my submission for SFS 6: Green Light was based loosely on my past experiences. The reference to a "green light" comes, of course, from The Great Gatsby, and the requirement for this story was that it had to incorporate a green light in some form.
My high school principal was next-level obsessed with Gatsby and Fitzgerald. I knew I had to work that in somehow. But I also thought back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the governor of my home state of Kentucky encouraged people to put a green light outside their houses as a symbol of compassion and community.
I knitted these two threads together, which resulted in a high school English teacher in love with Fitzgerald who suffers an extreme case of the virus. As with my first entry, this isn't my favorite story I've ever written, but it was enjoyable to connect the threads of the classic book together with my past.
My Favorite Submission: SFS 7
SFS 7 was Long Thaw. This Challenge was based on The Catcher in the Rye and required only the presence of a frozen pond.
As I considered the mood, the image of a frozen pond in a bleak winter contrasted with the same pond in summer stuck in my mind. I wanted to introduce the dichotomy of the seasons as a way of exploring two sides of a personality or two people. I also imagined a character who became deathly afraid of a frozen pond melting. What would he discover when spring came? What was he afraid of? Was there really anything in there at all?
With these ideas in mind, I wrote my entry "What's In the Pond." It was one of those stories where the characters have a mind of their own, and the tale does not exactly go according to the writer's plan. I thought initially there would be some kind of obvious ghost, monster, or other creature in the pond, but as I got further into the plot, I realized that what happened was something else entirely.
This is my proudest submission. While there are still things to work on, like every piece of writing, I am pleased with how this turned out.
As a writer in general and a fiction writer specifically, I struggle with over-description and a reliance on adjectives. I "tell" instead of "showing," and I was conscious of this tendency as I wrote this story. I deliberately tried not to go too crazy with the setting and to leave interpretation up to the reader.
I also struggle with writing unique, three-dimensional characters. Much of the time my characterization falls flat and there is no real connection to the reader. I felt more connected to this narrator and to her son than to any of the other characters in my entries.
There is so much more to explore in this story, but as far as drafts go, this one felt good.
The Last Story: SFS 8
The final Challenge, SFS 8: Pear Tree, hit just as my semester was beginning.
Because adjunct instructors make very little money, I have three teaching jobs, and my class load this semester is catastrophic. I thought that I had missed the final SFS challenge in the whirlwind of preparation, but then I got an email saying "one day left!" on the afternoon of the due date. As I was cooking dinner that evening, I brainstormed ideas for a story about a pear tree that I could write in four hours before the midnight deadline.
It would have to be something short. I imagined a weird Neil Gaiman-esque flash fiction story with a strange plot and fantastical elements. Someone would have to turn into a pear tree, but I wouldn't write it with any kind of tone of surprise. Yes, someone turns into a pear tree, and then what?
It got later and later as I pondered. I lit a candle and put on an ASMR video. I sat on the couch with my computer on my lap. It was so cozy, and I was so tired...
I shook myself awake twice, then three times, willing the words to come out. I kept falling short of the word count. 550, 585... 640! Done.
My entry, "Pyrus calleryana," not a great story. It's an interesting idea, and it has potential, but not many stories written at 11:30 at night while half-asleep are world-class fiction. I didn't care, though. I had fun with it. I put down an interesting idea and tried it out in words.
I had submitted to almost every SFS challenge.
Reunited with a Love of Fiction
Some of my SFS stories were alright. A few were pretty bad. At least one of them was, in my opinion, quite good. Such is writing. I would have liked to have placed in a challenge or received Top Story, of course, but that's not why I wrote these stories.
It is weirdly easy to procrastinate joy, to put off doing what makes us feel whole and happy. I knew as a kid that writing was what made me happy, and I did it all the time, carrying my notebooks around, writing down names for characters, entering contests, and scheming up plots all day. As an adult, the little daily tasks get in the way, and it's harder to remember who we are and what makes us.
I never would have written these fictional tales were it not for Vocal's Summer Fiction Series challenges. I never would have revisited the story about the old barn turned Appalachian Trail shelter or my Gatsby-infused memories of high school. I would not have composed "What's In the Pond," a story I loved, and I would not have fallen asleep at my computer writing a weird little story about a girl who turns into a pear tree.
I have a lot of work to do, like every writer does. My fiction is still not as good as my nonfiction. But I'm working on it. Isn't that why we're all here?