How I Won $1,000 in My First Vocal Fiction Challenge
7 tips for crafting a short story you’re proud of
I recently won the first Vocal Challenge I’ve ever entered, and it was a fiction Challenge! I have to admit—I was shocked when I got that congratulatory email for my short story, Pinky Promise.
The Night Owl Challenge was short and sweet: the only requirement was to include a barn owl somewhere in your story. That was it. To be completely honest, the first time I read it, I laughed a little. How could this tiny, random detail possibly pave the way for a fruitful creative writing experience? As I thought about it more, however, I turned over various barn owl related images in my mind, and pieces of a story began to come to life in my thoughts. I immediately knew I had a story to write.
But having something to write is only half the battle—it’s also about how you write it.
Reflecting back on my writing process, there are a handful of key steps I took that I think helped propel my story to the top. And today, I’m going to share those techniques with you. Several of these tips were inspired by a creative writing class I took in college, but keep in mind: not all of these ideas may work for you. My hope is that you’ll be able to learn from my own creative writing techniques, take in what speaks most to you, and make it your own.
Tip 1: Find a balance between structure and free play.
Writing a short story tends to be a balancing act between having a plan for your story, and allowing your writing to take you where it wants to go. Think of it as a yin and yang — structure meets play. Having too much structure can restrict the natural creativity that can emerge when you write a story, and having too much free play without a plan can make your writing feel like it lacks a plot or meaning.
To achieve this balance, it’s helpful to start your creative writing with a general idea of the most important features of your story, such as your protagonist and the main story arc, but to also leave room for exploration.
While writing "Pinky Promise," I knew who my main characters were, and I knew the general trajectory of the story I was aiming for, but there were certain scenes that emerged naturally while I was in the process of writing that I had not yet planned. On the other hand, there were also certain scenes I had planned for, but didn’t feel right when I finally began writing. I wouldn’t have been able to start writing if I didn’t have an idea of where I wanted the story to go, but I also wouldn’t have been able to allow unexpected beauty into my piece if I had tried to plan out every detail of the story beforehand.
Everyone might have a different ‘scale’ in this regard, but the key thing is to find a balance between structure and free play that works for you.
Tip 2: Don't rush into your story.
When I wrote my barn owl story, the first idea that popped into my mind was “brother who died with a tattoo of a barn owl.” I knew right away that this was an idea that captured me and that I wanted to keep exploring. Once you have an idea, however small, then you can start asking yourself questions to fill the picture more. Why would he have a tattoo of a barn owl? How did he die? How does his sibling feel about his death? Is his sibling a brother or a sister?
Sometimes you can answer all of these questions in one sitting and end your brainstorming session with a fully fleshed out picture of your story. Other times, the story comes together over multiple days. Regarding my barn owl story, I kept a notepad to jot down ideas whenever they would come to me throughout the day—and I would be open to them coming to me at all hours. I would wake up and jot down a detail I had dreamt, or be simultaneously making a sandwich and creating a flashback vignette in my mind. Everything might not make it into the story, but you’ll figure that out when you actually start writing.
Whatever your writing process is, try not to stress out about not having an idea immediately come to you, or not being able to just sit down and write something amazing. Writing takes time, and a lot of that time tends to be on the back end of the story—simply spending time with the characters and getting to know them in your own mind before trying to commit them to paper.
Tip 3: Have a great introductory hook.
The first sentence of your story is perhaps the most important one, and it has to draw the reader’s attention—especially if you’re writing to win a Challenge. The team at Vocal is amazing, but for some of these Challenges they have to read thousands of stories—meaning that your story has to ‘wow’ them right from the beginning.
The best thing to consider when writing your opening sentence is to place the reader in the middle of a situation they’re going to want to know more about. I like to think about it this way: You should write an opening sentence that will cause your reader to wonder why. You should want your reader to look at your opening sentence and stop in their tracks so that they have to keep reading. In that sense, there’s always an element of intrigue in a good opening sentence.
To give you a better sense of what I'm talking about, I'm going to take you on a behind-the-scenes journey of my writing process for the hook of Pinky Promise.
The first draft of my first sentence was:
“Riding a motorcycle is a funny thing.”
This sentence is fine, and it might capture the attention of some patient people, but overall, it falls flat because it doesn’t provide enough details to situate the reader in the unique context of the story. It doesn’t make the reader want to ask “why?”, and it certainly doesn’t arrest the reader in their tracks.
So, I decided to rewrite it. The second draft of my first sentence was,
“I expected myself to be crying as I rode that motorcycle, but instead I just wanted to scream.”
This sentence is better than the first because it drops the reader into a more specific situation with several compelling details. Perhaps this sentence does cause the reader to ask “why,” but it still seems a bit too weak to warrant a reader to stop in their tracks.
My third draft of the first sentence was:
“I wasn’t supposed to be on that motorcycle.”
Okay! I was getting somewhere. The element of intrigue is somewhat present in this sentence. The reader might want to instinctively ask “why?”, as in, "why wasn't this person supposed to be on the motorcycle?" However, it still isn’t intriguing enough to arrest the reader in their tracks. For that, at least one more compelling detail was required.
My fourth and final version of my first sentence was:
“I wasn’t supposed to be on that motorcycle, the one my brother died riding, yet there I was, driving down the California highway.”
Yes, here it was! This sentence has all the components a good opening sentence should: it provides a few compelling details to situate a reader within a unique context, it adds suspense - prompting the reader to ask “why”, and there is enough intrigue to arrest readers in their tracks and make them want to keep reading.
Tip 4: Show, Not Tell
This tip is tricky, but incredibly important. In your short story, be sure you show the action rather than just describe it. This can be especially tricky if you’re crafting a first-person narrative because it can be tempting to remain trapped in the mind and thoughts of your main character—but you must resist this!
For example, my short story contains a few flashbacks. A bad approach to these flashbacks would have been to write them like this: “I remembered the time my brother and I had done this. He had done this, and I had done this. I remembered it fondly.” No! Except in exceptional cases, you should always take the action outside the character’s mind. Put the reader in the midst of the action. For this reason, I decided to write my flashbacks not as though they were memories, but rather as though the reader were there in real time.
Think of your words as typing out a movie happening in real time. It’s not going to be an interesting movie to just watch someone… think. You need things to actually happen.
Don’t just talk about the fight between partners – show it through dialogue. Don’t just describe the sadness your character feels – show it through their actions.
For example, here’s a sentence that tells us the character’s emotional state:
“Hunter was really sad because his girlfriend just broke up with him.”
And here’s a sentence that shows it:
“Hunter laid on his bed, feeling all the heaviness of the last words she had spoken to him. He squeezed his eyes tight and felt warm tears spill across his cheeks.”
The latter sentence certainly makes for a better "movie."
Tips 5: Don’t edit while you write.
Hemingway once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” While I don’t think you need to be drunk to write (although sometimes it helps), the sentiment stands. When writing, just write. Often, we make the task of writing much harder for ourselves by trying to edit and write simultaneously, but that generally breeds stilted writing, encumbered creativity, or even writer’s block.
Sentences don’t have to be perfectly constructed at your first attempt. And you know what? You’re probably going to craft better prose altogether if you’re in somewhat of a ‘flow’ rather than in a jerky write-then-edit-then-write state of being.
If you’re a perfectionist with your words, this can be a scary thing to do! It can be difficult to feel like you’re releasing control over your sentences in this way. Rather than perfectly crafting each one, you’re letting them fall across the page as nascent, raw, unpolished entities. Don't censor your own mind from creating what it feels compelled to create.
Because of this, in all good writing, there is a risk that you’ll uncover something within yourself you didn’t know existed, or that you wanted to keep hidden. Therefore, all good writing requires openness and vulnerability to learning truths about yourself or the world that can be difficult to confront. All good writing is brave.
When you edit your piece, you can always polish your prose, trim down the unnecessary bits, and make it altogether more readable. But that kernel of brave truth should remain, even underneath the carefully constructed sentences.
The hardest part of writing is usually starting. What helps me in these moments is to challenge myself to write, anything, for five solid minutes. Writing for me sometimes feels like an old engine that takes a while to rev up, so this simple writing warm-up exercise acts as a way to kick start into motion. Once it’s up and running, it’s going.
Tip 6: Write from the heart.
This one goes hand-in-hand with the step above. It might seem trite, but in my experience it is oh so very true. Creative writing is an adventurous pursuit because it gives you the ability to explore different worlds, dramatic scenarios, and intriguing people — more than you would ever experience in your own life. But no matter how different our stories are from our own lives, they are never completely alien to us. No matter how different our stories are, they always carry part of us in them.
For me, my stories generally reflect feelings I have had throughout my life. ‘Pinky Promise’ is a fictional story not based on my own experiences, but instead reflect the feelings I have had in my own life—albeit on a much smaller scale. In other words, I felt like I could write the main character because I was drawing from my own feelings to do so. Her situation is different from my own, but her feelings come across as honest because they are my feelings.
Tip 7: Revisit your story the day after you draft it.
It’s really difficult to edit a piece without giving yourself some distance from it first. For that reason, when I finish writing a story, I usually give myself at least a solid day without touching it or thinking about it before returning to it. Giving yourself some space away from your story will help you see your story in a new light when you edit it. Also, it’s just helpful to give yourself a little break. You’ve worked hard!
That’s it! Those are my secrets of creative writing, and I’m happy to have shared them with anyone hoping to improve their fiction-writing abilities. Again, not all of these tips might work for you, but hopefully they have inspired some reflection—and stoked the creative fires of your soul to some capacity.
Happy writing, you creative soul, you.
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