The 2017 One Story Per Week Writing Challenge
It started in September whilst I was conducting an interview with Jessica McHugh on the This Is Horror Podcast. Jessica told me of her own one story per week challenge back in 2014, an idea that was spawned by a Ray Bradbury quote:
Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.
I thought I’d put Ray Bradbury’s claim to the test and take on the challenge. After all, there are two possible outcomes:
- I write a minimum of one good (okay, ‘not bad’) story
- I disprove the great Ray Bradbury’s theory
But rather than go it alone, I announced an open invitation on the This Is Horror Podcast for other writers to join me, and there are now twenty-six of us taking part in this challenge, so between us we’ll write at least 1,352 stories in 2017.
The challenge is simple (well, the concept is simple). To write one story every week in 2017. I created a support group via Slack to enable writers to share progress and encourage one another. I opted for Slack because anything linked with social media would spell disaster for productivity and a message board or private website approach felt outdated. The support group contains the following channels (complete with ‘trendy’ hashtags as is Slack’s style):
- #AmReading: to share what you're reading and inspire others.
- #AmWatching: to share what you’re watching (bet you didn’t see that coming).
- #Current Markets: to share current markets and callouts to help others place their finished stories.
- #FinishedStories: to post the name and word count of your finished story each week.
- #General: general communications and messages about the challenge.
- #Inspiration: to share quotes, articles, podcasts, memes, and anything else that will inspire others.
- #PostYourProgress: a place to let others know how you're getting on with your story each week.
- #Random: an off-topic section where anything goes.
- #StoryHelp: for those struggling with a particular story or aspect of the craft—everything from story structure to self-doubt.
To add to the fun, I set myself the bonus challenge of reading at least one story per day. Which meant just one week into 2017 I’d already read short stories by the likes of Nathan Ballingrud, Rebecca Jones-Howe, George Saunders, Livia Llewellyn, Max Booth III, Stephen Volk, John Skipp, Dale Bailey, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Flannery O'Connor and Jeff VanderMeer. I highly encourage anyone reading this to consider committing to reading at least one story per day. And there are so many places to read stories online, including Nightmare Magazine, The Dark Magazine, Gamut, The New Yorker, and even the Great Jones Street app for your smartphone. If audio’s more your style there are a number of short story fiction podcasts, too, some of my favourites include The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, Pseudopod, The Other Stories, Nightmare, and Tales To Terrify.
We’re just three weeks into the challenge but having consulted the current participants I’ve identified some advantages and disadvantages of writing one story per week.
As with other writing challenges, an obvious benefit for many writers is an increase in daily word count and completed stories per week. What separates this from NaNoWriMo—where the idea is to complete a single piece of work or meet the 1000 words per day challenge—is the vast number of finished stories required to successfully complete this challenge. A minimum of 52 stories per year is not to be sniffed at, and whilst the quality will vary and some stories will flop, the numbers game suggests you’ll have some stories you’ll be proud to submit to magazines, anthologies, and other markets. And whatever happens you’ll learn a lot about yourself and your writing style: not only your likes and dislikes, but your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, areas you most want to improve, and your ideal story aesthetic.
Motivation, Accountability, and Sense of Urgency
When you sign up for a challenge that includes a support group and place to post your progress you’re automatically accountable for doing the work and explaining any slip-ups. Couple this with the fast-pace of it all and there’s an undeniable sense of urgency. There’s no tinkering for weeks that ultimately turn into months as you craft one story. You must knuckle down, do the work, and—as Chuck Wendig so often says—“finish your shit."
Jake Marley put it well when he said, “My favorite part of the challenge is that I'm discovering the difference between writing purposefully and on-demand versus quacking into the void.”
This links back to the challenge as a process of exploration and self-discovery. The timescale allows little room for self-doubt—you get the work done now and worry about negative chatter later. George Ttoouli—my Creative Writing tutor at university and the author of Static Exile—had this to say about the initial composition of creative endeavours and self-doubt:
You have to leave your ego at the door when you're drafting. It's an old cliché, but important. You can't keep second-guessing the story, or allowing your doubt in the room. Try and wipe away those insecurities about whether something is good or bad, will please or displease readers, even before you've written it.
Writing one story per week forces you to adopt this mindset, to rediscover the joy of writing, and to ask questions later.
Becoming Comfortable With Failure
Whenever I sit down to write a short story (or a long story) there’s a voice that says, “what if it’s shit?” But when you’re writing 52 stories in a year the only real response is: “well, if it’s shit I have another 51 chances.” It’s a Samuel Beckett-esque mindset—another fifty-one opportunities to try again and to fail better. Here’s the thing: anyone who’s ever achieved anything great has a lot of experience failing. If you want to achieve something then you’re going to have to make mistakes and fail a number of times before you get it right. This applies to all manner of things. So rather than worrying and asking yourself “what if?”, flip it on its head. Accept that failure is one of a number of possibilities and become okay with that. Then do the work and write despite the possibility of failure. Do it to spite failure—a big middle finger raised high and proud.
Branching Out Into Unknown Territory
Once you're comfortable with failure it’s far easier to experiment and write within genres and voices you’re unfamiliar with. Writing in places unknown. This is a good thing as you get to flex your writerly chops and see whether you sink or swim (sometimes you’ll do both in the same story … in the same paragraph, even). With fifty-two stories in one year you’re going to need to branch out. Not only does no one want to read fifty-two versions of the same tale, riffing off the same theme, but chances are you’re going to grow pretty bored writing the same stories, too. To help you write outside your comfort zone, start reading writers and genres you’ve never read. You don’t have to read outside your comfort zone on every occasion, and there’s nothing wrong with having favourite genres or writers, but challenge yourself to pick up a book you wouldn’t ordinarily read, once every three or four stories.
Sense of Community
But perhaps the most valuable benefit of the one story per week challenge is the sense of community and opportunity to network with and support other writers. Many of the writers within this group didn’t know one another before starting out, but already we feel close-knit, offering each other support, inspiration, and advice. The fact that we’re in this together is invaluable given that so often writing can be a lonely and solitary pursuit.
The two disadvantages that writers within the group have noted most often:
- Quick writing can lead to sloppier first drafts
- Prioritising writing can mean neglecting other important tasks
It’s true that quick writing may lead to sloppier first drafts, but it’s important to manage your expectations and do what works for you. If you’re writing first drafts then be okay with that. Know that you’re writing a first draft and that it’s something you’ll work on again in the future. Or purposefully limit the word count so that you have the necessary time to redraft and deliver a tightly polished piece within the week.
John Costello says of the challenge: “It's forced me to cut my cloth to suit my needs, so the time I have at my disposal has dictated the form of the pieces. They need to be short, sweet and self-contained in the 1500–2500 word range.”
This is John’s strategy and it works for him. You must find a strategy that works for you. This year, Jessica McHugh is limiting her short story challenge stories to flash fiction. The only requirement is to write a story each week. That’s it.
To the second point, prioritising one task means neglecting something else. If writing is important to you then prioritise it above things that are less important to you. If it isn’t, there’s no shame in that, but perhaps this isn’t the challenge for you. I prioritise writing, studying Japanese, exercising, and meditation. In that order, too (although there’s an argument it would be better for my health to prioritise exercise above everything else, but the important thing is being comfortable with the decisions you make).
If you’re interested in writing one story per week I wholeheartedly encourage you to join us. Just post in the comments, let me know you’re interested in the challenge, and I’ll add you to the support group.
As things stand I’ve already penned over 20,000 words as part of the challenge and haven’t ever been more excited about my fiction writing. And if you’re suffering from self-doubt, just remember that Ray Bradbury quote and see if you can prove him wrong or he can prove you right … you kind of win either way.
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