In a few days I’m going to self publish the short story “De.mocra.cy,” and writing the afterword for it brought me back to an interesting revelation I had after editing it. I hate limitations in writing, and will do everything to work around, nullify, or flat out ignore them.
This may seem oppositional to the idea that limits are good for writing, though it isn’t entirely. The limitations which I hate are artificial ones—ones which exist beyond the world of the story. In this post I hope to clarify that distinction, explain what drove me to this realization, and tangentially promote that upcoming short story. Although maybe this will actually make the story seem less appealing, who knows.
Before I talk about my experience with that piece though, I’ll go all the way back to my experience in the fourth and fifth grade. Because at that time, I already knew that I hated limits. I wasn’t much of a writer then—at least, I didn’t write regularly, though I did enjoy it a lot. I was always happy to have creative writing assignments in school, because I loved imagining strange worlds and interesting characters. What I didn’t love was that these assignments had to be a maximum of five pages double-spaced (I think—it may have actually been shorter.) That’s about a thousand words, which is about two thirds the length of this post. And while that’s a fine amount of work for most nine- to ten-year-olds, for me it was awful. I always found myself pushing up against the max length, and ending the stories abruptly. That length is just not congruent with the way my imagination works. Over the past six years I’ve written twenty-six short stories, and only one of them was under that length.
But that’s not so bad. A few bizarre, goofy short stories truncated—it’s no big loss, and it was no big frustration to me. What was worse was the max length for plays in high school.
At the time I attended it, my high school had no creative writing club or class. The only place where writing and school merged was in the school’s theatre club/Thespian troupe. Being in the Thepsian troupe meant you could perform/compete in district and state-level festivals, and while most of the pieces we took were performance-oriented, the festival also had a playwriting category. In addition to this, there was a national competition to which I submitted plays, the Playworks Competition. Both the district-level playwriting category and the Playworks Competition had the same requirements: a one act play, no longer than thirty pages (which, with proper script formatting, translates to a thirty minute run time.) That’s short. You could consider that a “short play.” And while my first few plays fell under this length, as I started caring more about character and dramatic arcs, the plays started getting longer.
My junior year was the worst. All my ideas for plays that would’ve been short enough were simple and formulaic, and I had no interest in writing them. All my ideas for plays with more depth actually did interest me, but they would’ve been too long. Ultimately I wrote a play which was both goofy and formulaic but still had enough depth (and science fiction) to get me excited to write it. I submitted the play to the district festival, and it did alright, but didn’t progress to state.
Next I tried to come up with a play for the national Playworks competition, but I ran into the same problem. I tried to write a play about a management shake-up at a literary magazine, but it was too long. I also started a play about NaNoWriMo, a Western-style piece about a shootout, and a play about a Halloween party. I got about ten pages into each of them before giving up. Granted—some of this was just me having bad discipline as a writer, but the problem was at the root. For every play that I half-wrote, I probably wrote two outlines for plays that I never even got started on. All of my ideas were geared toward this very restrictive format. They weren’t ideas arising naturally from what I was interested in, they were responses to an arbitrary rule. So when the time came to submit to the Playworks competition, I just used the play that I’d submitted to the district festival. The play actually won the competition (it was The Trial of Adbot 579, my first paid publication), so hey, silver lining, but here’s the point—months of writing and drafting outlines, wasted.
Somehow I still hadn’t gotten this idea through my head when I wrote “De.mocra.cy.” I wrote the story with the intent of submitting it for workshop in my Intro to Fiction Writing class. There were really no requirements—students could write about whatever they wanted—except the page limit. The page limit (12 pages double-spaced) was mostly a good thing for me, because it was my senior year of high school and if the stories had been any longer my workload would’ve been unbearable. However, for writing my own story, the page limit was a problem. I didn’t realize it at first, but all of my decisions were being made with this constraint in mind. As I was developing the story, every choice of character description, scene length, or depth of exposition was handicapped by this maximum page number—equivalent to three thousand words, or three-fifths of the story’s current length. When I was editing it, I had to rule out any fix which would add too much. I had to choose sub-optimal paths because I didn’t have the freedom of writing the story at whatever length it required. When I took it in for workshop, there was a lot of helpful feedback—points of confusion, interpretations I hadn’t anticipated—and there were a lot of comments on wanting more information about the world.
After turning in a slightly revised version of “De.mocra.cy” for the class’s final assignment, I didn’t touch the story again for months. When I finally did, it was like editing a rough draft which had never been revised. There was so much missing from it, so much more it needed for it to work and feel whole, it went through five more drafts before I started submitting it to magazines. With ten drafts, the story has the highest number of drafts of anything I’ve written. The whole experience was a real grind, and it got me to finally realize, once and for all, that artificial limitations are a big problem.
Now, constraints which exist within the world of a story are great. Just look at And Then There Were None or Twelve Angry Men, or Batman. And Then There Were None is such a compelling murder mystery because everyone is stuck in one location and there are only ten (and then nine, and then eight …) potential suspects. Twelve Angry Men operates in the same way, only instead of people dying it’s people being convinced of the defendant’s innocence. And one of the reasons people love Batman so much is that he doesn’t have superpowers—he’s limited to his gadgets and his own intelligence. These limitations increase the tension, and force creative resolutions to problems. However, artificial requirements are inorganic, and don’t interact with the characters or the world. Imagine The Dark Knight if Christopher Nolan had had to keep it under ninety minutes. Even if it had been designed with the requirement in mind, it would be a completely different movie, and probably a much worse one.
I also think some limits can improve writing, or improve a person’s craft, if they’re set by the writer, and for a specific purpose. For example—limiting yourself by not writing about a setting you always write about, or cutting down on dialogue if you tend to write overlong scenes.
The nice thing about constraints set by yourself is that, in a bind, you can always fudge them a little, or ignore them, if you’re certain that doing so will help the story. Not so for external limits.
So, how do I deal with artificial limitations now? I’m still in writing classes, I’m still submitting to playwriting competitions, so I haven’t been able to just escape it.
For the most part, I ignore them. I write whatever I want, at whatever length will serve it best. If I read about a competition and I happen to have something already written that fits its requirements, I’ll submit it—and if I don’t, then too bad. The only time I can’t ignore this issue is in writing classes. In those cases, I’ll try my best to find an idea that I’m already interested in, which will fit the length, and use that for the story I have to submit. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a creative writing class this semester which allowed students to submit only parts of stories—so when I was halfway through writing my story for the class and getting close to the maximum length, I just cut it short and submitted the first half.
Probably the best way to deal with artificial limits, when they must be dealt with, is to internalize them. Make the limits integral to the thematic resonance, or the arc, or the world of the story. Make them interact with the universe of the piece in some way. Last year I had to write a short play for my playwriting class, so I came up with a play about beach erosion, in which the finite time underscores the idea of losing something so rapidly that you don’t even realize it until it’s gone.
In conclusion: this is not an indictment of anyone who writes with limits in mind, or who gets more motivated and interested in writing if they know the piece has to fit the requirements of a competition. The point of this post is that I thought that I was supposed to be like that—that these requirements would improve my writing—for such a long time. I thought I was just bad at coming up with ideas, and that constraints were always good for a writer. It wasn’t until the horrid, unwieldy undertaking that was editing “De.mocra.cy” that I realized that I wasn’t the problem, the limits were. So this is just what all I’ve learned, about what types of limits I like, what types I don’t, and how I deal with them.
Also, “De.mocra.cy” is coming out in a few days, so you should stay posted for that.