The Ray Bradbury Short Story Challenge

Late last year I watched An Evening with Ray Bradbury. He was giving the keynote at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea in 2001 and, during his speech, he offers some interesting advice to aspiring novelists:

The problem with novels is that you can spend a whole year writing one and it might not turn out well because you haven’t learned to write yet. But the best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start—but at least you’re practicing and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. It can’t be done. (2:50)

Short stories allow the exploration of many aspects of fiction writing—characterisation, plot development, pacing, wording, metaphor, brevity—in a much more compact and manageable form than a full novel.

Beginning in January, I took on the Ray Bradbury Short Story Challenge and started on my 52 and, this week, I finished my ninth. I am publishing them all on this site and you can see the complete list here.

If you’d like to keep updated with my progress or talk to me about this challenge, I’m available in all of the usual places and would be delighted to hear from you.

One Essay, One Short Story and One Poem

In the same video, he goes on to issue a second challenge:

What you’ve got to do from this night forward is stuff your head with more different things from various fields, hygienically speaking. I’ll give you a program to follow every night—very simple program—for the next 1,000 nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story—that’ll take you ten minutes, fifteen minutes—then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry…one essay a night for the next 1,000 nights from various fields: archeology, zoology, biology. (8:30)

Since the first of January I have also been following this program and have found it to be wonderfully enlightening. Through the process I’ve discovered some wonderful poems (An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope is my current favourite—so much so I’ve lifted a few lines for my tagline) and some insightful and interesting essays, especially those by Ralph Waldo Emerson and a fascinating one by Edgar Allen Poe called The Philosophy of Composition which is about how he wrote his famous poem, The Raven:

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.

He doesn’t put much stock in inspiration, noting:

Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations—in a word, at the wheels and pinions—the tackle for scene-shifiting—the step-ladders and demon-traps—the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.

He makes it sound almost like work.

For the short stories, I have worked my way through two collections by Haruki Murakami (The Elephant Vanishes1 and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap and I am about to start on Tales of the Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald (the Kindle edition is currently available for free on Amazon).

Seeing the efforts of other great short story writers has been eye opening in the construction of my own and has allowed me to see in how many different directions the form can be pulled (not to mention how humbling it is to be reminded every day just how far I have left to go).

It’s been invigorating to tackle the areas of writing and literature that I had always been meaning to explore in more depth, but somehow never got around to and I highly recommend it to anyone interesting in expanding their literary horizons.

If you’d like to keep up to date with my progress, you can sign up to the mailing list below (which is a weekly email featuring the previous week’s work) or you can get in contact with me on Facebook or Twitter or via email.

  1. The links in this list are affiliate links.