I gave myself a challenge for 2018, and I’m at the halfway point. I challenged myself to start a series on Medium and to post to that series once a week. What I primarily write is fiction, so I decided to have my series follow me as I wrote a dialogue-only short story collection.
The idea germinated from two unpublished flash-length manuscripts I had in my computer’s story folder. Both were a single, long paragraph. The first was totally in dialogue, with the speakers differentiated through the use of dialect and italics. This story was “Expire,” and I always knew it’d be the first piece in some future collection; I just didn’t know what that collection would be. It’s the first of my dialogues for many reasons. Primarily though, it’s because the content and form of the story both explore the complications of communication through storytelling. Meaning is difficult to convey, especially when you’re working with literary fiction where there may be multiple meanings or the form can be odd, experimental, and artfully crafted.
The second story was a monologue originally designed as a page-length long sentence. I pulled it up, proofread, changed some things within the extant text, added a second speaker to comment on the focus of the long sentence, and — voila! — I had another dialogue.
And so with these two as my base, I challenged myself to write a collection of creative conversations — dialogues all. A challenge not only because of the tight weekly schedule, but also because of the constraints of the form. Dialogues are more or less constrained by an inability to indicate inner-thoughts, background information, motivation, or describe characters and setting (at least I can’t do any of these things without verbalizing them, which isn’t always possible or desirable in this form). While constraining, much like a choosing a poetic form to constrain one’s writing, restricting myself has also been freeing; I haven’t been able to choose from the infinite options normally available to a writer of fiction. Having infinite choices eliminated is in its own way liberating. While I can be experimental and push boundaries to a degree, I still know one thing: it’s all got to be dialogue.
So, having stuck with the terms of the challenge I set (only dialogue and at least once a week), now that I’m halfway through, I want to reflect on what I’ve done thus far. Specifically, 1) How have I done? 2) What would I do differently? 3) How will I proceed? 4) Will I do it again?
How have I done?
I started the series by posting an introduction the first week of January. Every week after that I’ve dutifully put out a dialogue. So I’ve succeeded in that respect. But I haven’t succeeded in every respect.
One of the reasons I gave myself this challenge (outside of forcing myself to complete fiction writing projects quickly) was to build my fan base by putting writing life out there, letting people see the writing journey as it happens. While I’ve gotten a few more blog followers just from being more active on WordPress where I’ve also posted weekly about the latest dialogue, my Medium stats indicate that I haven’t really increased my readership for my fiction — and it’s my fiction reader fan base I am attempting to grow. I’ve done something not quite right. My readership remains dismally low. So low, in fact, that I count it as nonexistent.
What would I do different?
The first thing I would have done differently is to have chosen a platform for my updates other than the Medium series platform. There are myriad issues with the series platform, including accessibility problems and an issue with subscribers actually getting notifications when a series is updated. I also figured out that series have even worse read ratios and interactions from readers than your typical self-posted article. It’s really only publications who opt to use Medium as their parent platform that give most writers any real chance of visibility (two of my dialogues were sent and accepted into Medium publications, The Creative Cafe and Lit Up).
So even without accessibility issues and a broken notification system for series, I may not have found it any easier to build a fan base or increase readership had I simply been self-posting updates or even stories as regular Medium articles. As it is, my stats indicate that I am — though not intentionally — writing these series updates solely for myself. No one else views them. I’ve added to my oeuvre and kept to the strictures of my challenge, but the public journey hasn’t brought in new readers like I thought it would.
While there are no guarantees that another platform would have gotten me more readers, I think the series platform simply doesn’t work for writers trying to build their platform around it, though those with an existent platform could arguably succeed with it. Writing for publishers on Medium seems like the best approach if you’re going to do Medium. Could I choose again, I’m not sure what I would go with (Medium articles, Wattpad, solely my blog, etc.) but it certainly would not be the Medium series platform.
How will I proceed?
I am failing to gain readers even as I weekly come closer to completing a short story collection, so why continue to write updates at all if I don’t have anyone to read what I’ve written?
As Rosie Leizrowice, one of my favorite bloggers, wrote: “If you love the process, you react the same way to failure as you do to success.”
I am successfully writing; I am failing to reach readers. I don’t care. I love the process. So I will carry on doing exactly what I am doing. More or less.
The one thing I’ll do differently does not change my process, but is itself another process. Since no one is really taking this writers journey with me, I am going to seriously start seeking publication in zines, magazines, journals, and literary reviews where allowed.
While the series itself is just acting as a kind of one-stop place for me to easily view my challenge updates, the process stays intact. The process has allowed me to create at an accelerated rate, far surpassing my normal leisurely speed of writing where I tend to setting aside what I’ve written, only to come back, edit more, and set aside again, practically ad infinitum. And since I’m not reaching readers with the challenge itself, maybe I can reach readers and publishers at the same time.
Will I do it again?
Not exactly. While I love the process, I also need to learn from the process, whether that process led to success or failure or (as in this case) a mix of both. What I’ve learned is that imposing deadlines on myself is a fantastic motivator to work more quickly and cleanly. I think knowing this will help me when I turn my attention to planned future collections of stories and essays. I might even be able to apply the most positive parts of this process to future novels.
What I won’t do again is give myself extra work without more assurance that it will pay off in some tangible way. While meeting obligations when under the scrutiny of the public eye is a powerful motivator, I’ve found that without the public eye or an expectant readership I’m still finding success in sticking to the deadlines of my challenge. Deadlines that — I came to realize a while ago — are really for myself.
I’ve also realized that the information-addicted internet culture doesn’t really need me to add my personal writing challenge to the digital cacophony. If I want my words read, I’d do better to stick to the traditional routes of finding readers through the types of publishers whose subscribers have the temperament and attention my words deserve.
So I will be cultivating a process — a process that includes setting deadlines to complete a story, a chapter, or to have a work ready to send to a potential publisher. And you can be sure that once this challenge is done, I won’t be writing another book of dialogues. But the stories and the words, oh yes, they will keep coming.