Credit: Neil Slorance

What I learned writing 750 words of fiction every day for 100 days

The goal of The 100 Day Project is to commit to one creative action for 100 days and to create/post every day on Instagram with your own unique project hashtag. When I did this last in 2015, I wrote 750 words every day for 100 days. My goal was just to write more, and that ended up taking the form of free writing against random prompts I found on the internet or came up with myself.

This year, I set myself a similar goal, now knowing that I am capable of following through on something for 100 days. But this time, I wanted to focus on writing fiction. As many do, I first fell into writing by falling in love with fiction. As a kid, I wrote and illustrated my own stories ferociously, like “Being Smart,” a story about a girl who is bullied for being smart, has a bad dream about it, and then tells the teacher the next day to take care of it. (What a snitch.) In eighth grade, I even co-wrote 100+ pages of what was supposed to be the first in a trilogy of horrible teen novels a la The Clique and Gossip Girl which my friend and I named ~The Intangible Series~. I hope that the manuscript is lost to the bowels of Gmail forever.

But as I grew older, I stopped writing fiction. I got more self-conscious about my imagination (and myself), and in college, I discovered creative nonfiction and personal essays. I narrowly applied for a creative nonfiction writing major in sophomore year, but then decided against it because I felt like I’d run out of ideas and life experience to write about in my intro classes. And now, all these years later, I found myself wanting to dive back into fiction. There and back again.

So for this year’s 100 Day Project, I decided to write 750 words every day, but in an attempt to make things easier on myself, I decided it would be fiction inspired by and/or tangentially related to my life— a bridge between the nonfiction that I’m used to writing and the fiction that I haven’t written in awhile. Thus began #100daysofmylifeasfiction, where most entries were completely fictional with just the germ of the idea coming from something I saw, read, or thought about that day, while others were, quite literally, what my life that day would’ve read like if it was like fiction.

How I wrote 750 words of fiction every day for 100 days

Over the course of 100 days, I’ve written 90,946 words.

Instagram excerpts from The 100 Day Project

I wrote almost every day — and almost always procrastinated until the end of the day to write. (As a result, I was severely sleep-deficient throughout this entire project.) I never let myself get more than five days behind, and that was usually because of travel. If I did get behind, I caught up by writing two entries per day until I was back on track, sometimes planning out longer pieces to help with continuity and motivation. I wrote each entry in iA Writer, chose an excerpt to screenshot which I then cropped in Photoshop, and finally posted to Instagram with that day’s title and the relevant hashtags.

Coming up with ideas

After going to an ideas workshop this past year hosted by ann friedman and Jade Chang, I started “composting,” a technique to track things that you’re curious about. I started keeping a continuous, unorganized braindump of quotes from pieces I was reading, links to articles I found intriguing, funny tweets, kernels of ideas I wanted to explore, weird facts I learned from podcasts, conversations I overheard on the subway, or moods I wanted to capture. It allowed me to come back and identify patterns and topics I found interesting and provided a starting point for how to knit those topics together.

Most days, I would go to the compost to get inspired. Inspiration doesn’t strike, it is a practice. Ideation is collection, development, and synthesis, the linking and combination of various strands in unique ways.

Experimentation

I used each day to try out different formats, voices, and styles. In 100 days, I explored 84 different ideas (as some entries spanned multiple days). Of those 84 entries, I wrote 54 in the present tense and 30 in the past tense. I wrote 74 entries in third person, 9 in first person, and only 1 in second person.

I wrote one story as a series of Yelp reviews about the same restaurant, another as an RSVP to a wedding. I wrote in different perspectives and degrees of narrative omniscience. I experimented with genre — romance, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery. Some days, I focused on character sketches or world-building, and other days I attempted to write complete stories.

Set It Up is a fun rom-com that low-key gives solid writing advice (via http://eggpuffs.tumblr.com/post/174925392338/this-movie-gives-solid-advice)

The best part about The 100 Day Project was that there wasn’t any time for excuses or self-doubt. There would always be tomorrow to try again. Writing as a daily practice meant I cared less if it was bad. In fact, it helped me learn to not be afraid to write bad things. It was a way to develop my own voice, to see what I liked writing about, what felt challenging but necessary to write, and what resonated with people.

Actually doing the thing

Even though I procrastinated a lot, at the end of the day (erm, technically 1am the next day?), I always forced myself to sit at my desk and write at least 750 words in one go. I would sometimes scribble an outline in a few bullet points, but more often than not, I just started to write the first thing that popped into my head to get the creative juices flowing. Some days it was like pulling teeth, where every word felt like a struggle. Other days, it started off rocky, but then the words and scenes started to come more naturally. I even realized that some of my favorite pieces were the ones I wrote at 2am when I really didn’t feel like it, and had it not been for this project, I never would’ve written them otherwise.

I always romanticized the act of writing — a stroke of genius, a furious impulse to write, followed by a torrent of words. But I couldn’t cut corners and just arrive at the perfect sentence or paragraph or story on the first try. Writing is a craft, and every craft requires discipline and practice.

What I learned

Instagram is terrible for writing

Instagram is a very visual medium, and writing is not. (Maybe this was a lesson I should’ve learned the last time I did this project.) Besides the fact that the font size I chose was physically hard to read, it was also difficult to capture subtlety and nuance well on Instagram. Sometimes the things I was most proud of couldn’t be captured in an excerpt, like a character’s progress, mirroring and framing devices, or the effect of repetition throughout a piece.

I think it would’ve been different if my project was writing exclusively micro/flash fiction (usually < 300 words), something along the lines of Very Short Story, which has different challenges due to its constraints. But what I wrote each day was always more than what a square frame could contain. Plus, I did not want to be the Rupi Kaur of micro/flash fiction.

Back to basics

The biggest thing that this project got me doing was asking basic questions again. What do characters want? What gets in their way? What memorable action is there? I thought about discrete storytelling elements — plot, theme, characterization, setting, dialogue —and how many elements you could develop at a time.

Reading has also helped inform my writing. I have continued my other ongoing numbered project of reading 52 books in 52 weeks, which has included many excellent novels, but I’ve also read more short stories by authors like Carmen Maria Machado, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Jenny Zhang. Studying what I admire or what works within other short stories has helped me focus on areas I can improve in my own work: a plot twist, execution of a high-concept idea, pacing, the combination of unexpected themes, etc.

Process process process

During the ideas workshop I went to with Ann Friedman and Jade Chang, they said that everyone thinks there are two types of people in this world: people who do things and people who don’t do things. In reality, they said that the two types of people in this world are people who do things and people who talk about doing things. (I felt both attacked and seen.)

This project got me to stop talking about writing and actually start writing.

Some ideas seemed ambitious and amazing in my head, but they didn’t work as well once I actually wrote them down. Other times, a story that seemed very boring and lame actually had something interesting that was worth exploring once I got things out of my head and into words. Overall, I got better at getting to the “actualization” step of ideas. After all, it’s difficult to assess an idea or a story until you have something concrete to work with.

In April, just a few days into the project, I attended a reading and signing for Pachinko. The author, Min Jin Lee, advised prospective writers to “go for broke and just have fun,” to write a few drafts and then give yourself as much space as possible before editing. “Get out of the way of the story,” she advised. Each day, I tried not to edit as I was writing (easier said than done), to get out of my own way, and instead to just have fun.

A simple recounting did not convince. The plot I needed would have to work in this other way, out of a sense of what would happen to someone like me in this situation, not what did happen or had happened to me.
Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

I’ve always been tripped up by the advice to “write what you know,” which is why I positioned my project as pseudo-inspired by things in my own life. I thought that I would fall back most days to writing about my boring life in the third-person, but I found myself rarely doing that. Instead, I got into the habit of taking something that I’d read or something that happened to me that day and twisting it, considering the different outcomes or angles, how different situations would’ve played out from different perspectives. Nuggets of truth with embellishment.

Fiction gave me distance to write about aspects of my life in ways that were actually quite unrelated to my life at all. If I wanted to explore my experience living overseas in an expat bubble in Beijing, I imagined what the first day of school would be like for a character at an international school. If I wanted to describe my experience meeting another Nicole Zhu through LinkedIn, I imagined someone who kept tabs on all of her internet doppelgängers. If I wanted to capture the embarrassment of fumbling and stumbling over your mother tongue, I imagined a Chinese American woman faced with the task of translating her wedding vows into Chinese.

I started to ask “what if?” rather than trying to capture “what happened.” And that was where I found the stories I was most excited to write.

What’s next?

Editing!!! Of the 84 discrete story ideas I explored, there are only ~15 that I am interested in revisiting or expanding upon. I have a handful of drafts I’d like to finish and workshop. Now that I’m slowly getting over my fear of putting pen to paper for first drafts, I can work on the next (and much harder) part of writing: revising.

I also want to keep up the momentum and continue writing regularly. To hold myself accountable, and because public accountability is one of my most effective motivators, I am starting a newsletter called GET LIT (sorry, I’m a shitty millennial who loves puns), where I will be sharing full-length stories I write every week. Sign up now!