On Writing: Writing on Demand, and a Story Assignment!


Recent discussions here at the site have focused on the need to write fast, to put butt in chair and get the work done.  Catie mentioned it the other day in the context of NaNoWriMo.  Edmund and James Maxey took the idea to the extreme on Friday.  And, of course, A.J. has been telling us to write fast for some time now.  All of them are right.  I think that putting our internal editor at arm’s length and delving into a project in a way that forces us to write at a swift, steady pace so that we get the thing done, is all to the good.  Our goal, of course, has to be completing that first draft so that we can then move to revising and polishing, and that’s the important thing to remember:  James Maxey might have written his book in a week, but I guarantee you he took additional time to edit that first draft so that it met the standards he has established for himself with his previous work.

These are things that most established writers do as a matter of course:  They write quickly so as to get their first drafts done; and they revise extensively, because they know that their initial drafts usually aren’t ready for publication.

But there is something else that established writers of all stripes do all the time:  They write on demand.

What does that mean?  Last month I taught at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop Annual Conference, and in one of my workshops I had the students in the room pull out a sheet of paper and spend twenty minutes writing the beginning of a story.  A short while later, I had them do another writing exercise that involved putting the character they had created for the first exercise in a new situation.  Just about every writer in the room expressed some trepidation about writing on demand in this way.  For about thirty seconds.  And then every one of them began to write.

Nonfiction writers do stuff like this all the time.  Journalists working as freelancers for magazines and such get assignments of this sort:  “Give me 5,000 words on snorkling in the Caribbean by the end of the month,” or “We want a feature-length article on Warren Buffett by Friday.”  A few years ago, I was invited into my first themed anthology.  An editor approached me and said, “I’d love for you to be in the anthology I’m working on; can you write me a dragon story?”  I had never written a dragon story, but in minutes I had an idea for one.  The result is one of the best short pieces I’ve ever done.  I’ve since written a short story for another themed antho, and Faith and I have been invited to collaborate for yet another one.  Two years ago this week, I was hired to write the novelization of ROBIN HOOD.  In that case, I was given five weeks to write a 90,000 word novel using another writer’s script as the basis for the book.

Writing on demand — having someone tell us not only when we should turn a story in and how long it should be, but also what (in general terms) it should be about — is a terrific exercise for any writer.  I don’t know that I will ever be asked to write another novelization; I certainly don’t expect that I’ll have to write it quite that quickly.  But I know that I could if I had to.  I know that I am capable of writing pretty much anything in just about any semi-reasonable time frame.  And I know that I can come up with story ideas for all sorts of anthology themes or writing prompts. 

Most of us spend the bulk of our writing time working on our own stories or books, so it would seem that writing on demand in the way I’m describing is somewhat beyond our normal creative experience.  And yet right now I am forcing myself to write short stories in the Thieftaker universe.  I don’t know yet what I’ll do with all these stories — some I’ll submit for publication; some I’ll make available for free on the D.B. Jackson website as a way of generating more interest in the upcoming books.  But I’ve already written two stories this fall, and I intend to write at least one more (I’m hoping for two) before year’s end.  I also want to come up with proposals for two more Thieftaker books.  Faith is working on additional ideas for Jane Yellowrock stories and books.  A.J. is coming up with more Darwen Arkwright storylines.  Misty has a couple of new projects going — one a follow-up to Mad Kestrel, another totally separate from the Kestrel series.  In short, we all create on demand, because if we don’t, we can’t survive in this business.

How about you?  Do you make yourself write on demand?  Would you like to try?  It’s almost Thanksgiving, so I was thinking it might be fun to try a holiday-themed writing prompt.  Here’s your assignment:  Write a fantasy/horror/paranormal/speculative fiction story about something touching on the Thanksgiving holiday.  Don’t take too long to plot it out.  Just start writing it.  Write fast, remember?  Don’t over think.  And to make sure that you don’t, why don’t you give us the first hundred words or so here in the comments section?  Have fun with it; do something innovative, something you haven’t thought to try before.  Ready?  Go! 

David B. Coe

21 comments to On Writing: Writing on Demand, and a Story Assignment!

  • Here’s mine (Yeah, it’s a little long):

    In my line of work, the holidays were always nuts. Mourning cows at Christmas, bereft pigs at Easter, paranoid salmon whenever the Jewish holidays rolled around, and your typical gravy and stuffing jobs during the last week in November. But when I saw her darken my doorway, I knew that this Thanksgiving would be anything by typical.

    She had drumsticks that went from her hips to Fresno and back again. Her white meat was plump and firm — the kind that would make a vegetarian reach for his carving knife.

    “Are you Mister Slaw?” she asked.

    “Mister slaw is my father. You can call me Cole.”

    I grinned; she didn’t. She strutted forward and settled herself in the chair opposite my desk with a rustle of feathers. For the first time in my life, I found myself envying a piece of furniture. “My name is Matilda Buttleball, Mister Slaw,” she said.

    “THE Matilda Buttleball?” I asked, reaching for a cigarette, even as I gazed into those little dark eyes. “Heiress to the Buttleball fortune?”

    “That’s right,” she said. “My husband has vanished, and I need your help.”

    “Forgive me, Missus Buttleball–”

    “I know what you’re going to say, Mister Slaw. It’s Thanksgiving. But my husband is no turkey. He’s a man, just like you are. And I’m afraid for him.”

    Tears slipped from her eyes, dampening her feathers, and I realized that I envied Mister Buttleball even more than I did my chair.

  • Sorry, went over on the beginning. Sadly, I know what it’s about. I should finish it, but I need to finish the last 2-3k on my current work first. A deadline waits for no writing exercise. 😉
    Dark clouds scudded across the sky, low and thick, as shimmering arcs of lightning played along their undersides and flashed to the ground. This one was going to be a doozy, Eric thought as he jogged home, hoping to beat the torrential downpour he knew was coming. He hated this kind of weather. It made his heart hammer and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. It was lightning strike weather.

    The paper sack from the grocer’s he carried with the last minute tin-can cranberry logs and brown and serve rolls would be soaked through if it rained now and he’d be chasing cans of the gelatinized berries all over the street. He could already feel the first cold drops of rain on his face and smell the heavy, almost salty, mineral tang of it in the air. He wasn’t going to make it. So far, this was the worst Thanksgiving ever and it wasn’t even over.

  • David, you are a strange, strange man. Good thing you are also funny 🙂

  • Thanks for playing along, Daniel.

    And A.J., yeah, I know…

  • I tried to start writing something, but I’m at work, so I’ll continue a bit later.

    As for writing on demand, I agree that it’s important to strike a balance between preserving artistic integrity…and preserving your livelihood. I’ve got a standalone novel I’m revising right now, which I think is likely to be an easy sell if the agent who requested to see it when I’m finished ends up liking it. I also think there’s the possibility that I could get a deal for more than one book. Well, it’s a long-shot, but if that happens, I want to be ready to write more. I love the characters, and I’ve done just enough thinking about what could be next for them that–if I get really lucky–I can come up with two more books for that world.

  • Razziecat

    Martha crouched behind the tree, rifle at the ready. Her quarry was brazen, standing in plain sight, head bobbing, tail feathers spread. Too much movement. She’d have to wait.

    Peering through the pine branches, she watched it shift with every breeze. November was unseasonably warm. She’d come out in only jeans and a flannel shirt–dark brown so she’d blend in with the trees. It wouldn’t do to be spotted. She’d planned this for too long. This was going to be so satisfying, she could almost taste it.

    The wind was fading. She lifted the gun. The man at the gun shop had said it was a favorite among hunters: Reliable, lightweight, almost a legend. She wasn’t looking to set any records. All she cared about was this one shot.

    The wind died. Her quarry bobbed once and went still. Gently, reverently, she pulled the trigger. The bang made her ears ring, but the sweetest sound in the world was the high-pitched hiss of rapidly-escaping air. The huge rubber body sighed as it collapsed into an ugly heap on the neighbor’s lawn. Martha smiled. “God, I hate those things.”

  • Lauren, being able to write more in a series — KNOWING that you can do it if asked — is a huge advantage in today’s market. Best of luck with it; hope the agent loves it.

    Razz, I love that! There’s one of those things near us, if you want to come and kill it for us….

  • Beast shifted on limb, staring down at path below. Could hear the garbbling-gabbling-gobbling as turkeys came close. Her shoulders tensed. Claws pressed into bark. Her lips lifted, showing killing teeth.

    Jane had been invited to big dinner at Molly’s. Beast had not. Beast was not happy. Wanted to have big dinner with kits. Was not fair.

    Smaller female turneys passed under limb. Large male strutted behind, feathers spread. Male birds were easy targets. Easy to hunt and easy to kill. Turkey passed below limb. Appeared on other side. Tail wide, wings half spread. Beast could not go to dinner, but Beast could bring the bird to eat.

    Beast dropped. And shot rang out.

  • Okay, here’s my quick and dirty Thanksgiving story on demand start:
    “We only need a little. Couldn’t we just leave it out?” Beeder stood trembling before me.
    “We can’t possibly have Thanksgiving without the cranberry sauce. And we cannot possibly make the cranberry sauce without the proper ingredients. Why do you always wait until the last minute to come to me with these things Beeder?”
    “Sorry, Mum.”
    “What else do we need? I’ll know if you’re lying to me.”
    “Plenty of cranberries?”
    “Yes, Mum. And the sugar and spices and the pineapple you like so much. All we need is the blood.”
    “It’s four in the morning Beeder. Where the hell am I going to find the blood of a blessed man at this time of night?”

  • Wow, Faith! Now you have to finish that; I want to know what happens! Thanks for playing along.

    I like that, too, Pandora! Thanks!

  • Okay, here’s mine (love David’s, btw). It is too long. The only excuse I’ll offer is that it is the whole story. (it’s under 400 words!) 🙂

    A cool breeze ruffled Clarabell’s blonde hair. She settled her girth into her lounger, the metal and plastic creaking under her weight. She sipped her Bloody Mary. Certainly there was no better way to spend Thanksgiving: in her South Carolina house on the Atlantic, far from Connecticut’s November chill, a fresh turkey waiting for death in the pen.
    “Ma’am?” at the southern drawl of Earl, her low class butler, she curled her lip.
    “What?” She snapped, her sharp New England accent harsh against his easy droll.
    “There’s a problem with the turkey, ma’am.”
    She snorted and slammed her drink onto the table, sloshing the red liquid onto the white of the lounger. “You failed to slaughter a simple bird?” She hauled herself up and faced him.
    Blood trickled from a gash on the butler’s forhead, trailing down his cheek and gathering in the collar of his shirt. His normally whisky-pink cheeks were ashen and his bright blue eyes dim.
    “Was there some kind of accident?”
    “In the back yard, ma’am. We—Tommy and me—were getting ready to kill the turkey.” He jerked his hand full of blood spattered feathers. The black of his suit glinted, wet, and blood rolled onto his hands from under the cuff.
    “Did you cut yourself?” She stepped back, putting the lounger between the two of them.
    “No, ma’am.” He swayed back and forth and tumbled forward, the feathers fluttering into the air before floating down.
    Clarabell screamed. The gashes on Earl’s chest, revealed in his collapse, oozed more blood. She did not lean to down to check on him, but scrambled into the house, grabbing the nearest phone and punching in 911.
    Behind her, something rustled.
    She spun around, the 911 call at its third ring. A turkey—their thanksgiving dinner—stared at her, its beady black eyes glinting in the light of the room.
    “911. What is your emergency?”
    “There’s a turkey…” she trailed off. A patch of pale skin was visible on the bird where feathers had been torn away.
    The creature clucked once, twice. A flutter of its wings revealed a cleaver. How it held it, she had no idea, but blood dripped from the blade.

  • I hate Thanksgiving. All the sappiness about family and togetherness, and, well, giving thanks. For what? My family? You don’t know my family.
    Every year it’s the same old routine. I pack my stuff into my old truck, load up the hounds, and make the four hour drive to Sopchoppy. Yeah, I know. Weird name, huh? Well, that’s where the family is. The hounds are excited, though, whining and wriggling as I load them into their carriers. They know what’s coming.
    It wasn’t always this way. Use to be, Thanksgiving was a pleasant gathering of the Revvel family. Mom, Aunt El and us gals would put out a spread that could feed a third-world country for a few days; Dad, Uncle Jay and the boys would sit out back, smoking oysters over an open pit fire, drinking ‘shine, and talking about the best places to fish and the upcoming football games. The younger sibs, cousins, nieces and nephews would do what kids do while trying to avoid us grown-ups. That was then, though. This ain’t then.
    Mom and El and the gals don’t cook anymore. Dad, Jay and the boys don’t smoke oysters or drink shine. No one watches football.
    The hounds are excited. The rifle is clean, loaded, and ready. The family is gathering, and its my job to make sure they stay home.

  • Unicorn

    Pea Faerie, I will never think of turkeys in the same way again. Ever.
    Here’s mine. I’m afraid I’m not terribly good at writing for a specific theme (and I aimed for Christmas instead of Thanksgiving as we don’t celebrate the latter in SA and I just *knew* I was going to make a dumb mistake), but it improves in the end:

    Darren was driving home on Christmas Eve when he saw his quarry.
    He nearly missed the unicorn, white as it was, pawing at the snow in the little park where Darren’s kids had played only this morning. Compared to its coat, the snow looked yellow, drifting around its legs as it searched for brittle grass. Darren hit the brakes, tyres screaming. The sound made the unicorn jerk up its head, and Darren’s heart skipped a beat. It was a stallion in its prime, its neck a proud curve, mane falling to its shoulder. Darren paused, thinking of the two small girls waiting for their father to come home for Christmas. The unicorn’s nostrils flared wide, its magnificent diamond-like horn flashing in the night. Darren scrambled out of the car, pausing to touch a secret place where an airbag should be. A hidden compartment slid open to reveal a slender crossbow. It was the first and last of its kind. The only crossbow that could kill a unicorn.

    Thanks for the post and the assignment, David. For a change I’ve written a short story I actually like! Thank you.

  • Mikaela

    I am too busy to write the short story so I’ll pass this one. But it would be fun to write something about how the Trolls celebrate Yule… Hm… Err.. Ask me again next week, when I have written the exam 😀

  • Emily, I’m with Unicorn. Turkeys are henceforth objects of abject terror. Thanks for the story; glad you liked mine.

    Lyn, that’s chilling. Thanks for sharing.

    My pleasure, Unicorn. Thanks for the story!

    Mikaela, best of luck with the exam.

  • I’ve had to write on demand a few times in the past year. It’s taught me that I can do it, when I bother to. Which really just means I should make a point of “bothering to” more often.

    As for the story … Extra Credit for me: Pretend I’m American! 😉

    The visitors were here again.

    They milled about, laughing and chatting in the warmth of Granny Missa as they prepared to gorge on the feast that awaited. Every few minutes, another would arrive, stomp off the caked snow, and the room would erupt with greetings. Occasionally one would duck his head into the kitchen and take a great sniff of the enormous bird, which was now so well-cooked that its enticing aromas permeated the house. Sometimes they reach over to the island, where Ivy sat watching her prey roast, to give her a token pet.

    Ivy refused to break her stare from the oven door.

    “Iz chickunz,” she told Missa, when the most recent guest left. The old witch still puttered about, preparing the extensive spread for her guests. “I noes.”

    “It’s turkey,” Missa told her calmly. “And you can have some when the people leave.”

    Ivy lashed her tail. “Iz chickunz,” she repeated. “Mai chickunz.”

    (This post inspired by Pixel, who insists that she be fed hourly, and that my day off means that I should either be sleeping (so she can sleep on me), petting her, or keeping her sated.)

  • Mikaela, drop a beginning, like I did. It might spark something good for the future, like it did for me. I really don’t have time to finish what I added either, but I’m definitely putting it on the backburner for the future. I just finished the final word count on my possible submission to Avon for an open call for 25k or less works, then I have to get back to finishing the duology, but it’s always nice to have a springboard already in place for something else…unless it’s one of those things where any other writing distraction will have you writing off on a tangent, which I can sympathize with. 😉

    All these beginnings, I’m pretty sure I’d want to read all of ’em, the funny/witty to the bizarre.

  • I like to hang out in the corner as my family eats Thanksgiving dinner. Partly, that’s because I no longer have a chair at the table, which means I would have to stand in my usual spot, and that just seems silly, even when you no longer have legs that ache. My place setting was gone, too, shuffled to the other side of the table to accomodate my big sister’s fiancee. I had watched my father’s carefully-controlled expression as he set the mat, the forks, the knife, the plate, the glass. I almost missed the quick flick of his eyes across the table, to the place that mat should have been.

    Eric had expanded to fill the spot I’d left, as if knowing he somehow had fill in for me like he always did–that he had to be enough for both of us.

    I think my death had hit him hardest. The shadow of grief had grown noon-time thin on my sister and my parents, surfacing only when some artifact of my existence rose up to cast it. And even then, they’d learned to smile. Cry a little. Move on. They had been whole once, before me, and though my absence had gouged out a piece of their souls that couldn’t be replaced, they could be whole again without me.

    But Eric, born twelve minutes after me, had never been without me, and I had never been without him. We’d never been, exactly, whole without each other. And I think that’s why I stayed behind, even after my family had moved on. For Eric, whose plate was heaped with a double-helping of stuffing, even though he’d always liked mashed potatoes better–his small tribute, I suppose.

    I was waiting for him, and I hoped I had to wait a hundred years. Still, as I gazed at his heaping plate, I couldn’t help but think he might be trying to off himself early.

  • TwilightHero

    Thanksgiving. Heard of it? Turkeys. Pilgrims. General feelings of thankfulness all around. There. Now you know as much about the holiday as I do.

    All right, fine. I lied. In the United States of America, the fourth Thursday of November commemorates the early colonists’ gratitude for a successful harvest; for the Native Americans who were kind enough to help in this endeavour; and probably for having escaped the religious persecution that made them become colonists in the first place.

    There. NOW you know as much about the day as I do. More or less. Happy?

    I don’t exactly care about the holiday. I have bigger things to worry about. I started 10th grade this year, and school has gotten harder than ever, even without the ‘social misfit’ tag. I’m flunking Math, got a D on my last three Science tests and I’m barely scraping a C average in History. Teachers say I should work on my writing; too many fragments. (Look Ma. No grammar.) Don’t care about that either…though I should I guess. But I write like I talk. Big-shot authors get away with it. Don’t see why I can’t.

    And then there’s this girl I like…but that’s another story.

    So this year, as we set the table for store-bought turkey and canned cranberry sauce, me and my little brother, I had my mind on other things. My mom found this antique silverware in a shop somewhere, complete with a carving knife. (Bad purchase, Mom. Really bad. You should get your money back and then some.) Didn’t really notice when Darren put the thing where the turkey would be; he’s old enough to know not to play with knives. I didn’t know why he picked it back up all of a sudden and started grinning. Didn’t know what to think about the weird look in his eyes.

    And I didn’t expect him to start laughing in a voice that should NOT have been that deep, cock his scrawny wrist and throw it at me.

    [Kind of long, I know; sorry about that. Inspired by the fact that I know next to nothing about Thanksgiving, since we don’t celebrate it. Had to look it up on Wikipedia XD]

  • “You’re putting in too much salt,” Gram said.
    I tasted the squash puree and added a pat of butter, ignoring her.
    “That turkey’s going to be dry as a bone.”
    “Uh huh.” I set the puree aside and pulled the risen rolls from the warming oven, shifting them to the top rack over the 13lb turkey cooking away. I gave it a quick baste, ignoring the snort behind me.
    “Too late for that. It’s already ruined.” Gram sniffed, settled her hands over the red calico apron. “It’s no wonder you haven’t got a man, with the way you cook. Wasteful. That’s what you are. Wasteful.”
    “Yup,” I said. In the next room, men cursed a fifteen yard penalty.
    She watched me dash paprika into the sweet potatoes. “You hear me? In my day, a girl knew how to make a dinner with flour and bacon grease. Didn’t need all this fancy education and a bunch of glossy magazines to make Thanksgiving dinner either.”
    “I know.”
    “Don’t you sass me, young lady.” Three eggs, standing ready to be whipped into merengue slapped onto the floor.
    I rolled my eyes and reached for paper towels, muttering “tiresome old bitch” under my breath.
    My brother’s girlfriend poked her head into the room, beaded braids swinging. “You sure you don’t need any help?”
    I dashed over to shove her back out the door. but she was already inside, pushing the swinging door open with her 8 month belly. “Want me to chop things or something?”
    “Nope.” I smiled at her. “Too many cooks spoil the stew. I’m happy as a clam, just doing my thing. You go rest your feet. I’ll get you some ice water.”
    “You sure?” She glanced over her shoulder at me, as she went, but she let me shove her out the door.
    I poured a glass of iced tea, slapping away the bottle of pennyroyal that floated toward the glass. “I saw that, you old hag.”
    Gram retired into the corner, muttering about bastard children and women who trapped a man with a baby. “Oh, shut up,” I said and went into the other room to deliver the iced tea.

    From the kitchen I heard the smoke alarm go off.

    God, the holidays are tough since Gram died.

  • Vyton

    Two holidays had survived the change. We thought of them as the Ironies. Arbor Day was the biggest — the biggest irony.

    “This doesn’t even look like a turkey!” said Dall, the patriarchal figure at the table.

    But Thanksgiving was still the one where everyone still got together with their own colony forming unit.

    “It’s not turkey. If you’re eating fungus and bacterial slime, why does it need to look like something out of the mists of time?” said Rhymer. “Who wants to carve the toadstool?”

    They say it wasn’t always this way. For a while the other holidays had lasted and Thanksgiving faded in celebration, but in only a few years, the Cynics gained the upper hand and soon we were down to Arbor Day on a planet with no trees and Thanksgiving on a planet with no joy.

    “Dall, you want to say the blessing?”

    “Oh, Lord, just look at this mess. I told you it wasn’t going to work. Amen!”