"Parting Gift," by Lish Troha, is the Grand Prize winning story for the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Fiction Competition. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive feature on Troha, check out the July/August 2015 issue of Writer's Digest.
In this bonus online exclusive, Troha talks about where she gets her ideas and inspiration from and the challenges in writing short fiction. You can read "Parting Gift" here. To read the top 25 stories from the competition, please check out the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing a successful short story?
Short stories give us the opportunity to offer up a tiny vignette in a life, making the possibilities for them infinite. Of course, this benefit is also the challenge: How do we know when to stop? Which idea of hundreds do we follow and complete? How do we take 2,000 words and make them feel like part of a greater life? These are hard questions.
Describe your writing process for this story. (How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea? Etc.)
While writing this story I was (and still am) playing with style, obsessing over every word, and selfdoubting, so these 1300 words took me a pretty long time to get to the point of submitting. When I write, I also research as I go and tend to have at least 3 documents open at a time that I’m working on, so I have no idea how to calculate the total time it took. A lot of hours. At least 8 but maybe 20?
I primarily write stories from the perspective of people suffering at the hands of our culture, which can take shape in thousands of ways. I started writing from the perspective of a stripper because that environment felt ripe with descriptions of emptiness. Not that the life of a dancer is empty, but that our culture’s notions of intimacy are manufactured and cheap and nowhere is that more celebrated than in a strip club. I guess I wanted to briefly examine that and also tell a story of a person who has been denigrated but holds to a strong sense of self.
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
I wrote a lot as a child and as an early teen, but fell out of it and into other preoccupations as a young adult. Only since last summer have I been doggedly playing catchup. I started by writing a novel like a maniac in July 2014. I now view that project as a selfimposed writing boot camp to launch me back into the craft. After that I started looking into lit magazines and submitting shorter pieces. I probably clock 15-25 hours a week of writing on top of my paid work, depending on what else is happening in my life, though of course I’d love it to be more.
Who has inspired you as a writer?
I could go down a rabbithole of writers that I respect in both fiction and nonfiction. To keep it brief, I’ll say I adore McCarthy’s style and Palahniuk’s themes. I also have some very inspiring friends in my life.
Which genres do you write in? Do you generally just stick to short stories or flash fiction?
I mostly write short stories under 4,000 words right now, flash fiction occasionally, and the one novel that will likely never see the light of day. I have another basic outline of a novel that I’ll start working on when the time is right.
Describe your typical writing routine.
Open project. Write and edit. Get new idea. Open new document. Write a paragraph at most. Return to first document and write/edit more. Repeat until there are three or four Untitled docs open with the start of a story on each of them. Keep about six Internet tabs open for research and thesaurus.com at the ready. Enter fullscreen when I’m in final edits of whatever project compels me enough to finish first. Read it, reread it, make edits, barely meet deadline. Never read again after submitting. Sip coffee throughout. Mostly in bed.
How would you describe your writing style?
I’m still developing my style, but I try to keep it stark and blunt. I like basic, commafree sentences that say the exact right thing. I also like to join words with dashes: “bloodsludge,” “townshell,” etc. That has always felt natural to me.
What are the keys to a successful short story?
In longer works, there’s more time to hook a reader into indulging in your asides. I know how tempting it is to weave in musings and trick yourself into thinking it’s character development or something. But in every sentence of a short story, something should happen or describe an event that has happened to help the reader understand this point in time. Every other sentence should go or you will bore your reader. And maybe this is obvious, but I think it’s important choose content you’re really engaged in. Anything else is a waste of your time.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
From life, but when it doesn’t come easy I’ll use a random word generator and click until something resonates with me and build a little story around it. But more often than not, I just start writing and my subconscious handles it.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
I’m undeterred by rejection. There are so many beautiful stories and amazing writers out there that I don’t take it personally. I just move forward. I think this attitude comes from a defense mechanism that allows me to keep working tirelessly even though I have plenty of growing to do as a writer. When I first started, I was straightup delusional. Being a little deluded helps in such a competitive field. Not like you imagine you’re so great, but you imagine you can be so great.
I also listen to myself before I listen to anyone else. There is so much advice and so many people trying to help point you in a direction with writing that often you just have to tune it all out and let your work consume you.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
The time and isolation inherent in writing is a thing I struggle with. A huge part of my life is writing, but there has to be a balance in order to live fully and show love and gratitude for all that’s around me. I don’t always have that balance and I’m still working on that. I do make it a point to seek out things that are funny to me, and to find humor in darkness. That way I don’t take myself or my work or my life too seriously.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
I haven’t read much of Stephen King’s work, but this advice has stuck with me: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” I don’t use adverbs in my writing anymore. I have a personal rule about avoiding words that end in ly. While I was looking up that quote to check its accuracy, I found this phrase: “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” which Mark Twain said. That’s a beautiful tip.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
Winning this competition was a huge moment. The first time I made myself laugh with a piece of dialogue I wrote and forgot about was great. Anytime I don’t cringe at what I’ve put on a page is a proud moment. When a friend tells me they truly like what I’ve shared with them, I feel joyful, even if I know the piece still needs improving.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
I aim to stay in total control of my craft and to improve forever. I’d like to write stories that encourage people to consider their position in the world.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Follow your instincts. It's a crazy, digitized world full of opposing directions that will pull you apart if you let them. When you feel overwhelmed, go outside and remember the whole world that exists outside of your head. Then write something.