Writer’s Digest would like to congratulate the winners of the 18th Annual Short Short Story Competition. Each year, writers submit their very best short stories of 1,500 words or fewer. This year, “Beneath the Cracks” by Nicole Disney (nicoledisney.com) bested more than 3,000 entries to win the grand prize of $3,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City, among other prizes.
For complete coverage of the awards, see the July/August 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest.
Extended Q&A with WD’s 2017 Short Short Story Competition Winner
I have to ask about the name Disney.
It’s my legal name. I’m not really sure about any relation or anything—I can’t tell you for sure.
Tell me about yourself.
I live in Denver, CO. I have for pretty much my entire life. I’m 28 years old. I work for Denver 911 as a 911 operator at a police dispatcher, I’ve been doing that for about 4 years now. My first novel, published in 2013, is called Dissonance in A minor. It is out of print though, at this point. I have two upcoming titles with Bold Strokes Books, both to be released in 2018. The first is Hers to Protect in June, and the other one is Secrets on the Clock in October.
Can you provide a line or two describing your story to someone who hasn’t read it?
A hungry homeless man and a street kid show each other compassion and trade the secrets that make their lives livable.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing pretty much my entire life, kind of that classic writer story. I think I first started when I was 7- or 8-years-old, I had this class assignment to write a Halloween story. The assignment was probably a page or two. And I don’t know how at that age I got this in my head, but I just immediately thought that I needed to write a novel. And I really wasn’t thinking about it as a career path, I didn’t even know it was an option at that point, but it just naturally happened, and I never stopped.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing a successful short story?
The benefits—it’s great because you get to just focus on this one moment, this one experience, and it’s a way of showing people how powerful the day to day experience of life can be. Even though it’s usually just mundane and kind of blurs by, you get to really show how these small interactions can really make a huge difference in the course of your life.
As far as challenges, they’re really challenging because you don’t have a whole lot of time. So everything you write has to be doing more than one thing at once. You can’t just be writing something because it’s pretty, it has to be pretty and give character, and advance the plot, all at the same time. Otherwise you’re just not going to have enough time to get everything that you want to get in.
What was your writing process for this story? Where did you get the idea?
I got the idea while I was doing research for one of my novels. I’ve got a book coming up that’s about social workers, and I was interviewing someone who was a foster parent for tons and tons of kids, and they told me this story of the kid making tomato soup out of ketchup, and it just hit me so hard, it was so powerful, I just instantly knew that I needed to do something with that. So I thought about it and I planned it, and it took me a day to write. I had a day that I set aside to initially write it. And I went through a few drafts, I tried a few perspectives, before I got it where I liked it. So I wrote it in a day and I probably edited over another few weeks, just tinkering with it and changing it around until I was happy with it.
I don’t know the kid, but it was a story that I just thought was very powerful.
How does your work for Denver 911 impact your writing?
Doing 911 work, you hear the most insane stories. These are the moments that change people’s lives, and you’re listening to basically a collection of them all day every day. To a point you kind of get used to some of the recurring problems, but there’s always at least one a day that you’re not expecting, that you’ve never heard before, so it is a constant inspiration to get to talk to people in this raw form that you don’t usually get to experience when you’re just talking to your friends. People aren’t connecting with you at that level of emotion that they are when you’re taking 911 calls. There’s a little bit of a distance involved because you’re doing a job, but in the quiet hours afterwards when you’re reflecting on it all, it’s impossible not to think about the really human experiences that you’re hearing. It’s a privilege to be a part of someone’s life in that way, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes.
That sounds like it could be stressful but interesting work.
It’s definitely stressful and interesting—you’ve got to do some self-care to make sure it doesn’t get to you, but it’s rewarding at the same time. And I actually do have a project that I’m working on right now on my website called “Snap Stories,” and they are basically flash fiction stories that come from 911 calls—they’re inspired by 911 calls, they’re not true (I can’t divulge people’s personal information), but they’re inspired by 911 calls.
If somebody asks, “What do you do?” what do you say?
I usually do come right out with both. I say, “I pay the bills with 911, but I’m a writer.” I am proud of my 911 work as well, but as far as my identity goes, I think of myself as a writer first. I try to live my life as a writer.
What does that mean to you—to live your life as a writer?
I see it in the way that I move through the world. I try to just be very present. I try to think of myself as more of an observer than as someone with a schedule. I find that when you view the world through that lens, every person, every experience, even every inconvenience or bad experience—instead of being that bad experience, in some ways—becomes this inspiration. It just makes me see the world a little bit differently. And just writing. That’s such a huge and simple thing, but just making sure that you’re doing the work, your constantly writing something new, you’re planning something, you’re getting your work out there, you’re treating it like a job.
Who has inspired you as a writer?
So many. I guess the first answer is probably going to be what everybody’s answer who is around my age: Harry Potter of course is the first thing that I really remember awakening that love for reading. That’s obviously a huge first step. But as far as influences on my writing, Flannery O’Connor got me very interested in short stories, I think her work is just insanely good. Chuck Palahniuk, I learned a lot from watching the way he writes, his style, I try to emulate that to an extent. Anne Rice is another example of someone who just gave me a love for reading and an appreciation for another style.
What genres are you drawn to?
I like literary fiction or mainstream. I kind of walk that line between literary and mainstream fiction because I do write a lot of plot-based stuff, but it’s usually a little bit more out there. So it kind of dances with literary fiction a little bit. But I like contemporary, kind of gritty, urban settings and stories about struggle and the human condition under extraordinary circumstances.
Do you tend to write very short stories, or do you write longer as well?
I tend to go more towards the flash fiction. I want to start doing more short stories that are kind of in between, but most of my stuff is either full-length novels or flash fiction. Novels were my first love, that’s kind of where I more naturally fell. I like to really dig into character and show the change over time, and in a novel you have the time to flesh out a theme and a character, and I’m drawn to that. As far as flash fiction goes, that’s a more recent project that I’ve gotten into in the last year or two, and I just found that I really like intense writing, and flash fiction forces you to be really intense because you’re just full, forceful speed the whole time, and I’m really drawn to that.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I’m the type of writer that likes to daydream and think a lot before I actually write. I have a wall in my house that is a chalkboard, so I outline like crazy. As far as sitting down to write, I usually look at my outline and whatever I’m going to write for that day and where I’m going to start, and where I’m going to finish. If I don’t have some sort of plan, I will wander.
I’m totally the type of writer who will just sit there and have a conversation with my characters for ten pages and then realize nothing’s happening. I need that direction. And I just sit down, I try to get rid of all of the distractions, I have to lock the cats out or they’ll tip everything over, and just write until I get to that point where I’ve decided I’m going to stop, and I always try to stop just a little bit before I’m out of ideas so that when I come back the next day I can just get going again. That’s been the best way to avoid that black pit where you’re just staring at a blank page for an hour. That was advice that I heard, and I just loved it and I tried it and it worked. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
What other writing advice has been helpful to you?
Everyone says this, it’s been said a million times, but just to actually write. And just to not be paralyzed by this need to be brilliant on your first draft. Just get something down. And the other half of that advice—that I haven’t heard as much, but that’s been just as important to me—is to not be afraid of the delete key. If something is not working, you can rearrange it, you can change it, you can even just start over. I’m a big fan of starting over, which is a lot of work, but sometimes it’s the best way. And I’ve gotten a lot of my best work that way—by writing something, and then completely throwing it out and doing it over, and then it comes out much better.
What is one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Feedback from other writers. No matter how much you try to self-edit, there will be certain things that you’ll never think of. You need a different perspective.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer, and how have you worked to develop those qualities?
I think I do emotion well. I really like just getting deep into the skin of a character. I like to write first-person present tense, and I think that helps a lot. There’s a really strong immediacy there, and you can really go deep into what the person is feeling.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with, and how have you worked to strengthen yourself in those areas?
The first thing I ever struggled with was probably conflict. Like I said, I will just get really lost in my characters. I love characters, but the downside of that is that I would just hang out with them and nothing would happen. So kind of forcing myself to have a plot and structure. That something that I think I’ve come a long way in just from seeking help from other writers who are good at it. And it’s been really important to my writing and my journey as a writer to figure out how to keep the pace moving and the plot moving and make sure there’s a point to everything that’s on the paper.
How would you describe your writing style?
Overall I guess I’d say I’m a minimalist. I like to keep it sharp, I like to keep it strong, I don’t like to get too flowery with my language. I just like to be really direct and I try to make it hit you in the gut, like the writing that’s always stayed with me, where you just finished reading the book and you have to just sit there for a minute, it’s been that type of writing. So I try to emulate that.
What do you think are the keys to a successful short story?
Making every word count is huge. That multitasking of always doing more than one thing, being super engaging, and then just really digging in to whatever your story is, finding what is truly special about whatever it is your writing about, whether it’s the person, or the crazy thing that happened, or even if it’s a mundane thing that happened. What makes that worth writing about? What are the layers that make that special?
What is your proudest moment as a writer?
It’s always changing. It’s always the most recent thing that has happened. For a while it was the first contest I won, then it was my first book that was published, right now it’s probably this contest win. But I’m really excited about my books that are coming out with Bold Strokes—that was my biggest publishing contract that I’ve gotten so far. So if I had to choose one, I would say that.
What are your goals as a writer?
For the career, I guess I want what every writer wants. I’m in the market for an agent, and always trying to get bigger contracts, bigger audiences. But as far as the writing, my goal is to never be afraid to write something strange or different or even controversial. To always be bold and write the stories that don’t get told.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Find the beauty all around you—find the beauty in life, in people, even in the bad things. I’ve found that’s the most fun thing to write about, when you can take something that seems bad or seems like struggle or even things that seem like hate and kind of digging for the beauty beneath that. Because everybody’s human and everything is understandable if you really dig and try.