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Learn How Less Can Be More

Read the winning story in WD’s 11th Annual Short Short Story Competition, and find out more about how its author, Mikala Engel, conveyed big emotion in a small word count.
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Please write a quick bio of yourself, including (but not limited to) your age, occupation, home town, and where your work has been published and what awards you’ve won.
I was adopted from South Korea when I was a baby and grew up in Nebraska in a family of eight. I studied film at the University of Notre Dame, then taught English in Japan for a year and a half. In 2008 I moved to LA to pursue a career in film but have since changed my passion to writing. I’m 26 now and currently work in post-production in Hollywood, squeezing in as much time to write as I can. I’ve never been published or won a writing award before so this is very encouraging!

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing short fiction?
Writing short stories allows me to explore all the crazy ideas that come to me on a regular basis and play with narration, voice, and diction without the time commitment writing a full novel would require. The challenge is making sure the few scenes I write are powerful enough to stand on their own.

Describe your writing process for this story. (How long did it take you to write it? Where did you get the idea? Etc.)
The story was originally the first scene of a script I wrote awhile back. Ironically, the script had nothing to do with a father/daughter relationship. It was a black-comedy heist film! After reading the script again years later, however, I realized this scene was the most compelling part of the entire script. I thought it’d be an interesting challenge to adapt it to a short story focusing on the relationship between the father and the daughter. The first draft took a week of brainstorming and a couple nights of writing. Mrs. PTA didn’t develop until the last draft when I realized the story was missing one crucial element.

Write a one-sentence summary of your story, designed to hook reader and draw them in.
This story captures the moment when a single father first apprehends that his daughter is growing up and everything that encompasses it.

How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
My passion for writing took off after a creative writing course I took my junior year of high school. I realized how much I love the process of developing characters and storylines and I have been writing ever since. My dream is to write full-time someday but for now I settle with writing as a passionate hobby of mine.

Who has inspired you as a writer?
Suzanne Collins has inspired me for her ability to keep everyone turning the page and Markus Zusak for the brilliant ways in which he thinks outside the box.

Which genres do you write in? Are short stories your primary genre?
My favorite genre to write is YA fantasy fiction. I consider myself an aspiring novelist, but I’m more and more intrigued by the art of short story writing.

Describe your typical writing routine.
When I get an idea I like to walk to the coffee shop, order an iced coffee and write my ideas out by hand. The walk to and from the coffee shop eases my mind into thinking mode. When I get home I type my ideas out on my computer, which gives me a second time to think about them.

How would you describe your writing style?
I tend to focus my stories around characters. I love developing unique personalities and backgrounds. I also like to interweave humor with drama.

What are the keys to a successful short story?
A successful short story has emotional depth that keeps the reader thinking about it long after it has been read.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
I couldn’t live without my family and friends and all of their support!

Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of free writing with a one-sentence prompt. A lot of great ideas come when you’re just being intuitive and not pressuring yourself to write something brilliant.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
I would say a strength of mine is character voice. I do a lot of character sketches to really get inside the minds of my characters and understand them.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
I struggle with keeping my ideas simple. It’s my instinct to incorporate a mess of ideas into one work, and then once I’ve complicated everything it’s my challenge to sort out what’s actually relevant. I find outlining is the best way of doing this.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve received is from one of my college professors who told me not to hold onto ideas if they are no longer relevant to the story. It’s enough to say they’ve served their purpose as stepping-stones to greater ideas.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
My proudest moment as a writer was when my twin sister (who is my hardest critic) told me she thought I had what it takes to be a successful writer.

What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
My dream is to write YA fiction novels full-time. For now, my goal is to keep working on my craft by reading and writing as much as possible.

Any final thoughts or advice?
Madeleine L’Engle said in her Newberry Medal acceptance speech, “Unless a writer works constantly to improve and refine the tools of his trade, they will be useless instruments if and when the moment of inspiration, of revelation, does come. This is the moment when a writer is spoken through, the moment that a writer must accept with gratitude and humility, and then attempt, as best he can, to communicate to others.” In other words, when you sit down to write, don’t put the pressure on yourself to write brilliantly. Rather, realize that you are exercising your skill so that when the moment of brilliance does arrive, you are fully prepared for it.

Click here to read the winning entry.

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