Monday, June 14, 2021

Crafting the Short Story

The Insecure Writers Support Group publishes an anthology of short stories each year, so it occurred to me that many of our readers might like to know more about writing short stories and what some successful short story writers have to say about their approach to this literary form.


Image credit Steve Rhodes on Wunderstock (license)
(Resized to 500)

First, what are short stories?  They fall into two categories: escape, which is designed to take you away from your real life, and interpretation, which is designed to deepen and broaden your awareness of life. 


Their word count is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 words. They can only explore a portion of the three-act structure, and this portion must transform the main character. There’s one main character, there are no subplots, and they take place in a short period of time in one or a few settings. While they don’t have the complexity or length of a novel, they are no less challenging to craft. 


Some say they’re more challenging because, in a very limited space, writers have to include a character arc, have an intriguing beginning, a compact middle, and an end that is satisfying for the reader. While editing a novel requires a lot of time and dedication, editing a short story (at least for this writer) takes proportionally the same time and dedication. 


I’ve pulled together a checklist that I like to use for my short story writing, so I thought I’d share it here. The only original part of this list is the way I’ve collected the items over the years and arranged them on the page.


Before I write, these are questions I ask.

  1. Am I writing escape or interpretation?
  2. What character will get me the results I want?
  3. What are the three major plot points that will take the story from beginning to end most effectively?
  4. What POV is best for this story?
  5. What setting will serve this story best?


After I write, these are the steps to editing that I take.

  1. Put the story on the shelf for a couple to six weeks.
  2. Print out the story.
  3. Read it aloud without stopping.
  4. Read it aloud and make notes about the character’s consistency and his/her clear want or need, why this story takes place when and where it does.
  5. Make note of: clich├ęs, filler words e.g. the fact of the matter was, passive voice when there’s no reason for it e.g. The boy was hit by the duck., adverbs preceding “said” e.g. slowly he said
  6. Re-write.
  7. Ask for critique.
  8. Consider feedback and make changes I accept.
  9. Read aloud.
  10. Re-write.
  11. Scratch out the last two sentences and read again. Decide if the story loses any meaning or if it has become sharper.
  12. Repeat 6-10 until the story shines.

Something a professor of literature once told me about reading short stories is to read them twice, once to find out what happens and the second time to find out the process that the writer used to create the story. Here are some excerpts from interviews by short story writers that give some insights into their process.


About his approach to writing, Chris Offutt says “The secret is to start a short story near the ending.”


Joyce Thompson has written two collections of short stories and has several pieces in the noted publication, Glimmer Train. She says to pace your story you should “…concentrate on the paragraph as a building block. Craft each one as if it were a poem…the fewer words it takes to tell [stories], the more timely they are.”


When asked “How to you know if what you’re writing is going to be a novel or a short story,” she replied, “To me, a story is a shapely thing. It’s like a circle. A novel, by contrast, is a journey.


David Long is a novelist, but he also has published a collection of short stories called Blue Spruce. He says writers have choices about how to develop a piece of material. Give it a “full scene” or summarize. They can also “account for a long patch in somebody’s life in just a sentence.” His example: And things went pretty smoothly for the next three years. However, he says, “Scene is always inherently more interesting than exposition.”


As in any writing, reading good examples is one of the best ways to improve your own work. If I could only choose four short stories, these are the ones I’d read:


The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain

The Lottery, Jackson

A Case for Kop, Boll

A Rose for Emily, Faulkner





Monday, June 7, 2021

Advice to the Frustrated Author

 

                                                                            Pixabay.com 

We all know that writing is not the way to get rich fast, but I’m sure everyone following this blog has been frustrated with writing and publishing at least once. I know I was. Several times.

The good thing is that I’m stubborn as a mule. If I want something, I work to get it, even if it takes ages. I shudder to think how many of you give up because the headwind is too strong.

 So here are a few words of encouragement:

Things will get better!

Your Indie sales are low? Agents reject your queries again and again? That’s all too familiar to most of us. If you don’t mind listening, I’ll tell you a bit about my journey.

 When I started out Indie publishing at a time where the concept was still alien, most people told me I’m crazy (I am but that’s beside the point). I hand-sold 1000 copies of my first ever novel (a historical novels based on genealogical research) over the next 2 years, and the feedback I got was great. BTW, the novel is still selling today.

 So, enthusiastic as I was, I thought I was destined to become a good mid-list author. I got an agent and wrote more novels. One by one, they were rejected. And that wasn’t a question of quality. To prove the point: I got phone calls from German editors who apologized for not accepting my novel despite their strength. They had guidelines from their admin that told them only to buy historical novels set in the Middle Ages, or fantasy novels that were set in a Tolkienesque world.

 I returned to self-publishing, and since I was bilingual, I wrote my novels in English. I had no idea of cover design, copy writing, or marketing, and never heard of rapid release, eMail lists, or writing to genre. I only wanted to tell stories that other people liked. Sure, I found some rabid fans but no financial success.

 After Indie publishing more than 12 novels, 14 novellas, and a stack of short stories, I sat back and re-evaluated what success meant to me. I had learned a lot since the gold-rush times of Indie publishing and realized that my love and my strength lay with short fiction. I prefer writing short stories and novellas, and my fans love those tales for their rich small-scale worldbuilding. So I started honing my short tale craft and began sending out my stories.

 To my great surprise, the very first one I sent out was snatched up and included in the IWSG anthology "Voyagers: The Third Ghost" and the editors loved it. Nearly at the same time, the Swords & Sorcery online magazine bought my story "A Twist in Katlani’s Plan". And a few months later, Dean Wesley Smith bought one of my short stories for his Pulphouse Magazine (it’ll get published sometime later this year). There’s no question of what I’ll be doing for a while yet: I’ll be writing short stories, sending them out to paying markets for some time to come.

 Sometimes being mule-headed has its advantages. You just have to find the right direction for your inner mule. With that in mind:

Cherish your mulishness and write with joy!

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

#IWSG Day June 2021 - First Drafts, A Good Team at IWSG, and A Contest Reminder

 


Our purpose: to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts or concerns without feeling foolish or weak. Writers can also give assistance, guidance, and motivation. Together, we're stronger.

Many thanks to our found Alex J. Cavanaugh and our co-hosts today Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, Lee Lowery, and Rachna Chhabria!

HOW LONG DO YOU SHELVE YOUR FIRST DRAFT?

OPTIONAL QUESTION: For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

A GOOD TEAM ALWAYS HAS YOUR BACK


One of the reasons I love IWSG: a good team always has your back.
Case in point: Today, somehow, I missed my opportunity to post here in the early hours of the day. My schedule was packed. I discovered an email a few minutes ago, and thanks to the awesome team of IWSG admins, I am posting right now. It's not my finest hour, but the team had my back. I've seen this time and time again among the members of the admin team, and among the ranks of IWSG writers. It is one of the reasons I am glad to be a part of this group. 

Keep on encouraging one another! 

THE 2021 IWSG ANTHOLOGY CONTEST


The contest is open now!