Tag Archives: writing short fiction

Writing the short story part 3: extremely short fiction #amwriting

If not having the time to sit down and write a novel is holding you back from writing, you have another option: extremely short fiction.

WritingCraft_short-story-drabbleYou are more likely to sell a drabble than a short story in today’s speculative fiction market. You are also more likely to sell a short story than a novel.

Many online publications are looking for drabbles (100-word stories) and flash fiction under 500 words. These editors are looking for new, unpublished work, so this is an opportunity to use the limited time you have for writing and still get published.

Perhaps you’ve heard other writers use the term drabbles, but you don’t know what one is.

Drabbles are extremely short fiction. In 100 words or less, they offer everything the reader needs to know, so drabbles are the distilled essences of novels. A good drabble tells the story of one scene and makes the reader ponder what might have happened next.

Writing drabbles teaches us how to write a good hook in only one sentence.

In literary terms, what is a “hook“? Wikipedia says: A narrative hook (or just hook) is a literary technique in the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention so that they will keep on reading. The “opening” may consist of several paragraphs for a short story or several pages for a novel, but ideally it is the opening sentence in the book. [1]

Writing a 100-word story takes far less time than writing a 2,000-word short fiction or a 70,000-word novel. However, itOregon Sunset Taken August 12, 2016 CJJasperson does require plotting and rewriting the prose until the entire story is told in exactly 100 words. You should expect to spend an hour or so writing and then editing it to fit within the 100-word constraint.

A 100-word story has the same essential components as a longer story:

  1. A setting.
  2. 1 or 2 characters.
  3. A conflict.
  4. A resolution.
  5. No subplots are introduced.
  6. Minimal background is introduced.

Every sentence propels the story to the conclusion. Trying to tell a complete story in 100 words or less teaches you several skills.

  • You are forced to develop an economy of words.
  • You begin to see what the core plot elements of a story might be.

When you have a backlog of drabbles and extremely short pieces, you also have a vault full of ready-made characters and premade settings to draw on.

First, you need a prompt, a jumping-off point.

prompt is a word or visual image that kickstarts the story in your head. The prompt for the following drabble was sunset. Some contests and publications give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and some will post an image. The difficult ones are those with no prompt at all.

I break short stories into acts by taking the number of words I plan to fit the story into and dividing it into 3 sections.

A drabble works the same way. We break it down to make the story arc work for us.

For a drabble, we have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

For this drabble, I used:

24 Words (opening): We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.

51 words (middle and crisis): Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.

Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.

25 Words (conclusion): Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you. [2]

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019The above drabble is a 100-word romance and is an example I have used here before. It has a beginning (hook), a middle (the conflict), and a resolution. The opening shows our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.

The conflict in this tale is the weather. Wind and blowing mist make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and forces her indoors.

The resolution is a romantic evening spent indoors.

Drabbles contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works, such as this drabble did in my poem, Oregon Sunset.

If you are thinking about participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), write your story ideas in the form of drabbles and flash fiction. That way, you won’t forget them, and you can save them for later use as the seeds of a longer work.

Submitting the drabble/flash fiction to a publication or contest won’t ruin whatever novel you think it might later become. Whatever it grows into will be vastly different than the 100-word premise.

Sometimes, you reach a point where you can’t write any further on the novel you’ve given your soul to. That is when it’s time to take a break from that project and do something completely different.

Drabble_LIRF_1_jan_2018_cjjapThe act of writing random ideas and emotions down in drabble form rejuvenates your creativity, a mini-vacation from your other work. It rests your mind and clears things so you can return to your main project with all your attention.

Whether you choose to submit a drabble to a contest/small press or not is your choice. The important thing is this: that idea is written down and accessible when you need a new project.

I have always considered drabbles as the literary equivalent of dried beans and rice. They are the staples we can set aside for later when we need inspiration.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Narrative hook,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narrative_hook&oldid=1010359448 (accessed April 10, 2021).

[2] Oregon Sunset Drabble, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2016, All Right Reserved.

Images:

Oregon Sunset, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, author’s own work.

Sunset on Cannon Beach, © 2019 Connie J. Jasperson, author’s own work.

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Writing the Short Story part 2: indirect speech #amwriting

In a short story, our words are limited, so we must craft our prose to convey a sense of naturalness. Scenes have an arc of rising and ebbing action, so let’s consider how conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

J.R.R. Tolkien said that dialogue must have a premise or premises and move toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the conversation is a waste of the reader’s time.

What do we want to accomplish in this scene? Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we find ourselves in the minefield of the short story: 

  • Delivering the backstory.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. A short story has no room for bloated exposition.

Let’s look at a scene that opens upon a place where the reader and the protagonists must receive information. The way the characters speak to us can take several forms:

  1. Direct discourse. Nattan said, “I was going to give it to Benn in Fell Creek, but he wasn’t home, and I had to get on the road.”
  2. Italicized thoughts: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn’s not home. What now?
  3. Free indirect speech: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn wasn’t home, so who should he give it to?

Examples two and three are versions of indirect speech, which is a valuable tool in your writer’s toolbox

Wikipedia describes free indirect speech this way:

Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech; it is also referred to as free indirect discoursefree indirect style, or, in Frenchdiscours indirect libre.

Free indirect discourse can be described as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author” (or, reversing the emphasis, “that the character speaks through the voice of the narrator”) with the voices effectively merged. This effect is partially accomplished by eliding direct speech attributions, such as “he said” or “she said”.

The following is an example of sentences using direct, indirect and free indirect speech:

  • Quoted or direct speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

According to British philologist Roy Pascal, Goethe and Jane Austen were the first novelists to use this style consistently and nineteenth century French novelist  Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style. [1]

When I began writing seriously, I was in the habit of using italicized thoughts and characters talking to themselves as a way to express what was going on inside of them.

That isn’t necessarily wrong. When used sparingly, thoughts and internal dialogue have their place. When they are used as a means for dumping information, they can become a wall of italicized words.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_Pacing

In the last few years, as I’ve evolved in my writing habits, I am drawn more and more to the various forms of free indirect speech as a way of showing who my characters think they are and how they see their world.

The main thing to watch for when employing indirect speech in a short story is to stay only in one person’s head. Remember, short stories are limited for space, so it’s essential to only tell the protagonist’s story.

In  longer pieces, such as novels, you could show different characters’ internal workings provided you have clear scene or chapter breaks between each character’s dialogue.

If you aren’t careful, you can slip into “head-hopping,” which is incredibly confusing for the reader. First, you’re in one person’s thoughts, and then another—it’s like watching a tennis match.

When you are limited in word count, you must find the most powerful ways to get the story across with a minimum of words. Showing important ruminations as an organic part of the unfolding plot is one way to give information and reveal a character while keeping to lean, powerful prose.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Free indirect speech,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Free_indirect_speech&oldid=817276599 (accessed March 30, 2021).

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Writing the Short Story part 1: experimenting #amwriting

Before we begin, I hope you’ll bear with me as I learn to use the unnecessarily complicated dashboard WordPress calls “Gutenberg.” For a person who relies on images as much as I do, this isn’t a good fit, but I will make it work. They have removed the Admin Dashboard, which was perfect for uploading and positioning images and text. Please bear with me as I find ways to write my posts despite being forced to use the least intuitive dashboard the geniuses at WordPress could have come up with.


When it comes to learning how to write, experimentation is good. The best form for learning learning to write in different styles and genres is the short story.

Last week, we discussed why authors should write short stories and looked at one way to lay out the story arc. There are other ways, but that is my most commonly used method. If you are curious, this is the post: Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories.

This week we are going deeper into the many elements of writing a good, gripping story. Most of these features will be found in any length of story, from drabbles to novels. Today we are still focusing on getting all the elements into a piece that is less than 2,000 words long.

Before we go on, we need to remember that setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined.

Today’s example is from The Iron Dragon, a 1,025-word story I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2015. That was the year I focused on experimental writing, putting out at least one short story every day, and sometimes two.

The first paragraph of the Iron Dragon begins in the middle of a story:

Earl Aeddan ap Rhydderch turned his gaze from the mist to the strange iron road that emerged from it and then to where the road entered the cave. “Tell me again what happened.”

The opening sentences establish the story, set the scene, and introduce the first protagonist. The following three paragraphs show the world and establish the mood:

The peasant who had guided the earl and his men said, “The mist, the iron road, and the cave appeared yesterday, sir. We saw the beast entering its lair, and a fearful thing it is, too. No one dares to approach it, but the monster can be heard in there. It’s a most dreadful dragon — we found the carcass of a large wolf that had been torn to shreds, trampled until it was nigh unrecognizable.”

The man’s companion said, “Everyone knows wolves are Satan’s hounds. It must have angered its hellish master. We found it lying cast to one side of the Devil’s Road.”

Aeddan looked back to the iron road, seeing where it emerged from the mist. He walked to the low-hanging fog bank, seeing that the road vanished just after it entered the mist, leaving no marks upon the soil. He turned and strode back to the peasants. “I agree it’s the work of the Devil, but why does the Lord of Hell require an iron road that leads nowhere?”

The paragraphs that follow present the danger, the problem Aeddan must overcome:

A faint grumbling sounded beneath Aeddan’s feet. “A light! Look to the mist!” shouted one of his men.

Turning, Aeddan saw a white glow forming in the fog as if a large lamp approached from a great distance. “That’s no ordinary lantern. Mount up!” Moving quickly, he leaped into his saddle and turned his steed to face the demon.

A few sentences further on, I showed more of the world at the same time as I introduced the antagonist:

The light deep within the fog grew and strengthened, as did the rumbling noise.  It waxed brilliant, and the earth shuddered as if beneath the pounding of a thousand hooves. Smoke filled the night air, reeking of the sulfurous Abyss, combined with a howling as cacophonous as the shrieks of all the damned in Hell.

What emerged from the mist was impossible — an Iron Dragon of immense height and girth.

At this point, Aeddan knows that he must resolve the problem and protect his people:

The fiery light emanating from the burning maw lit the night, and the ground shook as the beast roared and raced ever closer. As the beast sped toward him, a burning wind blowing straight out of Hell knocked Aeddan and his horse to the side of the Devil’s Road, and using that opportunity, the Iron Dragon thundered past him, heading into its lair.

Stunned, Aeddan scrambled to his feet, staring as the beast passed him by, the body taller than a house and long, like an unimaginably giant, demonic centipede. The length of the beast was incomprehensible, lit by the fire within and glowing with row upon row of openings. The faces of the damned, souls who’d been consumed by the ravening beast peered out as they flashed by. Sparks flew from its many hooves.

Terrified his men would be crushed by the immense creature, he shouted for them to back off, his voice drowned by the din.

There is more to Aeddan’s side of the story, of course. But in what you have read already, you have made some guesses and are already aware that this is a story with two sides. Aeddan’s point of view is not the entire story.

Again, we must set the scene and establish the mood and characters. Here we meet the second protagonist, an engine driver named Owen:

Mist shrouded the small valley just outside of the village of Pencader. Engine Driver Owen Pendergrass looked at his pocket watch and opened the logbook, noting the time and that they had just departed Pencader Station. He said to the fireman, Colin Jones, “We should be approaching the tunnel, though it’s hard to tell in this mist. We’re making good time despite the fog. We’ll be in Carmarthen on schedule.”

“Sir! Look just ahead! What…?” Colin pointed ahead.

A group of mounted men dressed as medieval knights, complete with lances lowered as if prepared to joust, appeared out of the mist, attempting to block their path. “God in heaven — what next!” Blowing the whistle to scare them off the tracks, Owen pulled the brake cord, but there was no way the train could stop soon enough. In no time at all, the train was upon the knights, scattering them and blowing past. Owen looked out the window to see if they’d survived, but they were gone as if they’d never been.

The final paragraphs wind it up. They also contribute to the overall atmosphere and setting of the second part of the story. The story in its entirety can be read here: The Iron Dragon. It is an imperfect story, but as a practice piece, it has good bones. I didn’t feel that particular piece was suitable for submission to a magazine or contest.

Word choices are essential in showing a world and creating an atmosphere that feels believable. I had challenged myself to write a story that told both sides of a frightening encounter in 1000 words, give or take a few. I also wanted to show two aspects of a place in Wales but tell one story as lived by two protagonists separated by twelve centuries and a multitude of legends.

This brings me back to the layout aspect of a short piece. Some speculative fiction stories work well when the flow of the story arc is shaped like an infinity sign, a figure-eight laying on its side:

Instead of the usual bridge shape, the story arc begins in the middle, circles around, comes back to the middle, and circles around a different way. It ends where it began.

Writing short fiction offers me the chance to experiment with both style and genre. It challenges me to build a world in only a few words and still tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Sometimes what I turn out is worth sharing, and other times, not so much. The act of writing something different, a little outside my comfort zone, stretches my ability to “think widely.” It makes me a better reader as well as a better writer.

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Credits and Attributions:

Excerpts from The Iron Dragon, by Connie J. Jasperson, ©2015-2021 All Rights Reserved.

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Gaining readers through writing short stories #amwriting

We all want to gain readers. How do you, as an indie, get your name out there and gain awareness of your work? You earn your “street creds” by writing short stories and submitting them to magazines, anthologies, and contests.

Every time your short work is published or wins an award, you gain a little respect. You stand the chance of gaining fans, and it’s nice to have a little extra cash in your pocket.

Despite the changes in the publishing industry as a whole, writing short stories is still the way to increase your visibility. Reputable magazines that are SFWA approved are seeking submissions.

Submitting to contests is good too. If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication. By doing this, you learn how to write to a specific length and theme.

I have a system for this. The following story has been used as an example here before. I wrote the original story for a 2015 contest with the theme of Truth and Consequences. The genre was epic fantasy, and the word limit was 2,000 words.

This meant my story had to adhere to that theme and word count, or it would not make the cut, no matter how well it was written.

My story was titled A Song Gone Wrong.

The Premise: Because he was a bit too specific when putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into song, our protagonist is now a wanted man. I had 2,000 words to show what happened.

I divided the story into four acts:

Act 1: the opening. I had 500 words to show these plot points:

  • Setting: the weather was unseasonably cold.
  • In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, hid from the soldiers of the lord he had humiliated.

My task in the first ¼ of the story was to introduce the protagonist so that his personality was clearly defined at the outset. I had to place him in the setting by showing the scents and sounds of his environment.

The theme, Truth and Consequences, had to be strongly shown throughout the story. Sebastian had told the truth and now faced consequences he was unprepared for.

My bard’s thoughts and observations were critical in this tale, but I had to be reasonable. At 2,000 words, I didn’t have a lot of room for mind wandering, especially in italics.

Another thing to consider was point of view—I went with first-person as I felt the protagonist could best show and interpret events and relate emotions while keeping to the number of words allotted.

Act 2: First plot point: I had 500 more words to show how:

  • The soldiers surrounded and captured Sebastian.
  • The irate lord threw him into prison and sentenced him to hang at dawn.

What Sebastian saw, smelled, and heard were the crucial means of showing the environment with a minimum of description from the first paragraph to the last.

Those noises and odors helped drive home the consequences part of the theme. Sebastian’s reactions told us a lot about who he was as a person.

So, where was this story going to go? I asked myself, “Does Sebastian regret being imprudent in mocking the nobleman, or does his punishment fire rebellion in him?” This was an opportunity for the circumstances to reveal his courage and still keep the plot moving forward.

I went with rebellion.

Act 3: Mid-point: I had 500 words to explain how:

  • Sebastian met a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
  • Noli was a member of an underground society trying to overthrow the current lord. He was on the verge of managing an escape, but time was short. He needed help with one last thing.
  • Noli and Sebastian managed to complete the escape route. Unfortunately, the guard seemed suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape.

The whispered conversations between Noli and Sebastian gave us the background information. Noli had information Sebastian didn’t know.

This was the point when the reader also needed to know that information. Everything the reader already knew didn’t need repeating. Conversations were critical as they conveyed the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

At this point, I set the final obstacle in their path.

This is where I have to emphasize one of my mantras: when writing to a strict word count limit, you must choose your words carefully. Find and use words that are strong and evocative, words that convey the most information concisely in one or two sentences.

Act 4: Resolution–I had 500 words to show how:

  • The smart guard was finally relieved by a less wary guard, which allowed Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
  • They were spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends were waiting, and they made their escape.

The fourth act is where you wind up the story and end it so that the reader feels satisfied. You hope they are left thinking about it, wondering what might have happened next.

Once you know how many words you are writing to and what must be done at what point within your story’s arc, you divide it into 3 or four acts. That is the way I structure most of my work.

This is true for any story, from 2000 to 20,000 to 200,000 words. Once you know the length a given tale must be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

I always outline short pieces that are intended for submission to contests, magazines, and anthologies. Magazines especially have strict parameters for what they accept, so you will have better success if you tailor that work to that particular publisher.

The contests and anthologies that are challenging to figure out are those whose guidelines tell you the theme but give you no indication of what genre they are looking for. You have no idea if the person reading your work prefers hard sci-fi or romance, so their personal preference can go against you.

That is a risk we all take. Remember, you have no control over what a prospective editor likes or dislikes. Rejections are more common than acceptance and shouldn’t be taken to heart. What one editor rejects, another will buy, so save it and submit it elsewhere.

Write short stories and only submit your best work. Expect to have them rejected and don’t take it personally. Turn them around and submit them elsewhere, because someone will accept it.

And always, always—celebrate the stories that you do sell.

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The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwriting

When I begin writing a short story, I want my first paragraphs to surprise an editor in a good way, to make them suspend their disbelief long enough to finish reading the story.

Especially in a short story, we must use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, a mood that will hint at what is to come. Atmosphere is the part of a world created by your inclusion of colors, scents, and ambient sounds. The words you choose determine how the visuals are shown.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. So, in a short story those first paragraphs must give the reader a sense of familiarity even though it’s a place they’ve never been.

We give the reader something they can understand without being bluntly told.

Do you want to convey a sense of danger? Imagine a woodland pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it. When a storm rolls in, things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, reflecting the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Use the colors of the sky, the chill of the wet earth. Allow the scent of rotten leaves to linger in the air.

In the previous installment of this series, we talked about how important word choice is when attempting to communicate a feeling of action.

This is also true when you want to show the atmosphere of a setting. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere. This will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

“Weighted words” are those with strong descriptive power. Choose words that are intense and bold in their own right. This is crucial when writing a short story because you have a word count limit to consider.

Lighter words, such as those that begin with softer consonants, will create an atmosphere that feels gentler.

We have mentioned this before: while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to an individual’s internal feelings and emotions as often as it does the piece’s overall atmosphere. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

The characteristics we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference. We offer the reader a word-picture that is hinted at and suggested rather than bluntly stated. Writers give the reader something to infer, something they can interpret.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to use inference so that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, a reader can effortlessly understand what the author was attempting to convey.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Think about the word” Gothic.” Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it, even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me. The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment. We know it will include some supernatural elements.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the story’s emotional experience specific. It is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

For me, as an author, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood. The right mood can help you articulate specific emotions.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood.

In a short story, you have only the first few paragraphs to set the scene and establish the mood. If you can do it in one sentence, even better.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

And so, to wind this up, setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined. Getting those three aspects right and establishing them at the outset means making good word choices. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

To do that, go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms and antonyms for your mood word. Are you writing a dark story? Is the mood ominous?

Synonyms & Antonyms of ominous

Definition: being or showing a sign of evil or calamity to come.

Synonyms: baleful, dire, direful, doomy, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words:

black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray (also grey), lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber (or sombre), sullen, sunless, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonym for ominous: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous.


Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

Short Story part 1 word choice


Credits and Attributions:

“Ominous.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/ominous. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

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The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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The Drabble #amwriting

Right now, we have a lot of opportunities to sell our extremely short stories. Many online publications are looking for drabbles (100-word stories) and flash fictions under 750 words.

These editors are looking for new, unpublished work, so get out your pens and start writing.

You might ask why you would want to write something that short, and I do see your point. But if not having the time to sit down and write a novel is holding you back from writing, you have another option: extremely short fiction.

When you force yourself to create within strict wordcount limits, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition. We grow in the craft and gain different perspectives when we write short stories and essays.

This is especially true if you practice writing drabbles. Trying to tell a story in 100 words or less teaches you several skills.

  • You are forced to develop economy of words.
  • You begin to see what the core plot elements of a story might be.

When you have a backlog of short stories, you also have a vault full of ready-made characters and premade settings to draw on.

I hear you saying that any investment of time is difficult if it takes you away from your longer works. It’s hard to not feel jealous of the scant time we have for that.

Look at this as a muscle-building routine. Writing a 100-word story takes far less time than writing a 2,000 word short fiction, or a 70,000-word novel.

Something you should consider: you are more likely to sell a drabble than a short story, and more likely to sell a short story than a novel.

Just saying.

Writing a drabble is like any other form of writing. You should expect to spend an hour or so writing and then editing it to fit within the 100-word constraint.

A 100-word story has the same basic components as a longer story:

  1. A setting.
  2. 1 or 2 characters.
  3. A conflict.
  4. A resolution.
  5. No subplots are introduced.
  6. Minimal background is introduced.
  7. Every sentence propels the story to the conclusion.

First, we need a prompt, a jumping-off point. Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and still others no prompt at all.

A prompt is a word or visual image that kickstarts the story in your head. The prompt for the following drabble was sunset.

I break short stories into acts by taking the number of words I plan to fit the story into and dividing it into 3 sections.

A drabble works the same way. We break it down to make the story arc work for us.

For a drabble, we have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

For this drabble, I used:

24 Words (opening): We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.

51 words (middle and crisis): Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.

Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.

25 Words (conclusion): Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you.

The above drabble is a 100-word romance, one I have used here before. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The opening shows our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.

The conflict in this tale is the weather. Wind and blowing mist make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and forces her indoors.

The resolution is a romantic evening spent in front of the fireplace.

Drabbles contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works, such as this drabble did in my poem, Oregon Sunset.

I think of drabbles as the distilled essences of novels. In 100 words, they offer everything the reader needs to know. A good drabble makes the reader ponder what might have happened next.

In this way, writing drabbles teaches us how to write a good hook. Knowing how to write a great hook is critical. The first paragraphs of our longer works must intrigue the reader or they will set it aside.

Write your story ideas in the form of drabbles and flash fictions. Save them for later use as they could hold the seeds of a longer work.

Save the drabble/flash fiction for submission to a publication or contest, as it won’t spoil whatever novel you think it might grow into.

When you can’t write on the project you’ve given your soul to, it’s time to take a break. The act of writing random ideas and emotions down is a kind of vacation from your other work. It rests your mind and clears things so you can return to your main project with all your attention.

Whether you choose to submit a drabble or hang on to it doesn’t matter. The idea is written down and accessible for when you need a new project.

In that regard, drabbles are the literary equivalent of dried beans and rice. They are resources we can set aside for a rainy day.

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Conflict #amwriting

Winter has embraced my Northern home. For the last two weeks, cold and clear days have been followed by freezing, foggy nights. Each morning the roads have been covered with black ice, making the morning commute an adventure. We expect black ice here, but we don’t enjoy it.

The sun was so brilliant I had to locate my sunglasses when I went to my writing group last week. Driving east as the sun rose was like driving into a solar flare.

Alas, this week the rains have returned. But I am warm and dry here in the Room of Shame. I am now rewriting what was spewed forth during NaNoWriMo, turning garbage into something marketable, I hope.

I am taking a piece set in Neveyah, my Tower of Bones world, and rewriting it, so it is a story. This is something that happens to me all the time—4,000 words of a character talking, with no reason for them to be there. I loved the character that emerged, and I wrote what I thought was a story, but something was lacking.

Situations like this are why it is good to have a group of fellow writers whose opinions you value, and who can be trusted to see your work with unbiased eyes. I sensed something was wrong with it but didn’t know what, so I showed it to two of my writing friends, and they both gave me good insights.

What I had written was a character study. My characters are engaging, but there is no obvious obstacle for them to overcome, other than a minor quest for self-knowledge. So, now I am taking these people and that quest and turning it into a larger quest, making it a real story.

The story is for an anthology and can be only 5,000 words long so only one quest will be explored. That quest will not be the obvious quest, in which the hero believes he must free a kidnapped girl. The real quest will be for self-knowledge, and for his superiors, who see promise in him, to help him develop humility.

If I do this one right, there should be ample opportunity for hilarity.

So how do we create conflict in an established story?

We must ask our characters three things:

  1. What is the core of the problem? In the case of my story, the core of the problem is my Main Character is a cocky, arrogant sort, a young man who is good at everything and is quite “honest” about it. His Mentors fear his boasting will hold him back, as no one wants to work with him.
  2. What do the characters want most? The Main Character wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. He desires approval and admiration. Everything he does is calculated to make him look like a hero. His Mentors have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage that can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.
  3. What are they willing to do to get it? The Main Character has boasted many times that he will overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult the path to success is. His Mentors devise a simple quest with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for, and they ensure that when he does “rescue the hostage,” he gets their message quite clearly.
  4. How will it end? Quite messily, and with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for. But somehow, he won’t feel quite as proud as he thought he would. (Cue the evil laughter.)

I started with the core conflict: his arrogance. I didn’t see the way to take that arrogance and make it a story until my writing friends showed me what it was lacking. They didn’t tell me what to write, but their input gave me that “Ah hah!” moment where I knew just what had to be done. I think this will be one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark—it’s full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


Credits and Attributions:

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

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Theme and the Short Story #amwriting

Even if you are a confirmed Indie author, as I am, you may feel the desire to write short pieces and submit them to anthologies, magazines, or contests. Writing a short story is an excellent way to explore in detail an idea that is inspired by your longer work, but that you don’t have room to include there.

If you are writing a series of speculative fiction novels set in a world of your creation, writing short stories is a good way to develop that world. You also have the opportunity to develop characters you can use later.

Once you submit your story, it will be up against many entries, so you must make yours as unique as is possible.

Anthologies are usually themed. According to Wikipedia:

A theme is not the same as the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.”

The themes explored in the films might be “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

If you intend to submit your work to an editor with an open call for themed work, you must demonstrate your understanding of theme as well as your ability to craft brilliant prose.

Analyze the theme and try to think creatively—think a little wide of the obvious tropes. Look for an original angle that will play well to that theme and then go for it. As an author, most of my novels have been epic or medieval fantasy, based around the hero’s journey, detailing how their experiences shape the characters’ reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey is a theme that allows me to employ the sub-themes of brother/sisterhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

To support the theme, you must layer

  • character studies,
  • allegory, and
  • imagery

These three layers must all be driven by the central theme and advance the story arc.

The theme is introduced, either subtly or overtly, at the first plot point. In a really short story, this must happen on the first page. Many times, we are given a specific word count we cannot exceed, so lengthy lead-ins are not possible.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the important events in place at the right time. If you try to “pants” it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

When you assemble your outline, ask yourself

  • What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
  • How does the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

In my own writing life, too much background info has been my greatest challenge. Writing short stories has helped me find ways to write more concisely. What is important for the reader to know? What is just info for me? Knowing what is important in my own work is difficult because it all seems so important.

Short stories follow a single thread in a character’s life. Each word must advance that one story thread. Work that wanders all over the place will be summarily rejected, and the editor will most likely not give more than a stock rejection.

Having your work beta read by your critique group will help you identify those places that need to be trimmed down. I have close friends who see my work first and who help me see what the real story is before I bother my editor with it. My beta readers are published authors in my writing group.

Because I am a wordy writer, I always have to keep in mind that info dumps about character history and side trails to nowhere have no place in short stories because every word is precious. By shaving away the unneeded info in the short story, the author has more room to expand on the theme of the story and how it drives the plot.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721(accessed July 29, 2018).

 

 

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Elements of the story: identifying and crafting a strong theme

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

“Theme” is an idea or message that flows through a story from beginning to end. Theme is what readers think the work is about but it is also what the work itself says about the subject.

It is ephemeral in that theme is only an idea, but it is like the moon–it is there and the world is greatly affected by it through the pull of gravity: witness the tides.

In a given work the theme might never be mentioned outright, but the characters’ actions are motivated by it and the plot revolves around it. Here is a link to a list of 101 common themes in books.

How do you make something as hard to get a grip on as a theme central to your story? The theme was an idea about the plot, a notion you had about your story when you first began to write it, no matter what the setting you placed it in was, or whether the genre was fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, or contemporary fiction.

Brothers in Arms, Bujold, coverPerhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people face heroic challenges in a war. On the surface this looks like it it is all about the action, but in reality it is is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together: creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

The way I look at it, the theme is as important as the main character. You spend as certain amount of time creating strong characters. Perhaps you are like me and make personnel files for each new character so you know who they are, how they think, and how they will react in a given situation. Or not, but you know your characters the minute the enter the story.

I try to identify my theme early on, and write a short paragraph to myself to remind me of what that central idea was so I stay on track. During the initial writing process I regularly refer back to that little note, to ensure I have not lost my way. I want to write in such a way that I emphasize and exploit that idea throughout the book or short-story.

Initially, when I first started writing full time, I was not always good at sticking to my original idea. At times the core themes became mushy, which, when you read these stories, takes away from the cohesiveness of what otherwise could have been good work. Theme is glue that binds your plot and characters.

The best way to get a grip on both identifying and solidifying the theme is to practice writing with a specific core theme in mind. Write a short story, just a piece of flash fiction. Make every paragraph represent some aspect of that central concept.

I tend to think of themes and then write stories set in fantasy worlds, but not always. Take this piece of Flash Fiction I wrote in 2013:

the watcher flash fiction

It is set in a contemporary environment with no fantasy elements. The idea came from the painting at the top of this post by Paul Cornoyer, and the action is minimal–an elderly woman staring out a window. But the theme is grief, and everything in these short paragraphs points to and represents her sense of loss.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult, unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. Alongside the theme of good vs evil are the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing. Ask yourself what is important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest?I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

  • Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.
  • Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.
  • Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective, in-depth character studies of interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the point here, although they must also be carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective.
  • Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme, but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.
  • Fantasy: Often set in alternate, medieval, or ancient worlds, common themes are good vs evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

the hobbit movie poster 2On the surface these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book. Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.

In my mind, the genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a backdrop against which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control–the author.

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