Tag Archives: writing short fiction

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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Why indies should write short stories

Amazing_Stories,_April_1926._Volume_1,_Number_1Some of the work that moved me most as a reader have been short stories. It is through writing short stories that people like Anne McCaffrey and Isaac Asimov first began to find acceptance in the publishing community.

Magazines focusing on speculative fiction were popular and at that time, there weren’t many authors writing in that genre. People didn’t have the internet, but they did have limited free time and short attention spans.

Magazines offered surprisingly high quality short fiction in lengths that fit into the busy lifestyle of the time.  My father subscribed to four magazines as did my mother. Magazines or books would arrive in our mailbox each week, as my parents were also members of the Science Fiction Book Club and the Double Day Book Club. This meant that besides the eight magazines, four new hard-cover books would arrive at our house every month.

Frequently, those books were anthologies of short stories.

Times have changed and so has the publishing industry. But writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and not only gain visibility, but you will grow as a writer. Magazines are springing up all over the internet, and they are accepting submissions.

It is a good idea to begin putting together a collection of short pieces in a variety of genres and in as wide a range of topics as you can think of.  The following is a list of  on-line sci-fi/fantasy magazines, and many in every other genre are also accepting submissions:

Apex Magazine (submissions re-open in September)

Fantasy Scroll Magazine

Strange Horizons 

Challenger 

Space and Time Magazine 

Interzone 

Asimov’s Science Fiction 

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Analog Science Fiction and Fact

 ApexMag04_11b0889b-3b61-4c44-9a8d-9b2e89347e47_largeNow, I hear the Ghost of Rejections Past wailing in the background “But what if I get rejected?” Rejection happens. I could wallpaper the inside of an outhouse with them. Step back, take a good look at the story, and if you still think it is your best work, shop it to a different magazine. The ones I’ve listed are only the tip of the iceberg–there is opportunity out there for indies to gain both visibility and credibility by publishing short works through traditional routes.

The thing is, magazines are not the only reason you need a backlog of short stories–consider CONTESTS. Many are free and have reputable histories. The Write Life posted this article on 27 Free Writing Contests.

Not all contests are free, and not all contests are reputable. Exercise “due-diligence” here. I enter the Lasceaux Review contest every time a new one pops up, simply because it is highly reputable and is one of the most friendly to indies, and has a reasonable entry fee, usually $10.00.

lasceax prizeYes, that is cheap, and I know that entering contests can be far more expensive. I hear you asking if you must pay  to enter and you can’t be guaranteed a prize, why should you do it?

Writing chops. Because you must write to the parameters of the contest, you develop your writing muscles each time you exercise them. Being forced to work within the confines of an arbitrary external limit forces you to become more creative if you are (as I am) of a naturally rebellious nature.

You have to use common sense here. If you can’t afford it, don’t enter that contest. Find one you can afford and see what you have that fits their needs. Every contest has rules and limits for the work they want to see in their submissions.

Writing short stories gets you writing  more: more often, more widely on a wide range of topics, and more creatively using a variety of style. Using and building these writing-chops can only grow you as an author.

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