Short Stories Fast

Writing 50,000 words of short stories in a month is my personal challenge. I wanted a way to jump start my short writing and this challenge is certainly doing that. My writing tends to be long with many plot threads and an epic scope. Writing short requires focus on a few characters, a single plot, and one or two locations.

Writing short requires depth. Not that an epic shouldn’t be deep, but a short story demands a depth that is apparent and felt in just a few words. Also, specific to genre, the short story does not give much space for world building. I am finding that challenge to be the most enjoyable. Defining the character’s situation within a secondary world or alternate first world in no more than a paragraph or two worth of words is delicious. It can only help in my longer works to be more concise and focused.

Writing this many stories (I’m up to five so far) in a short period of time has also revealed my tendencies and repetitive faults. This may be the most valuable part of the exercise. Rather than learning over the course of a year or two that I always start a short story the same way I see it right away, and I can correct it before any of the stories goes out into the world.

This #NaStoWriMo may be the way I spend next November too.

How is your #NaNoWriMo #NaStoWriMo going?

Finding the Genre Story’s Form

This shiny new idea that just popped into your head; that wormed its way out onto a page of notes – is it a novel? A novella? A novelette? Short story? Serial? How do you know what form fits the story?

I face this question more often and I suspect – or I hope – it is a sign of my progress in the craft. Ideas come from everywhere. They also arrive on a spectrum of completeness. I recently had an idea for an entire serial. I had all of the major elements from beginning to end in the length of time it took me to walk up nine flights of stairs. I’ve had another idea floating through my notebooks for nearly three years. So far it just a title with no story.

A million ideas but how many are stories, novels, or something else? I have learned to think through the following to find my story’s form. This is just my process and my thoughts on how stories work best. There are no absolutes in writing fiction, and I could change my thinking as I journey deeper into the craft.

First, is there a story? Is there some sort of conflict with at least two characters? They don’t have to be people but they do have to act as entities readers recognize as people. Without these two basic elements I think it is difficult to develop a story. You might have a setting or a contemplation but it won’t be a story.

If there’s conflict and characters in the idea—or I can see a way to those elements—is there a plot? A plot in the strict sense of three or five or seven parts is not always required. A plot could be something as simple as a character reaching a realization—an epiphany—that will change the course of their lives. This works well for short stories. In a very short story often the change or the epiphany is the point of the story.

Characters, some sort of a plot; now what? Setting. Where and when does the story happen? It rarely works to have characters acting in a place not firmly planted in the reader’s mind.

So I have all the elements, what story form should it be expressed in? In my experience this comes down to quantities. How many characters are needed to tell the story? One or two characters, one plot, one or two settings, try it as a short story or novelette at the longest.

In non-genre fiction you can write a complete novel with just a couple of characters, a restrictive setting, and a narrow, or even no plot. For genre writers this is more difficult. It’s not impossible but takes skill. Genre readers have expectations for the longer forms of genre stories. There have to be certain elements within the story to satisfy those expectations. Only the shorter forms seem to allow genre writers to work outside those expectations. Again, there are no absolutes, this is just how it works for me.

Have several characters and a couple of plots, and maybe several settings? Try a novella or novelette. Have a sweeping set of plots and subplots and a large cast of characters? Then try a novel, novel series, or even a serial.

Finally, what about the ideas that don’t make it as stories in any form? Keep them. They may fit inside another story later, or they may need just one more idea to flower into a story. And if it’s a strong idea but no story suggests itself, maybe try it as a poem. Let no good idea go to waste.

Picking Up the Workshopped Novella

A couple of months have passed since putting my novella Privilege and Longing through the Writing the Novella Workshop. The workshop experience was great, the feedback invaluable, and a camaraderie was created that has so far lasted beyond the workshop. But now comes the work. It is time to review the feedback and incorporate the best of it into the story.

Others have already edited or re-written the works they presented. I may be the last to do so. Partly, this was due to getting caught up in a shiny new project. Partly it was due to completing some short stories for submission. But the truth is, it is not easy to sit down to re-work something that has been so thoroughly analyzed.

I loved the feedback. Most of it was positive and does need to be incorporated to make my story stronger. But how do I know which suggestions work and which ones might be good ideas but don’t contribute to making the story stronger? It will take a lot of digging, trying things on the page, re-reading, and thinking. That’s the work that gets stories completed.

So the next few weeks I will be re-opening the innards of the story and performing surgery. Hopefully the patient will fully recover.

For Character Driven Fantasy, Start With World-building

Filed under notes to self.
During my planning for this year’s NaNoWriMo novel it occurred to me I have developed a process for honing in on characters, and it starts with world-building.
Process
Create a physical world: whether it is the real world, a secondary world, or a nebulous astral plane, knowing what the large physical constraints are helps define what kinds of societies evolve. This might be where I introduce any magic inherent in the world, particularly any magic based on nature.
Define the time period of the world: when in the world is the story happening?
Describe societies: with physical boundaries in place and any natural magics defined, and knowing when the story is happening, I can start to see what sorts of societies might have developed. Is there an isolated society, or one where water is scare, or seafaring versus landlocked? This is where ideas for characters really start to emerge. Knowing how societies order themselves through social norms, politics, traditions, religion, commerce, etc. I can see roles within those societies. These roles start to suggest important players, not always POV characters but characters to move the story.
I should note this is often where a plot, if I don’t have much of one, starts to be revealed. To me, plots are about conflict and on the epic scale, conflict is about power; who has it, who doesn’t.
List who best to tell the story: again I’m initially talking about roles, not specific characters, but as the roles get defined the focus narrows to individual voices.
Identify the voices to tell the story: by this point most of the POV characters have been revealed. I know who needs to tell the story, the ones who need to shed light on an important role character who is not a POV. Most importantly, I know the characters who’s voices need to be heard. They already beginning to speak and make me take notice of them.
Detail the characters: is the final step. Dig deep into who they are, how they came to be who they are, and who they might be at the end of the story.
This is by no means a unique process but it’s the one that works for me. This is my sixth novel/series and just as the process has evolved to this point, it will no doubt continue to evolve. This is also not definitive. There are times when I’ll have an idea for a character and no world in which to put them in. That’s a thought for another day.

The Adventurous Soul

When I read about authors who have lived extraordinary lives either through circumstance or intention I sometimes feel I have not been adventurous enough. But what is ‘enough’ for a writer? Do I need to shuck my family and spend a year in the Amazon? Should I live by my wits alone in the Maine woods, or walk across the country? I believe every experience a writer has can, and should, be something stored in the well of our imaginations for later use. By ‘use’ I mean to be used to express something we need to get across not just a piece of construction. An experience expressed should have a connection with the writer and make a connection with the reader. For those of us with obligations which make taking a grand adventure difficult we should not feel lesser. We need to be better observers so when we live vicariously through others we not only get in on the adventure but we also translate the experience. What are the participant’s feelings? What doubts alter their choices? We need to document our own adventures the same way.

There is another place writers must go that many may find more harrowing than a dark medival forest: our minds. I am not talking about imagination, I am speaking more of the places telling us we are afraid to die, or if we just had the guts we would take that SOB out into the desert and they would never be found. Maybe it worked for Superman who kept his day job while living the hero’s life, but I cannot help but wonder how much more compelling it would have been if he had to choose between being Superman or having a career and Lois Lane. A writer needs to take the impulses the rational mind turns aside and instead, follow them. Where does the story lead if you admit you are afraid to die and learn that you will do so very soon? What if you killed a person? What if someone tried to kill you?

For writers of the fantastic there are also dark places where monsters and very evil things lay in wait. They come out in our nightmares sometimes but we should also close our eyes and walk bravely into the dark and find them, remember them, even meet them. Why do they haunt you? What do they want? How will they go about their destruction of you and mankind?

Everyone needs to get away and having real adventures is great but there are also adventures to be had in our own souls. Those dark rooms in our minds have already stored the experiences of ourselves and others, they just need a context.

Writer, Employed Elsewhere

The struggles for a writer working full time at something other than writing go beyond finding time or a place to write. In fact, those may be the most easily overcome because if you love writing, you will find a way. What can be more challenging is letting the creative mind loose. Continue reading “Writer, Employed Elsewhere”