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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Writing Class » Advice from Dave Wolverton on Short Fiction

   
Author Topic: Advice from Dave Wolverton on Short Fiction
WriterDan
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This topic will contain posts including information and advice written by David Wolverton/Farland as part of his "Kick Me" emails for authors. If you're interested in being included on his list and receiving these emails as they are sent out, just drop him a line at:

dwolvert (at) xmission.com

with the words "Kick Me" somewhere in it.

The information here is taken from those emails that concern short fiction specifically, and are posted with his permission.


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WriterDan
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Strategies for Short Fiction
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Some writers seem hard-wired for writing at certain lengths. If you grew up reading long fantasy novels or big historical novels, the chances are excellent that you'll feel compelled to write long novels. You may even despair at writing anything shorter than a hundred thousand words. On the other side of the coin, if you grew up watching 1/2-hour television shows and reading short stories in magazines, you might find it difficult to write well at a length of over 20,000 words.

I know lots of professional authors who have this problem. My friend Brandon Sanderson is by nature a long writer, while I tend to think that one writer I admire, Lucius Shepard, tends to excel in shorter forms.

I, on the other hand, write stories in a wide range of lengths. I've written picture books that have only a page of text, and novel series that have been over two million words. Generally speaking, I can pace myself pretty well. If I WANT to hit a page mark--say a middle-grade book that is to be 225 pages, I can usually hit within five percent of my projected page count.

So how do you do it? Well, here are some tips.

First, if you want to write short, restrict the number of character viewpoints that you write from. Last week on the plane I read an anthology of some 20 short stories. Not one of the stories tried to tell a tale from more than one character's point of view. So if you want to write a short story, avoid the temptation to tell it through multiple characters.

The reason for this is quite simple. If you begin telling the story from two points of view, then think about it: you soon discover that you have to tell two stories--not just one. Let's say that one viewpoint character is Leon, and another is Brenda. Though both of them might be embroiled in the same conflict, the truth is that each will handle it differently; each will see it differently. For example, let's say that they're married and their son is being picked on by bullies at school. Brenda might want to solve the problem by calling the boys' mothers, while Leon wants to ambush the little cretins and take a baseball bat to them. The story gains strength as the conflict becomes more than just being about saving the son, but determining a sane course of action in doing so.

So if you think, yeah, I want to add this secondary level of conflict, you will most likely find that you are alternating scenes. So we'll get to see see Leon from Brenda's POV--her worries that he's insane, that he'll go too far and get arrested, and so on. Of course we'll see from Leon's viewpoint that his wife's phone calling really doesn't do any good. The mothers in the neighborhood are thugs, and their own mothers are terrified of them. The police won't do anything--not until their son is killed, so the only rational choice is to take a baseball bat to the evil teens. Of course each character will require his or her own personal climax and denouement.

So just by adding a second character, you will likely double the size of your story. If you were hoping to get it done in 4,000 words, it will now take 8,000 words.

If you add a third character into the mix--let's call him Victor--, you'll find that your tale becomes far more complex. You now have to handle Victor's relationship with Leon and Victor's relationship with Brenda. Also, Brenda now has to handle relationships with Victor and Leon, and Leon now has to handle relationships with Brenda and Victor.

In other words, when you add a third character you go from having to deal with 2 relationship lines to 6 relationship lines. And if you add a third character, the number doubles! (For a longer discussion of this, see Robert McKee's book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

The truth is that when writing a very short story, it is very difficult to write from more than one point of view (POV). You can't get into the heads of more characters.

If you're writing a novel that is supposed to be a hundred thousand words, it is difficult to handle more than three major characters' POV. Three is an ideal number for middle-range works.

In writing a big honking fantasy series, I really think that it's unwise to try to write more than five character POVs. The reason is that if you are writing from five POVs and each character has a chapter that is 20 pages long, you'll find that your reader has to go through 100 pages of text before returning to his or her favorite character. This means that the reader may become frustrated with your story and lose interest.

Just as importantly, if you've got four or five viewpoint characters, it becomes difficult for the reader to keep track of what is going on with each of the characters.

So, in order to keep a tale short, tell it from only one character's POV.

Similarly, in writing short fiction you'll need to restrict the number of settings that you have. In your story, you may have several scenes (more on that later). If you are trying to transport your reader to a new world--introducing sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations--then you may spend a good deal of time describing that world--let's say three or four pages.

Well, if you now try to transport the reader to seven different worlds in the course of your story, you might be tempted to have 20 pages of description for the tale--and that's before you get into dialog and narrative! So you'll need to restrict the number of locations you visit. Keep it down to two or three locations total, if you can. If you do have to visit more locations, keep the descriptions perfunctory, a sentence or two.

Last of all, restrict the number of conflicts that you deal with. If I'm writing a huge fantasy novel, I might juggle a dozen different conflicts with each character. But for a short story, two or three conflicts is plenty.

So if you want to write a story and keep it short 1) write from the view of only one protagonist, 2) set the tale in in only a couple of locations 3) and keep the focus on two or three large problems.

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WriterDan
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Writing Short
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A few days ago, I mentioned one approach to keeping a story short: use as few viewpoint characters as possible (one is right for a short story), avoid moving from one location to another so that you can keep your description down, and of course limit the number of major conflicts that you handle in the piece.

A second way to keep your story short is to avoid writing parts of the tale altogether, truncating the story, allowing the reader to imagine what happened or to make an educated guess.

For example, years ago Ernest Hemingway wrote a story in which a man receives a telegram notifying him that his son has died. In an effort to handle his grief, he goes to a local pub and has a drink, where he voices his anger at god. He then goes home and hangs himself.

But if you've read the story, "A Clean, Well-lighted Place," you'll recognize that I've just told you more than Hemingway did. You see, Hemingway only published the middle scene. He cut off the opening where the old man got the letter, and he got rid of the ending where the man hangs himself. Instead, he leaves only a middle scene where a man has a drink in a pub and is in a place so dark that he seems unable to escape. The reader is left to imagine what happens next, but the tone reveals that no happy ending can come for this man.

Now, I've seen this technique used plenty of times. For example, Ray Vuykovich (I hope I'm not misspelling his name too badly) wrote a story a few years ago about three cowboys who spent the afternoon trying to break a horse. The tone tells us that the horse is fine, but the cowboys are broken. We didn't need to see the afternoon. We don't need to be told what happens next. The tone tells us everything. A lot of story is packed into that thousand words or so.

So, if you look at it, a traditional short story has several parts.

1) The opening reveals the characters, the conflicts, and the milieu. It carries us to a major turning point where the protagonist's world changes dramatically and irreparably.
2) The middle can best be put into three parts―a first attempt that the protagonists makes to resolve a problem.
3) After the first attempt, the problem typically broadens or deepens, and the protagonist struggles to resolve the problem a second time by bringing greater resources to bear.
4) Again the problem deepens or broadens, and the protagonist struggles once again to overcome his challenge. This third attempt often ends in near failure―but the protagonist find a way despite all obstacles.
5) Last of all the story is wrapped up in a final scene where some sort of stable new order comes to bear. The final scene, or denouement, signals to the audience that the story is indeed over.

Now, if you think about it, in most short stories you can leave off the opening. Instead, you can open with the protagonist struggling to fix the problem. If you have an adventurer on a spaceship who crashes into a meteor, for example, you don't have to show us the crash. Simply start with the protagonist struggling to fix his ship!

In fact, in many stories, you can delete the first or even the second attempt to resolve the problem. For example, let's say that you have an old woman whose grandson has stolen money from her purse in order to fuel his drug habit. What is her first reaction? Obviously, it will be to go talk to the boy, to beg for the money back―or demand it. That's what we normally do. So forget it. You might now decide to open the story with her marching into the police department.

So now you've cut off two possible scenes from the short story. Can you cut more?

Maybe you don't want a denouement. That last little scene that tells the reader that the story is over, can often go bye-bye.

Let's take the grandmother for example. Perhaps in the opening she goes to her grandson's house, and while there, she notes that the heat isn't on. The place is as cold as a tomb. So she demands her money, and the grandson makes a threat. "Keep the police out of it." She asks, "Or else what?" But he's too smart to voice the threat. So he just stares at her with cold, dead eyes.

So she goes to the police, and they tell her that her suspicions aren't enough to give grounds for a warrant. She insists that her grandson was the only one at the house. He's basically "a good boy," but she knows that he hasn't broken his habit. "Some things are more powerful than family" she tells the police. "Some things are more irresistible than decency or honor." He's been to rehab several times, and he still steals the Percocet from her medicine cabinet. Now he's stolen her Social Security money―all $699, and without it she won't be able to survive through the month. She tells the officers that "I don't know what this world is coming to. There's no decency left in people."

She's hungry, and her back hurts because her pills are gone.

So when the police don't help, in desperation she takes her little pistol and goes into that house, a house so cold that she has to wear a sweater to beat back the chill. She plans to put her grandson out of his misery. Fumbling, she opens the door without knocking, so that she won't alert her grandson. She enters, and suddenly sees the bug coming out of the shadows, his eyes glazed and emotionless, like pits gouged in ice. . . .

Okay, so it's not poetry yet, but we've now taken a climactic scene and chopped it in half. We don't need an ending. We know what happens to grandma. A little bit of foreshadowing early on tells us that when she goes to put an end to her grandson's misery, instead he puts her out of her misery. We could tell this story in one continuous scene―her talking to the policeman, raving, pleading and then returning to her car, loading her gun, and breaking into her grandson's house.

So it's possible to truncate a story―cut off its beginning or end―in order to keep a tale to your target length.

But I'd like to warn you against that.

While truncating can be done to good effect, the truth is that most people prefer to read traditional stores with all of their parts intact. When I worked as the coordinating judge for the Writers of the Future contest, I used to read hundreds of stories every quarter. Very often I would pass beautifully written truncated stories on to the other judges. They almost never won. In fact, in the ten years that I was a judge, I can't recall a single truncated story that did win.

More to the point, truncated stories work best with highly literate audiences. But if you're writing to a broad audience, you need to be considerate of your audiences' needs. When I wrote my first novel, I imagined that I was writing to college-educated adults. When I went to my first book signing, I was sitting at a little table and three young teenagers came up. They were looking at a nearby display of my books, and one young man said, "I've heard that this is the best book ever written. Shawn and Jake and Kyle are all reading it." Another kid who couldn't have been thirteen said, "Yeah, Brian and Kelly and Raymond are all reading it, too!"

That's when I realized that I'd made a huge mistake. My audience wasn't all made of college-educated adults. Many of my readers were twelve or thirteen. Plenty of them had never been to college at all. Some of my readers aren't bright at all.

Now that I'm writing fantasy it's even worse. When I visit elementary schools, I find that about ten percent of children aged nine and ten are trying to read adult fantasy novels. They often have a tough time of it. They're just learning to read, and many of them have difficulty with things like truncated endings, untrustworthy narrators, or omniscient viewpoint in a story.

So consider using this tool, but use it wisely and sparingly.


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InarticulateBabbler
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I don't know if it's a good idea to post these here. He has copyright, and you are actually publishing this on the web. He has these archived on his forum at his site under password protection. You'll have to register, but it's not difficult.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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In one of the Writers of the Future group topics:

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum2/HTML/000079.html

WriterDan said he received an email from Dave Wolverton giving him permission to post these here.

WriterDan, maybe you need to post the permission email, too.


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InarticulateBabbler
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I'm not trolling for trouble, just looking out for a fellow Hatracker.
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Patrick James
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IB, if you catch me at something similiar you do as you did here. I don't think you hurt any feelings.

Well, I hope you didn't.


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annepin
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Sorry, but just to clarify, did he give permission to post the entire series or just the one? I'm not trying to be nosy or difficult here, I'm just a bit mystified by all of this.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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My understanding was that permission was given to post the short fiction advice.

It would be good to post the permission letter, just so we're sure.

And, what Patrick James said about checking. I would prefer that we erred by checking too much than by not checking enough.


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