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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Short Stories

   
Author Topic: Short Stories
Slartibartfast
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djvdakota said:
quote:
A loss of focus on improving the craft of writing through the medium of short stories. Survivor and others have harped on this point over and over, but few listen. Hatrack serves writers best through the medium of the short story. Not novels, not 13 line fragments. Completed short stories. There is NO better way to study the craft.

Assuming that this is the case, what are we going to do?

As a newbie writer, the first(only) idea(s) that get me excited about writing look to be novel length. I suspect that this is the case for many, who are eager to convey ALL their important ideas about life, the universe and everything, all at once in a kind of newb masterpiece.

Where do short story ideas come from, as opposed to novel-length ideas? How does one limit oneself to that narrow of a focus?


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Ray
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An easy way to learn how to write short stories is to read them. I don't know where to find the magazines of them (never cared enough to find out, although you'll probably find that on the web), but short story anthologies are aplenty on the store shelves. Not as popular as novels, but they're easily attainable.

Short story ideas come from the same place as the novels. It's not the ideas that give a story its size, it's the amount of ideas that you put together. To Kill A Mockingbird would have been much shorter had Harper Lee just focused on Boo Radley, or the trial, or even the mad dog. The story is as long as it is because it brought all those ideas together--among others--and showed how they all fit together.

Short stories use fewer ideas and see how they cooperate. And this isn't a limiting focus; short stories actually test how those fewer ideas hold up on their own feet rather than being supported by a whole bunch of other ideas.


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Survivor
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The key to learning to tell a short story is to get interested in the craft of narrative, rather than just the idea part of the story. Ideas are...really a lot less cool and original than most novices think they are.

The thing is, it is the craft of narrative that makes a novel readable, page by page. The idea that your ever-so-original idea is going to draw a reader through a few hundred pages of listless prose is a fond delusion of many an aspiring writer, but it has never really been much more than that. True, a badly concieved or totally inconprehensible idea can cost you dearly, but even the best idea is nothing without the skill of drawing the reader into a compelling narrative. Because the complicated idea that will take an entire novel to develop isn't going to be evident to the reader until they understand it, at which point it is no longer necessary to read further "for the idea". And up until it's evident, there the reader has no basis for believing that your idea is really so great anyway.

Free yourself from the shackle of thinking that ideas are everything. Yes, the ideas that inspire you to write are important to you, and may become important to your readers, but only after they've read your story. A well crafted narrative that uses a well-worn idea will beat out a "brilliant" and "totally original" idea wrapped in lackluster narrative every time. And deservedly so. It has often been said that there are no new ideas, and as far as narrative fiction goes, that's pretty much the simple truth.


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Spaceman
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quote:
Free yourself from the shackle of thinking that ideas are everything.

Absolutely. Character is everything. Survivor and I have debated this before. Don't take it exactly literally, but do concentrate on character. In 95% or more stories, character will be the most important aspect, and a good character can carry an otherwise weak story like Steve Carlton once carried the Phillies.

Use your short story writing to concentrate on one aspect of your craft per story. This week, I'm going to concentrate on getting into the character's head and making the reader experience the character's emotions. Next week, I will concentrate on description, to make the environment seem real to the reader.

Ideas are cheap, ideas are everywhere. I could give you ideas that I plan to use. If you should write a story, it would be totally different than mine.

At bootcamp, we were assigned to find 5 story ideas. Two from observation, two from research, and one from interview. Try it and see what you come up with.


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QuickSilver
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I find that most of my ideas start off as short stories but soon they spiral out of control and I have a multi-volume epic on my hands. This is extremely frustrating as I can then never find the time to finish them.

I think the main problem is that I always think a good idea is wasted on a short story if it can be made into a novel. I know that this is crazy but still I can never stop myself from letting my stories grow.


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Slartibartfast
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Exactly. Our ideas may even be about characters, or any of the MICE elements. And of course we plan on writing them well. It just seems that a short story would slight the idea.

For example, genius kids training for war in space in zero gravity is a fine idea and would make a fine short story (and did if I understand correctly). But it only developed fully in Ender's game, and even had room for sequels to become as rich as it could be. It would be a shame if OSC had never taken his ideas beyond the short story stage.

Why should an idea be chained by word count?


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Spaceman
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You can write a short story about a PIECE of your idea. For instance, I have a novel-length idea in mind about a sublight interstellar voyage. I wrote a short story in that idea centering on a problem they had at flip-over. They solved the problem, story over, but the idea still has a lot to work with.
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Survivor
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A great test of your writing is to take a scene or two from your novel and see if it works as a stand alone short story. It could be the opening scene, it could be the end, it could be some sub-plot in the middle.

Or you can do it the other way round, take a short story and extend it forwards and backwards in time to create a novel, the way Card did with Ender's Game (though to be fair, it was already a novella when he published it in Analog). Or you can take a format like the journal entries in Flowers for Algernon and expand on the material the way that short story was expanded into a novel.

The ideas do not dictate the length of the work that explores them. A very simple idea can carry a multi-volume epic, a very complex idea might be laid out as a proof in a few pages. For fiction writers, it is the flow of the narrative that determines both how long a story is and how much of the story will actually get read.


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djvdakota
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OK. Some basics on the differences (which are superficial when we're talking about the benefit to your writing skill) between shorts and novels. I'll start with the very shortest:

Flash Fiction (stories up to about 1000 words):
*Scenes: will support up to 3 three scenes, but work better with only one or two.
*Conflicts: will support only ONE point of conflict and resolution.
*Characters: will support a MAXIMUM of three acting characters. By 'acting characters' I mean characters who are integral to the action of the story. As in any story, you can have an unlimited number of background characters. But a flash will only support one (maybe two) main character and one (maybe two) supporting character.
*The benefit to the writer: Flash forces the writer to concentrate on telling as much story as possible in as few words as possible. It is an excellent exercise in brevity and making every word count. I recommend that EVERY writer at least experiment with flash. Check out libertyhall to read plenty of good flash fiction

The Short Story (1000 to 10,000 words--watch the markets. Some like no more than 5000 words for short stories.)
*Scenes: will support several scenes--up to about one scene per thousand words, but fewer is generally better. As the number of scenes increases, the story can often become choppy.
*Conflicts: shorts can support more conflicts, but not too many more. When a story begins to become overly large, this is often the first place to start cutting. When you have too many 'issues' to resolve, the story will begin to spiral out of length control. Try to concentrate on one main conflict with one or two secondary ones. Don't let others weedle their way in, no matter how much they want to be there.
*Characters: Will support up to two or three main characters--generally your antag and protag, and a handful of secondary characters. As Spaceman stated, it's a good idea to build a single 'carrying' character around whom the story will revolve. Know him/her and you know his story.
*The benefit to the writer: Short story writing gives you a manageable length of narrative that allows you to practice and perfect your writing skills without investing huge amounts of time and energy on a project that may become overwhelming when you realize how badly it was done the first time around. NOTE: I'm speaking from experience here, folks! Short story writing is also the best way to 'build' your resume for future writing ventures. Your novel manuscript is much more likely to be given a gander if your query letter has an impressive list of publications in the short story medium. Not to mention it's LOADS easier to get a short published. Period.

The novelette/novella: (10,000 to 75,000 words)
*Scenes: As you've probably guessed, the number of scenes you can use increases with the size of the manuscript. However, be aware that you're more likely to have success if you have fewer short choppy scenes as the length of the manuscript increases. You can certainly have SOME short scenes. Even scenes that are only a paragraph long. But they will be the exception rather than the rule.
*Conflicts: The number of conflicts will also be able to expand with this length of story, but not to a great degree. This still isn't a novel, after all.
*Characters: Here's where things change the least. You will still only have two or three main characters (again generally your antagonist and protagonist), but your cast of secondary characters can expand a great deal. Again, background characters can be numberless in any length story, just don't make them important TO the story.
*Benefit to the writer: Good practice ground for the novel. However, in my opinion, a novella/novelette is what happens when someone either tries to write a short story and things get out of control, or tries to write a novel and can't come up with enough material.

The Novel: (75,000 words and up)
Not much changes between the novella/novelette and the novel. But there are some things to keep in mind:
1. You can almost gauge the length of any story by gauging the number of conflicts and performing characters. Keep that in mind and reign in your penchant to throw in unnecessary characters and conflicts. Learn to trim down to what is absolutely needed for the story you want to tell.
2. Taking that into account, keep in mind that a first-time novelist is extremely unlikely to get a 300,000 word novel published. Work to make your early efforts shorter by limiting your characters and conflicts. Simplify, simplify, simplify and learn to get the most out of every word by writing lots of short stories first. A first time novel length to shoot for is around 100,000 words, give or take 20,000, a little bit more for fantasy.


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djvdakota
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And, oh my how incredibly important--so important that I have to say it again even though it has been said in this very discussion:

READ AND STUDY THE WORK OF OTHERS! Read short fiction. You'll find plenty of it at the library in anthologies under any genre you want--including, may I add, children's picture books. Make every story you read your teacher. Analyze a few. Critique a few, even! Jot down a paragraph or two on why the stories you read do or don't work. How do they grab you? What devices does the writer use to make you care about the characters? How quickly does the writer plunge you into the story? Analyze those first thirteen lines? Do they grab you? How? If they don't, how could they have? Pinpoint the main conflict. Are there secondary conflicts? How many? What are they and how do they improve the story?

ALSO, READ BOOKS ON WRITING! The best, IMO, are those that have exercises for you to practice what the book preaches. A few of my favorites:
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
The Writer's Mentor by Rountree
Characters and Viewpoint by OSC
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Kress



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EricJamesStone
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quote:
Flash Fiction (stories up to about 1000 words):
*Scenes: will support up to 3 three scenes, but work better with only one or two.


I sold a 950-word story to Analog that has six scenes, so more than three scenes can be supported. But I will agree that keeping it under three scenes is generally best.

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Spaceman
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Yeah, but you're special, Eric.
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djvdakota
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Oh, my, yes. VERY special.

And as per Eric's reply, all writing rules/guidelines are made to be broken. Just know the craft well enough to understand the price you pay or what you intend to accomplish in the breaking.

If you break the rules have a darn good reason for doing so, and be prepared to do it skillfully.

[This message has been edited by djvdakota (edited January 28, 2007).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Well, I think it's been long enough since I recommended WRITING IN GENERAL AND THE SHORT STORY IN PARTICULAR by Rust Hills, so I think I will recommend it now.

It certainly helped me figure out how to write short stories when I thought all of my ideas were novel-length.


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