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Author Topic: Short Story Basics
Crystal Stevens
Member # 8006

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I've been reading "The Art & Craft of the Short Story" by Rick DeMarinis, and I must say that it's opened up my eyes on several issues. I read mainly SF and fantasy novels, which is the main reason I'm drawn to them when it comes to writing stories. It was after I discovered the WOTF that I became interested in short stories. My novella was supposed to be a short story but ended up being about 50 pages long. This is when I decided I needed to know more about the basic ingredients of the short story and how to write them.

I was surprised to discover that crafting a short story is closer to writing poetry than a novel. That it is more like just getting an idea or a feeling across rather than a complete story like in a novel length manuscript. My problem is I find myself trying to cram a completed story into a few pages.

DeMarinis went on to say that the days of the neat and tidy ending of the short story is dead and that short story don't have to end with a "happily ever after" mood. BUT does a short story have to have some kind of a sense of closure? I've bought an occassional SF or Fantasy magazine to get a "feel" for the short story. Most of the stories in these mags that I've read, I get to the ending and end up scratching my head and thinking "Huh?" A lot of them don't even make sense to me. Am I missing something, or should I just steer away from short stories altogether and concentrate on my novels?

I have read one of the WOTF paperbacks and enjoyed most of the stories in it. They read more like what I would write myself. My favorite, I've been told, was the grand prize winner... "Saturn in G Minor" by Stephen Kotowych. So maybe there's hope for me yet?

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Hi Crystal,

Certainly don't give up. Writing short stories is indeed a very different craft from novels. And though you are an experienced writer, it's possible that your first short stories won't behave the way you want to. Just keep writing more. (We won't talk about how many short stories I trashed before finally figuring out what I was doing).

Complete vs. open endings are a matter of opinion, and different publications lean different ways. I personally am very frustrated by completely open endings with no sense of closure. You're not missing anything, it's just a particular style that is apparently popular right now.

Perhaps someone else will be able to say in more detail how to develop ideas for short stories vs novels. All I can say on the subject is that I've come to recognize that some ideas that I get are novel-length, and some are short story length. And I recall someone pointing out to me here that it's better to stick to fewer principal characters in a short story, because if you have five main characters in 4000 words, you risk them becoming a bit two-dimensional. (I'm not quoting the idea well, though; perhaps someone else can clear that up too!)

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The pendulum of audience tastes and writing voices that satisfy audience desires swings across a spectrum of voices and schools of thought. Romanticism, realism, idealism, impressionism, modernism, postmodernism, and so on. What's vogue today is in a state of flux with no clear dominant school in any genre, though romanticism has dominated in the fantastical genres for decades. Claims that this or that are dead, out of fashion, passť, whatever, ignore the cycling of tastes and voices and new emergences.

Many self-annointed critics frequently name Anton Chekov and Vladimir Nabokov as writers of so-called plotless stories, short stories and novels. I don't see their prose as particularly lacking in structural features, I do appreciate that they appeal to unconventional sensibilities.

Plot is dead, long live character, lyric beauty, or potent discourse? No, nothing absolute is possibly true about art. A recent literary analysis trend in academic circles focuses on people in place, exploring the boundaries of existence that impact social beings. In other words, plot, character, and setting, which is the time, place, and situation of a locale.

By and large, structure is a fundamental if unconscious expectation of a general reading audience. Without structure there's no foundation from which to compare, convey, and share experiences. How prominent structure is, is a wide variable though. Popular fiction generally conforms to a perceivable, conventional structure. Art for art's sake fiction generally conforms to unconventional and less patent structures.

I think there's considerable resistance to the value of dramatic structure in many walks of writing because of perceptions that it stifles creativity and--oh, my, it can't possibly be reduced to a formula? Also, it's difficult to master the multitude of complexities--structure being one arena of an exponential many--that function synergistically in a story of any length. I've asked writing professors, accomplished authors, and screening editors for a working definition of plot. Not much resulted beyond me surmising it's a mystery to many.

On the other hand, conventional structures allow for infinite creative latitude within a framework that appeals more broadly to audiences than digressive or derivative structures.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited May 01, 2009).]

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"Most of the stories in these mags that I've read, I get to the ending and end up scratching my head and thinking "Huh?" A lot of them don't even make sense to me. Am I missing something, "

I don't think so. Along with many other Hatrackers I'm becoming increasingly annoyed with the quality of short SF being published in mags today.

For a good selection of SF short stories I'd recommend any anthology edited by Gardner Dozois; his taste is almost impeccable. (IIRC he often edits "Best of" anthologies, in book form, widely available in bookstores.)

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Jeff Baerveldt
Member # 8531

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... should I just steer away from short stories altogether and concentrate on my novels?

Here's my story.

I started off wanting to write novels. Why? Because I love novels, and I'm not much of a short-story fan.

But then I followed the advice of others and moved to short stories because, you know, that's how ALL writers started off. With short stories. How dare I try to buck the trend.

That set me off onto five years of incredible frustration. I almost quit writing because of it.

Finally, this year, I decided I wanted to write more than anything . . . and that I wanted to write novels. I also realized that folks like Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, and Brandon Sanderson -- three of my favorite writers -- broke in writing novels, not short stories.

So I'm writing novels. I'm writing more than I ever have before. And I'm loving every minute of it.

So here's my advice: Write what you love to read. Is it short fiction? Great -- write it. Is it novels? Then write those.

Experiment for a few months (or less) trying to write short fiction. And if it doesn't work for you, then go back to novels.

Simply put: With writing, let happiness be your guide.

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