Writing Short Stories

Some writers love writing short stories. They love the attention to detail. They love the master stroke of a twist at the end. Other writers decry the lack of space to develop character and intricate plots. Whichever camp you belong to, short stories can help get your name out in the world as a writer.

The following is taken from my writing in a recent issue of the free Writing Women newsletter.

A simple internet search reveals there are 5 steps to writing a short story. No, it’s 6 simple steps. Oops, 9 proven steps. Apparently, both Neil Gaiman and Kurt Vonnegut had 8 rules, but not the same rules. One website pared that to 5 important rules. Another found 7 immutable rules, and yet another found 24. Scrolling a bit more reveals the 5, 9, or 10 elements of a short story. Stop! We’re here for the Readin’ and Ritin’ not the Rithmetic.

Let’s take it word by word.

  • Writing — a good short story, must follow the same general principals of writing. To name a few: 
    • The reader wants to connect with the protagonist. Characters must have depth and emotion.
    • The setting should contain just enough description to allow the reader to build a mental picture, but bear in mind that sometimes the setting is a character.
    • Short pieces are good places to display your versatility. Look for powerful verbs and descriptors to convey maximum meaning with few words. 
  • Short — Make sure every word counts. After writing the story, go through it paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word making sure each element moves the story forward.
    • Focus on one aspect of the story: character, action, setting, and atmosphere must be there, but one must dominate.
    • Leave the complicated conflicts, inner tensions, and convoluted plots for your next novel.
    • Sketch your characters and your descriptions with as few words as possible. Leave out any unnecessary details, but don’t leave things so nebulous the reader is left adrift.
  • Stories— The plot must evoke emotion in the characters. The conflict and its resolution are vital elements, but without emotion your story will be flat.
    • Keep your story coherent by sticking to one character’s point of view. This does not have to be the protagonist, and often suspense requires the POV character to be secondary and not privy to the protagonist’s thoughts.
    • Limit your characters, but not your imagination.
    • The piece should flow from beginning to a satisfying end.

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“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
― John Steinbeck

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Blog of Accountability

Lot of room for improvement

My last blog announced two New Years Resolutions. I haven’t given up or abandoned them…yet. However, I have been procrastinating writing this blog of accountability, hoping to be able to announce a stellar performance. Three stars is not exactly stellar.

FIRST RESOLUTION: Reading for enjoyment
In nearly four months, I have read four and three halves books. I reviewed three of the books. The fourth book I considered mediocre so I did not review it. The fifth book I abandoned half way through. There are too many good books out there to waste my time on a book in which the main character annoyed me. I’m still working on the sixth book, but I put it down and started another one. I may pick it up again.

Helpful hint for writers: If you are going to write a book featuring someone who lies to her best friend, breaks promises, and lives like a slob, there better be a character arc that shows self-recognition of flaws and at least attempts at improvement if you want your reader to bond with the character. I skipped to the last chapter to find out whodunnit and found the character unchanged. So much for finding a series I could binge read.

SECOND RESOLUTION: Expand my reach as a writer
In February, I joined two other writers and did an online book launch for my new food memoir Breakfast in Palestine. This was a new experience, and it was a lot of fun. Terry Korth Fischer launched her debut mystery Gone Astray, and Linda Harris Sittig featured Counting Crows, the third book in her Threads of Courage series of historical novels.

Helpful hint for writers: You can always benefit from teamwork. We are not rivals, we are colleagues. We each have a unique platform and followers—even if our platform is small. In our case, we were writing in three different genres, yet our target readers were similar, and we would each benefit from the overlap.

Will I make my goals by the end of the year? I don’t know, but being a writer has taught me that success does not come without hard work. I will keep trying.

PS: If you have any suggestions for me, please leave a comment. Bear in mind, I want to read for enjoyment, and for me that means a happy ending (no romance, please).

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21 in 2021

Flying in the face of all known evidence, I still make New Years Resolutions and encourage others to do the same. Yes, I remember my blog post saying that nearly a third of all New Years Resolutions are abandoned in the first two weeks of the year.

But I really mean it this time. Echoes of five-year-olds everywhere. This time is different because I’m resolving to do something I want to do—for me. I want to read just for fun. This means while I’m reading I’m going to ignore the twenty ebooks on writing that I just downloaded. I’m going to ignore the tsunami of submissions that I should be reading. I’m going to ignore dirty laundry, unmade beds, and quarreling dust bunnies. And the most important part is I’m going to ignore my nagging conscience while I do it. 🙂

Unfortunately, my conscience is a real nag. I was only two pages into my first book of the year when it started screaming at me. The only way I could get it to leave me alone during my reading time was to make another resolution. So I did.

1. Read 21 books in 2021 for pure entertainment.

2. Do 21 things to expand my reach as a writer by going outside my comfort zone. This means writing in new ways and venturing into the dreaded land of Marketing.

So why am I writing about this? Following my own advice, I am writing this to set up an accountability check. I’ll take you along with me on the journey into new territory and let you know how well things are going.

Today I have accomplished one step: I have dipped a toe into the water and posted a partial cover reveal on my Facebook page, something I have never done before. Later today I intend to curl up on the couch with a cozy quilt and a hot cuppa to get to know the characters in my new book.

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Breaking Through Writer’s Block

You can’t think yourself out of a writing block, you have to write yourself out of a thinking block. — John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 06-25-11

Are you stuck on a particular passage in your writing? Don’t worry—it happens to all of us. There are many ways to tackle the problem. As usual, some are more productive than others. Some hints:

  • DON’T throw up your hands and quit.
  • DON’T beat your head against it until blood drips off your chin. You could short out your keyboard.
  • DO take a short break. Get a snack or a cup of hot tea while listening to music. Take a walk outside. Call a friend to chat about good things—not to complain about your problems.
  • DO try to get a fresh perspective. 
    • Stand in front of the mirror and explain what you want to write to yourself. Record what you say on your phone. If you don’t know how to do this, do a search for “how to record a voice memo.” Make two or three recordings and listen to yourself. Where does it break down? How can you fix it?
    • If you’re writing fiction, write the scene from another character’s point of view. Try using a character who has opposing views. Describe it from the POV of a stranger looking through an open door. Have the character tell about it five years later. 
    • Write the passage as fast as you can in five different ways. Read them aloud and highlight the good parts of each.
  • DO let it simmer in the back of your mind if the above suggestions don’t work. Work on another project today and think about it again when you turn off the light tonight. Oddly enough, you can sometimes untie the tangles while you sleep. When you wake up in the morning, try thinking it through before you open your eyes and let the new day chase your dream thoughts away.
  • DO skip the passage and pick up the narrative in the next chapter. My first drafts often have a couple of blank lines with a note to self: Bridge Out – need connecting paragraph. When you forget it for weeks or months until your first revision, it’s amazing how much easier it is. You already know what comes on either side of it.

Do you have a trick to jump start your writing? Please share in the comments. 

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Do I Need An Editor? The answer is YES!

My friends love it.

I finished my book and all my friends love it. My mom says it’s the best thing she’s ever read. I followed advice and hired an editor, even though I didn’t think I needed it. Now a publisher says I should have my manuscript edited before resubmitting. Was I scammed?

In all likelihood the writer was not scammed. Although scammers do exist, this writer probably started with the wrong type of editor.

Editing is a step-by-step process with grammar, punctuation, and proofreading as the very last step. Yet that is what immediately comes to mind when a new writer finishes the self-editing phase and, often reluctantly, begins to look for an editor.

The writer may know a retired English teacher who would love a few extra dollars, or perhaps has a friend who knows something about writing. After all, friends and family love it and have found a few typos.

That is not what is meant by editing. Editing is a specialized skill that can turn a decent book into a good book, a good book into a great book. But there is more than one skill needed in the editing process. You must know where to begin, and you must be willing to learn from the advice you are given.

Before hiring an editor, you must first decide what level of editing is needed. What is your goal? What is your measure of success? If you are writing a story to amuse your friends, or writing a memoir for your grandchildren, then an editor who cleans up the typos and fixes the misplaced commas is perfect.

If you want to sell books to an increasingly impatient yet sophisticated modern reader, you need to make sure you present a book that is professional in appearance and substance. Writing at this level is a business, and every business needs an initial investment. You need to hone your craft over years, and one of the best ways to do that is to learn by working with a good editor. Choose wisely.

Developmental editor, Content editor, or Substantive editor is the person concerned with the basic structure of the book. Structure is the most fundamental level of editing. Is the story sound? Does it flow smoothly for the reader? Is anything missing in the plot? Or side roads that lead nowhere? Are the characters well developed? Are they distinct and consistent in their actions and motivations? Following the advice of a content editor may result in the need for extensive rewrites. Writers just starting on their path might be wise to find someone earlier in the process.

Book doctors, book coaches deal with the author on the same structural level as development editors, but they are usually engaged while the book is still a work in progress. The book doctor or book coach can provide instruction and guide the writing process, which may save extensive rewrites.

Line editor works on the manuscript on a different level. The line editor helps with awkward sentences or paragraphs, changes passive voice to active prose to add punch and drive. The line editor points out static sluggish dialogue and helps transform it into active scenes with life-like conversation. Line editing requires a skill that is hard to find. A good line editor can transform good writing into great writing without losing the voice of the author.

Copy editor, proofreader is what most people think of when they hear the word editor. This is the person who corrects grammatical mistakes, finds typos, makes sure commas are in the right places, and makes sure the usage and spelling is consistent throughout the manuscript. Unfortunately, a poorly constructed story will still be a poorly constructed story after the copy editor has done his or her work. Any rewrites will probably introduce more typos and grammatical errors, thus making another copy edit necessary.

Every writer, no matter how experienced, needs an editor. Research the types of editors, ask for references, listen to advice, and persevere. You’ll love the result.

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