On Writing Short Stories

Guest bloggers visit my website twice a month on Tuesday and Thursday. If you would like to be part of this, feel free to check out the Be A Guest Blogger page.

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Hugo. Thanks, Hugo!

So, you want to write short stories?

You’re in luck.

There’s been a focus on general writing and editing so far by my fellow guest bloggers, and it’s all valuable information. Read through the posts, you’re bound to learn something. So for my piece, I’d like to narrow the focus a little bit and talk about writing short stories.

Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition of a short story:
“A short story is a piece of prose fiction, which can be read in a single sitting. … At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood. In doing so, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel, authors of both generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.”

As far as length: “Other definitions place the maximum word count of the short story at anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000. In contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no shorter than 1,000 and no longer than 20,000 words. Stories of fewer than 1,000 words are sometimes referred to as “short short stories” or “flash fiction.”

Thanks, Wikipedia!

So, why short stories?

Well, why the heck not?

I’ll give you a little bit of my background so you can see where I’m coming from. Like many contemporary writers, I cut my writing teeth through Fanfiction.net and it became my life-long dream to one day write and publish my own novels in the fantasy genre.

So, fast-forward over a decade later. I’ve graduated college, working a job where I have to wear pants, and on the tail end of my MFA program. I’m also nowhere near close to sniffing a finished novel. And so, I discovered short stories.

READING SHORT STORIES

Writing and reading short stories became the perfect addition to an erratic schedule that included grad school, a full-time job, and freelancing as a journalist. Why? Each of them was a tiny itty-bitty book that I could devour in a single lunch break or read before bed/work without the frustrating “Damn it! It was getting so good!” Not that they weren’t good, quite the opposite, they were great, but they were great in a short span of time. Some people prefer to watch TV over movies for that reason because it conforms better to hectic schedules. Some of you are just as busy, if not much more busy than I am, and this is why I recommend you pick up a few short story collections.

Another thing about reading short stories is that they can have just as much of an emotional impact on you as a novel can. Stories like Benjamin Alire Saenz’s “He Has Gone to be the Dragon” or Neil Gaiman’s “Nicholas Was” are so profound even in their brevity (Nicholas came in at 100 words).

My recommendations: Saenz’s “Everything begins and ends at the Kentucky Club”, Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions; Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek; Oscar Casares, Brownsville Stories.

WRITING SHORT STORIES

There are many authors out there who won’t write short stories because they feel so limited. I never really understood that mentality. Heck, part of the reason I suspended work on my novel was because it started getting so open-ended with dozens of plotlines and I couldn’t keep track of every single one. With short stories, the only real “constraint” is the word length and even that isn’t so much a constraint as it is a way to flex your writing muscles.

So, how do you start writing a short story?

That one is entirely up to you.

One technique I’ve found to be successful is taking a writing prompt and asking yourself a: “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if—?” or “Heh, imagine if—“ and then riffing off of that to whatever it is you want to write about. The best part of it is, if you really, really like a character and want to continue writing about them, you can!

There’s also the planning aspect of it. With novels, it is highly recommended you have an outline. That’s why tools like Scrivener and Novlr are indispensable for writers. For short stories, your outlines (if you have ‘em) are nowhere near as extensive.

On the piece I’m currently revising, my outline was essentially the following words scrawled out on my journal: “taco truck” “law school” “finals”. In comparison, the outline for my novel project was 12 pages.

The thing about novels is that if you don’t plan, you’re not going to get much done. That’s why tools like Scrivener and Novlr are lifesavers for any writer. But with short stories, you take away from the amount of time you’re spending planning and you’re adding it to the amount of time spent writing.

Writing short stories is also a good way to increase your visibility. Because you’re able to send out many submissions to different journals and magazines, whereas compared to writing novels, you’re going to need an agent before someone e to test your fiction on a larger audience, and to see what you like, to experiment, to explore.

For me, I think if there was going to be a best part about writing short fiction is that it flows naturally from my background as a journalist and as a poet. I want to tell many stories, not just one. One day, I will finish my novel, but until then, I’m comfortable writing just short stories.

Maybe you can get to be like that, too! If you’re ever interested in bouncing off some ideas, please let me know.

Hugo Esteban Rodriguez Castañeda was born and raised in Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Brownsville and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. His poetry has appeared in the 2014 Texas Poetry Calendar, HEArt Journal Online, and the Latino Rebels: Bolder Anthology; and his fiction is forthcoming in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He lives in Houston, Texas, with his girlfriend and two neurotic fur-children. You can follow his writing shenanigans at www.dosaguilas.org and on Instagram @DosAguilas.

Creativity’s Invitation to Discovery and Wholeness

Guest bloggers visit my website twice a month on Tuesday and Thursday. If you would like to be part of this, feel free to check out the Be A Guest Blogger page.

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Phyllis Edgerly Ring. Thanks, Phyllis!

The Munich Girl Phyllis Edgerly Ring

Seven years ago, I made a bid on an eBay item that would change my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined at the time. Something within me was strongly drawn toward it, though I didn’t yet understand why. It was a portrait of Eva Braun drawn by an artist who never gained acclaim for his work — though his infamous name is branded on history forever. Eva Braun chose to die with him 71 years ago this spring.

That portrait is at the heart of everything that became a part of my new novel’s story, set largely in the Germany of World War II. The experience of writing The Munich Girl showed me that, rather than being something I “do”, writing is a process that acts upon me, strengthening my sense of connection with my own wholeness. My responsibility is to listen and watch, rather than impose ideas or plans of my own on what comes forth as a story.

Creative process invites me to find a balance between my intuitive mind, which encounters the unlimited and unknown, and rational mind, whose structuring perception helps a story be both cohesive and accessible. People often hurl themselves at creative process “head first” with the rational mind, trying to force or control things. My experience is that in creative process, intuitive mind is waiting for me to meet it, so that it can help me know and understand in new and wider ways.

Gertrude Stein expressed this beautifully: “You will write if you will write without thinking of the result in terms of a result, but think of the writing in terms of discovery.” She gets straight to the heart of what allows writing process to be a revelatory power, and a bestower, rather than a distraction or plaything. The difference is a willing surrender into seeking and unknowing, rather than a presumed knowledge of any kind.

I know I’m immersed in that when things begin to strike with notes my inner ear can hear, when my crown and scalp suddenly tingle. But first, I must surrender to a great blankness that can seem as though it will never yield, no matter how I push or try to break through it. And that is because I’m the one who’s meant to do the yielding, so that intuitive mind can impart its secrets to me.

This was reinforced for me one afternoon while I swam with a friend, and recognized that in order to swim, I must meet the water on its terms. I must yield to and merge with the way it envelops and supports me.

On the pathway that the portrait of Eva Braun opened before me, every aspect of the story in The Munich Girl, every theme, revelation, and scene, came to meet me in a similar way when I was ready to receive it, after I had immersed myself in its atmosphere and waited, listening, watching. Trusting.

Believing that I “know” anything about a story before it has fully shown itself is the only “writer’s block” I’ve ever created for myself. When I yield to and receive what intuitive mind wants to offer in the creative process, I am met by what I’m able to receive and integrate on the deepest levels.

I’ve come to believe that the rational mind serves best when it’s not trying to lead, or force, but to follow, when we’re seeking to discover what we don’t yet know. When we are willing to do that, the revelations that arrive via our intuitive mind will often surprise and delight us, both because they feel so inevitable, and also because they are beyond anything that rational mind, whose scope is confined only to previous experience, could imagine or predict.

The luscious magic in the process for writers is that when we open up to meeting the greater possibilities of what we don’t yet know, we’ll be repeatedly astonished that what comes to meet us is disarmingly precise, unfathomably generous, and remarkably right.

Phyllis Edgerly Ring AuthorPhyllis Edgerly Ring lives in New Hampshire and returns as often as she can to her childhood home in Germany. She has studied environmental and plant science, worked as a nurse, been a magazine writer and editor, taught English to kindergartners in China, and frequently serves as workshop facilitator and coach for others’ writing projects. Her newest novel is The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies that Outlast War.

 

You can find Phyllis Edgerly Ring on her social media:

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Bringing Up Baby: That Story You Still Love

Guest bloggers visit my website twice a month on Tuesday and Thursday. If you would like to be part of this, feel free to check out the Be A Guest Blogger page.

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Gwen. Thanks, Gwen!

I’ve been writing since I was four. Well, scribbling, but I swore they were stories. Seeing as even I can’t read them anymore, I can claim they were the best I’ve ever written.

When I was twelve, I read a dozen books by Raphael Sabatini and a dozen more by Tamora Pierce. By accident, I stumbled onto the idea that would obsess the next fifteen years of my writing life: seafaring men and women with magic and Shakespearean family drama.

It’s not difficult to see why I would want to spend hundreds of hours writing about swashbucklers and sea battles, cannons and fire-conjurers, hurricanes and kings. I dragged this story with me as I grew up, kept coming back to it over and over. I had a thousand edited pages of a trilogy when I turned eighteen and realized that I was both totally in love with the story, and too bored to continue.

As it turns out, it’s difficult to take a story with you through adolescence. I’ve been rewriting, rebuilding, and slowly working out how to do it:

  1. Don’t be afraid to get messy.

When I was twelve, I thought orphans felt free, not lost or abandoned. When I was twelve, I thought swordfights didn’t have to end bloody. When I was twelve, I thought thieves were romantic, and getting robbed never hurt anyone. I have a fair amount of nostalgia for the naïve whimsy in those stories, and it kept me afraid to shade in the darker sides of the picture for a long time.

I was equally afraid that if I started pulling pieces apart to make space for new things, that I wouldn’t have a story anymore, just a tangle of prose.

I was afraid I would ruin something. Instead, I gave myself a wider space to play.

And I saved all my old drafts because nostalgia is powerful.

  1. Change the names.

When I was in college, a friend asked me why I still had “mages” in my stories, when the term was forcing me to spend extra time explaining away an audience’s preconceived ideas of what they were. A few years later, a professor suggested that I change the names of all the characters I had been working with since I was twelve, to escape old thought patterns.

I renamed a lot of things: people, ships, islands, magicks. It felt like writing a new story, with all my favorite pieces of the old one. Some things went back to their old names after a few months, but it was a valuable freedom.

  1. Question gravity.

Very recently, I was talking a plot problem through with a friend. For years, I have been trying to decide how to destroy something very large during a fight between two people.

“I think you need an army to do that,” my friend said. She spent about thirty seconds explaining it to me, before I realized she was right, and that her idea served my story extremely well.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before,” I said.

“Because fantasy stories usually follow the idea that one or maybe two people accomplish all the important things,” she said without hesitation.

And I realized I had internalized the Law of Singular Heroes. Like it was the Law of Gravity. Not for the first time, I’ve had to remind myself to question everything, because without meaning to, I’m still mimicking the stories I grew up on without reason.

  1. Keep writing.

I’m a writer who likes to plan her stories, scene by scene, but there’s only so much that can be accomplished without putting words on paper. It’s a particular kind of exploration, like actually walking on an unknown continent instead of flying over it. You learn quickly what works and what doesn’t with your feet on the ground.

  1. Fall in love HARDER.

Whether you started writing at six or sixty, you started because you were in love with something. I loved knights, swords, and dragons. Maybe you loved time machines and elves. I suspect we were both a little in love with words. Whatever it was, our enthusiasm was the most important part. Always, always fight to hold onto it.

Don’t make your changes because you think they make the story better. Make your changes because they excite you, because they enamor you, because they make you love your story better.

You can find Gwen on her blog.

World Building: Build A World You Love (Part Four)

Guest bloggers visit my website twice a month on Tuesday and Thursday. If you would like to be part of this, feel free to check out my Be A Guest Blogger page.

This week’s guest post is brought to you by Nthato, about world building. This is the last part of a four-part series. In case you missed it, you can read Part OnePart Two, and Part Three here. Thanks, Nthato!

a new world
Via Karlwennergren from DeviantArt
It’s very easy to get lost in the details of the world or get bogged down by things you find irrelevant to your story, and that is the perfect time to really get to know both your story as well as your world.

Relevancy

Pick out things that are relevant to your story and help it move forward. We do not need to know every grandparent’s name, middle name and favourite football team, unless it is relevant to the story.

Detail

Know how much detail to put in your story from the world. It’s not necessary to describe every building your character walks past but perhaps there’s one that stands out, or one that really gives your readers an understanding of the area, people or world.

Keep it mysterious

The reader doesn’t have to know every nook and cranny of the world their reading about. Nothing like a quiet island off the on it’s own, referenced only as “the island” to pique the interest of the reader, instill wonder or curiosity.

Build a world you love

Your characters have life. Your story has life and so too does the world you are building. You want to enjoy writing about it as much as you do about the people living in it. You want your readers to fall in love with it as they move through the pages.

How you put all of this together is really up to you. Each person has a unique way of detailing their worlds, from drawn out maps listing each and every location, to flash cards for each area a character will visit to spider-diagrams tying in character to location to story.

At the end of the day you must love to tell stories of your world as you do about your story; the two are intertwined.

What techniques do you use to build your world?

South African born writer working as a freelance writer for Gamecca Magazine, hobbyist blogger and writer of short stories. An avid reader and aspiring digital artist hoping to finish a couple of novels from previous NaNoWriMo years, including a Steam Punk novel, a political thriller, and a South African Historic Fantasy.

If you would like to know more about Nthato, visit him on his social media:

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