Again, I didn’t make it to as many workshops as I might have liked. I spent the morning working in my room, waiting for a call from my editor. Once she arrived, a friend of hers drove us to the local Barnes & Noble where I signed shelf copies of Tankborn. I indulged in a mocha and Stacy and I did a little book browsing. We shared opinions and recommendations on YA titles, then when our ride returned, we headed over to UVU.
By the time I arrived at LTUE it was noon. I completely missed the James Owen keynote speech :-(, but I made it in time for the “How to Write a Good Short Story” panel. This was a good one, packed with excellent information from Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury, Heather Frost, Eric James Stone, and moderator Dan Willis.
Here’s what I gleaned from the workshop, based on my notes:
A short story must focus on one aspect of a character or the situation that character is in. You have to restrict what you focus on. One panelist described it as a snippet of the character’s life. You’re looking at that one isolated moment.
The writer should use unity–one character, one problem, one setting, one effort against the story problem. You’re not writing episodes as you would in a novel. You should find the one distilling moment in this character’s life and write about that.
Dan asked the panelists how a short story should be structured. One panelist said you have to leave out a lot of things. You can’t have traditional beginning & middle as you would in a longer work. Two ways shared that described where to start: You should start at the climax. You should start close to the end.
You should enter scenes late and leave them early, especially conversations. You can trust the reader to fill in details.
Also, in a short story you should cut the number of scenes, characters, and sub-plots. Reduce the complexity of the main plot. In a short story, you should tell, don’t show, particularly for the character’s backstory. And as one panelist said (quoting Doc Smith), shoot the sheriff in first paragraph.
One panelist discussed the characters inner story versus her outer story (I use internal/external conflict to describe the same thing). A character has an emotional truth that is quite separate from the physical details. The story must include those emotional truths, no matter what the plot is.
One panelist gave the example of tomato surprises in which a short story writer spends much time building up the story, then at the end says, this is what really was happening and it’s entirely different from what you’ve been reading up to now. The character was actually dead, or a dog, or an alien. That device would be better used to start a novel.
Dan asked about outlining short stories. The general consensus seemed to be that a short story doesn’t need an outline. A more complex story might need outline but if that tool is used, it will be quite brief. There is sometimes a need to lay out scenes, but in general, it’s easier with short fiction to keep a whole story in your head.
Writing short, the process is more like cutting away everything that’s not a short story. A short story is a sprint as opposed to the marathon of a novel. You can break the rules more with short fiction. For instance, you can experiment with style. One panelist mentioned writing an entire story using only monosyllabic words. It was effective in a short story, but it would probably drive a novel reader crazy.
Dan asked how do you know when it’s done? One panelist said that instinct tells him what the story length will be, based on the concept. Another said that the story is over when the character solves the story problem. You should ask what the character stands to lose and what they can win. When either of those happens you’re at the end.
Kathleen discussed at length Orson Scott Card’s four story structures, Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. These all end in a certain way, for instance a Milieu story (e.g., a fish out of water story) ends when the main character decides to leave the unfamiliar territory they’ve discovered (i.e., go home) or to stay. There are more details here about these four structures.
Dan asked what are editors looking for. Answers: Someone interesting in an interesting place and situation. No boring people. Cut out the boring stuff. A character with attitude is good. One panelist commented that they hates most when all of the story is working then the end sucks. Another Orson Scott Card reference–everything in a story has to fight for its right to be there. Also, editors are more interested in authors they can work with (e.g., who will make requested changes). The suggestion: Get beta reader, someone other than your mother.
Dan asked about the market for short stories. Two helpful links, duotrope.com and ralan.com. Also, read the magazines you’re targeting. Writing contests are also a great place to submit your work. The Writers of the Future contest was noted as a particularly good one.
You should make a list of possible markets and rank them (by whatever aspects are important to you, e.g., pay). Send the story to each place on your list, starting with the highest rank and work your way down. You can also publish it yourself, but because of distribution issues, that option should probably be at the bottom of your list.
After the short story panel, I attended Kirk Shaw’s “The Good and the Bad: Five Things to Do and Five Things to Avoid in Writing Speculative Fiction,” but this post has gone on long enough. Instead of appending all the excellent detail from “The Good and the Bad” here, I’ll report on that workshop in my next post.