Thursday, October 16, 2014

Making a long story short


I just finished writing a YA science fiction short story for the Brave New Girls anthology (you’ll hear more about the anthology from Mary Fan in Steve’s post next week) and I thought it would be cool to talk about short story writing. So often, writing blogs focus on novels, genre and publishing, even though the short story is often the author’s first foray into writing. Whether you started out writing Winnie the Pooh fan fiction (raises hand) or a crackpot fairy tale in the third grade, you began with the short story.

Although I find it challenging, the short story is my favorite story form to write. Not only do I have to develop an entire story arc in less than 10,000 words but I also have to create a clever ending or unique story twist – something to leave a lasting impression on the reader. I try to model my stories after Twilight Zone episodes. Clever. Dark. Thematic. Allegorical. Except, I’m no Rod Serling.

Short story writing allows me to open up creatively. I had never written science fiction before several weeks ago. But when the opportunity to contribute to the Brave New Girls anthology came up, I decided to try writing in a new genre. Believe me, it wasn’t easy. The story only took a week to draft, but a month to revise. Because not only did I set the story twenty years in the future, I made up a complicated mystery plot that required some knowledge of technology – knowledge I don’t possess (seriously, I barely utilize 5% of my iPhone’s potential). And without ruining the ending for anyone, I also decided to try my hand at a writing technique I’d never done before. But – and this is key – because of the short form, I was willing and excited to take the risk. It’s a lot easier to rewrite a 10,000-word story than it is a 90,000-word novel. And I’ve done both.

But don’t just take my word for it, let’s hear what my blog buddy, Steve, has to say. His horror short story, “Exploding Shit Zombies”, was published in At Hell’s Gates, a horror charity anthology. The proceeds benefit Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which supports men and women in the armed forces. Steve is also the author of several novels including Braineater Jones (which is on sale!) and The Ghoul Archipelago. He is also a very funny dude and his hesitantly-given writing advice is dead on (no pun intended).

KGG: What was the inspiration for "Exploding Shit Zombies" (genius title, by the way)? How did you get involved with the At Hell's Gates anthology?

Steve: Thanks for the compliment!  I'm glad you asked because there's actually a good story behind that.  This past summer I did an interview for the Books, Beer, and Blogshit site.  One of the questions was, "Would you survive your own zompocalypse?"  I had never, in fact, written about what happened in my current hometown of Harrisburg, PA.  Shortly after that I did an interview with horror author extraordinaire Sharon Stevenson (who, as it turns out, was also included in AT HELL'S GATES) and she asked me if, after BRAINEATER JONES and THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO, I intended to reinvent the zombie yet a third time.  The two questions began to coagulate in my mind, but it finally all came together when Sylvia Bagaglio, an excellent reviewer for Bookshelf Bombshells, tweeted me asking, "Do zombies poop?"  I answered all three questions in one stroke, like the tailor of the old children's story.

I got involved with the anthology when I was invited into a writing group by Shana Festa, the author of TIME OF DEATH: INDUCTION.  One of the ideas pitched by the group was a novel boxed set, which gradually morphed into a short story anthology since so many of us did not have the rights to our novels to include in a separate boxed set.  Devan Sagliani, the author of the UNDEAD LA series, offered to spearhead the anthology.  Of course, we don't have the backing of a major publishing house, so paying a stipend to the authors was not feasible unless someone was going to go out of pocket.  We all agreed that the best thing to do would be to make it a charity anthology, and after some discussion we selected the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, and I couldn't be happier that it happened that way.  I think everyone should buy the book, because at a minimum, even if you hate it, at least you contributed to a worthy cause.  But you probably won't hate it.  :)

KGG: How do you plan a short story? Do you start with a premise, a character, or a setting?

Steve: Oh.  Plan.  Um...plan...  Well, a short story as a character study would probably be pretty crappy.  I mean, I would take the rule of thumb that you really only have time to develop one character in a short story, and all the others need to be drawn rather broadly.  Similarly, a setting you could probably dabble in, but you wouldn't really have a whole lot of room to sandbox.  So I guess using the Three Card Monte skeptic's trick, I would say you have to start with a premise.

KGG: One of the challenges of writing a short story is developing a story arc in such a short word count. What advice do you have for writers who are overwhelmed with the task of having to do this?

Steve: Well, I don't normally give writing advice.  Know that this speaks volumes to how much I respect you, personally, KGG, that I am breaking my usual rule.

So here's what I think about writing a short story: every short needs to be "The Sixth Sense."  With a novel you can develop rhythms and flows and things, but with a short story it's all about the payoff at the end.  There needs to be some kind of sting, twist, or pun at the end that tells us why we just spent ten thousand words learning about this world instead of a hundred thousand.  Think of The Lottery, or A Rose For Emily, or the Gift of the Magi.  It's all about setting up a vignette, then flipping the script.  So make sure you know what your big punch at the end is going to be, and then build towards that, rather than leaving it open-ended so you can develop your story organically, as you would with a novel.

KGG: Yes! I totally agree. I know you submitted a short story for Brave New Girls -- can you sum up the story in one sentence?

Steve: The real explanation for the Kelly-Hopkinsville incident.

***
Besides cool charity anthologies, there is still a paying market for short stories. I just submitted an old YA ghost story I had written to a paying publication and if it gets selected, I will plotz.

Check out the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short StoryContest. The deadline is January 31st, 2015. And there’s still time to submit to the Brave New Girls Anthology (deadline: Nov. 15).

What say you, dear readers? Do you love reading and writing short stories? Are you working on any? What are your favorites?

26 comments:

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Kim and Steve! (I have to admit that I had never before considered the bodily functions of zombies so closely...)

    I don't read a lot of short stories because I feel like just as I get invested in a world, it's over. I do have a few favorite short story writers, though - like Edgar Allan Poe and, more recently, Laini Taylor and Margo Lanagan. (Come to think of it, they're all horror writers of some kind.) I totally agree with both of you that sories should have a twist, a punch, etc - a goal of some kind to make it worth the investment.

    I also like all three of the above writers for their descriptions, their establishment of setting and mood, and their vocabulary: Poe uses fancy words; Taylor makes up words; Lanagan *leaves out* important words. It seems to me that if you only have 10,000 words, every one of them needs to count!

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    1. One of the best shorts I read was written as a contest entry for an anthology. You know which one I mean, Jill. I think about it to this day.
      I used to read Poe stories in high school.

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    2. Yup, I do! That was some story.

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    3. Jill, check out Lovecraft if you haven't. Talk about words!

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  2. great post, guys!! I love writing short stories. My English professors essentially forced us to write them in an effort to learn how to write tightly, and wrap things up concisely. They were SO much harder to write than a full novel but very rewarding! My favorite I wrote was a modern day Cinderella...it involved Prince Charming, the Maury Povich talk show, and a very unhappy Cinderella. hehe. hmmm I might talk more about that in a future post.

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    1. Ok, I must read this Cinderella story. You got me at Maury Povich.

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    2. Beth, I have to know - was Prince Charming the father or not??

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    3. haha the test was negative! good news for Cinderella and her daughter, bad news for princesses Aurora and Snow White. :P

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  3. Interesting post, I have to admit I love short stories because some authors menage to create little jewels.

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    1. Yes! My favorite YA author, Holly Black, has a collection of shorts. Some of her best work.

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    2. Sorry I don't know her,what kind of books does she write?

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  4. Great post Kim and Steve! I know I would struggle with writing a short story. I'm entirely too wordy. Although, I might be able to classify some of my emails as short stories...

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    1. This is why I don't text instead of email -- I'm too wordy.

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  5. Loved reading this. I'm struggling w/my short so it gave me some food for thought!

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    1. Just finish it -- revisions will clarify everything.

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    2. Le&ra Wallace + struggling = does not compute

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  6. I would love to see a new golden age of anthologies, and collections of short stories making the best-selling lists. My favorite.

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  7. Ooh, just realized that no list of examples of "sting" short stories would be complete without "Witness for the Prosecution" by Agatha Christie. She also wrote at least one short story ("The Second Gong") which she later expanded into a novel (Dead Man's Mirror).

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  8. Loved this post, Kim (and Steve)! All that talk of Zombies and horror shorts brought up memories of Steven King's Full Dark, No Stars short story compilation. I still have nightmares about some of the little gems in there... I think it's cool that this anthology is pushing you to write Sci-Fi, Kim! That's one thing I really like about writing short stories (at least for contests and whatnot), the parameters. With a novel, you typically have to come up with them all on your own, but a lot of short stories I've written have come with "instructions." As you said, I often find that they push me into realms I would never think to go with my own writing. And that's a growth opportunity if I there ever was one. I wonder how many authors found their niches that way? Anyway, thanks again for the fun and thought provoking post!

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    1. Your comment made me think of something -- short stories are seeing a resurgence on Amazon. A lot of self pubbed authors write short stories (novelettes and novellas too). Some of my most memorable reads were short stories -- that punch to the gut.

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  9. I completely agree about how short stories free you up as a writer to try new things. I joined a short story group and tried my hand at a middle-grade sci-fi and a new adult FBI thriller. (I'm a writer, I can make up genres right?) And I'm with Jonathan. I wonder how many budding authors find their niche by writing short stories. Food for thought.

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    1. As long as you don't make up balletpunk, you can, Barbara. That's MY made up genre.

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  10. Okay, the internet ate my comment! Trying this again: The first time I had a short story published in an anthology was in 2009. My editor, Michael S. Katz, wanted me to add more zing to the ending and gave me two suggestions, A and B. I chose B, revised accordingly and sent the story back. He said, "Great improvement! Now revise it again to make the reader think you're headed for ending A, then pull the rug out from under them and go for ending B." I thought that was brilliant advice.

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