Thursday, October 28, 2010

Writing Short Stories

I recently had the privilege of being a guest online speaker at CrazzySharon's Boot Camp Study Group for writers. I was asked to share my input on writing short stories and I had a great time doing it. I've reposted my comments here to help any writers thinking about submitting stories for Cliffhanger Books.

-- Kevin Hosey, Senior Project Editor


Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for inviting me to participate in your group. I hope some of you find my input useful.

First off, lets talk about short stories, in general. Currently, I am jumping back and forth between two novels I'm writing (one horror and one sci-fi). While I love working on full-length books, short stories will always be my passion. I love writing them and I love reading them. As a writer, they give me the opportunity to write about different genres and characters within a shorter span of time.

They’re also a great way to break into the fiction market quickly. I'm a bit of a procrastinator (In fact, my wife asked me to take out the trash two hours ago). So while novels can take up to a year or longer to finish (in most cases), I can write and submit a short story in a month or less (if there's nothing good on TV, that is). That means I can have several works (hopefully) published by the time my first book is accepted and released.

Also, by establishing my name in the market through short stories, it will help open doors when I'm sending out queries for my novels. That's because most publishers are more willing to listen to you if you're already published.

Short stories are also a great way to introduce characters you've been thinking about using in a novel. I just edited a collection of paranormal romance stories called "Paramourtal." Two of the authors in the book wrote about characters they plan to use in future novels. By including them in "Paramourtal" first, it will help them test the waters and gauge public reaction to them. If readers like the characters, the authors will forge ahead with the novel. If readers don’t, it will help them determine if the characters need to be changed or dropped all together.

On the flip side, if one of more of your published novels is successful, short stories help keep popular characters in front of the public eye between books. One of my favorite modern fictional characters is Repairman Jack from a series of mystery books by F. Paul Wilson. Every once in awhile Wilson will also publish a Jack short story to keep his fans' interest satiated while he's finishing his next novel.

Another reason why I enjoy short stories is it helps develop my ability to write full-length novels. After all, a novel is basically a series of short stories that work together to tell a more elaborate story. By working to write a short story that tells a believable tale, it helps me practice writing each chapter of a book.

Okay, enough about WHY you should write short stories. Now lets talk about HOW.

I'm sure you've discussed the fundamentals of developing characters, plots, locales, etc. in this forum, so I won't spend time on that. Instead, I'll focus on the challenges of applying those rules to a VERY limited amount of space. So grab your crowbar, a can of grease and let’s proceed.

• KEEP IT SIMPLE. If you're going to try writing short stories, put those three words on a piece of paper and tape it to your computer. It is the single most important aspect of writing effective short stories you will ever learn. (BTW, I would have used the full acronym "K.I.S.S.," but the last time I did that Gene Simmons made me pay him royalties.) Short stories must include all the elements of a well-written novel, but they have to be "squished it into a teeny-tiny living space" (to paraphrase my second favorite genie). That can be a curse or a blessing, depending on whom you talk to. I find it very exciting. Then again, shiny objects tend to draw my attention, too.

Short stories vary in length. Usually they run between 2,500 to 9,000 words. After the 9,000 mark, they lean more toward novellas. There are also a few markets that accept stories shorter than 2,500 words. One market is called Flash Fiction and it's limited to a thousand words or less. It’s very challenging to write an effective story within that framework, but it’s also fun to try. To see examples of flash fiction, check out one of my favorite sites: Speaking of challenging, I just had a short story published that had be written in no more than 25 words(!). It's part of a new collection called "Hint Fiction" from W.W. Norton Publishing.

No matter what length story you need to write, keep in mind that you should never write your story to fit the word limit the very first time. Like with novels, let your creative subconscious take over and flow. Write, write, write until you feel you have a complete story. For example, on a story with an 8,000-word limit, my first draft will generally have 16 to 20,000 words. Then I go back and edit it down to the exact word limit. Just make sure you don’t lose your characters or important plot points along the way.

• LIMIT YOUR STORY. While the story within a novel can last for years, and incorporate several subplots, locations and characters, you don't have that luxury in a short story. Keep your time span brief. Focus on one plot, and keep it at one, two or three main characters at the most. Otherwise, you may not be able to fully develop any of them effectively.

• MAKE EACH WORD COUNT. Since you're limited to a specific number of words, make sure every one is there for a reason. I realize writers love to include detailed, creative descriptions in order to bring the reader into their world. But in a short story, that's the first thing you need to jettison. Don't spend precious space describing the beauty of a sunset or how majestic a castle looks when you should be using that space to move the plot along. Readers won't care how something looks if they have no idea where the story is going. Describe just enough to get the point across, then move on. Also, make the Thesaurus your friend. Don't use three or four words when you can use one.

• DIALOGUE. The rule above goes for dialogue, too. Also, limit how many characters speak at one time. Some publishers will limit the number of lines per story, as well as the number of words. So if you have different characters getting into long bouts of discussions, it may add more lines. Like descriptions, have your characters say what they need to say to get the point across, then move on.

• POV. I always write in third person, especially in my novels. I know that first-person POV is accepted these days, but I find that hard to maintain in a novel. After all, it’s difficult to tell an entire 100,000 word story when you're only able to see things from one viewpoint. But, short stories are different. Since your usually focused on one plot and one character, first-person POV can work just fine. In fact, sometimes it even helps the story.

• READ, READ, READ. Like novels, one of the best ways to learn how to write a short story is to read them. I love reading them almost as much as I love writing them. You should do the same. And make sure you take a look at how each author incorporates the rules and suggestions listed above. Before you know it, you'll be out signing books and hobnobbing at cocktail parties.

Well, that's it for my sage guidance. But before I go, I’d like to add one final bit of advice to the aspiring writers here: SUBMIT, SUBMIT, SUBMIT. AND THEN SUBMIT AGAIN.

If you tend to hesitate to submit your work because you’re nervous about rejection or possible negative feedback, or if for some reason you feel you aren't as talented as the authors who have actually been published, parish the thought. I discovered something a long time ago — the main difference between you and writers who are published is that they sent their work out into the world. Being published is basically 10% talent and 90% luck. You know you're talented, but you can only be lucky if you're in the right place at the right time. After all, publishers can’t publish you if they don't know you exist.

Today there are literally thousands of places you can submit your work -- online and print -- so NEVER stop doing it. Keep writing and keep submitting. Even if it gets rejected, rework it and send it to another publisher. I never stop submitting a rejected story because I hate wasting my hard work. The last thing I'm going to do is toss it in a lonely drawer and leave it there to wither.

Also, I'm a bit of a late starter. I've been writing all my life (short stories, novels, screenplays, speeches, marketing copy), but, I've been focusing on my marketing career for so long I didn’t begin sending out my fiction until a few years ago. Luckily, I had stories published fairly quickly. So, if you're like me and didn’t get into the writing game in your younger years, don’t be discouraged. It's never too late.  

Have a great day, everybody. And good luck!