Thursday, February 14, 2013

Write Short - Think Big

Not long ago I was chatting with Liv Rancourt about a short story panel I was on at my local chapter of Sisters-in-Crime. I've read and enjoyed many of her stories and thought you might be interested in what she has to say about her experience on writing and publishing her short stories.  

So, welcome Liv Rancourt, short story writer extraordinaire.  

Writing Short Stories

Congratulations, Cora, on your Sisters In Crime panel experience. I know that was a lot of fun, both for you and your audience! And thanks for the invite to be a guest on your blog. 

You asked about my experience writing short stories, and since I did a lot of that in the last year, I’m happy to share what I learned with your readers.

Between December of 2011 and December of 2012, I had eight short stories published with two different publishers. Four of them are in anthologies from Still Moments Publishing, and the other four were published independently by editor Rayne Hall in her Ten Tales series. Each project was different, and each one taught me something I’m now applying to my longer WIP.

I basically treated last year as graduate school, and thought of every short story as an assignment. I wrote paranormal, historical, horror, and contemporary romance, in both first and close third person points of view. I learned that working from the POV of a 15 year old boy in 1810 New Orleans is a huge challenge. I learned I don’t know diddly-squat about the standard tropes for horror writing. And I learned how important it is to limit the number of characters in even a longish, 10,000 word short story, or you will lose and confuse your readers.

On the plus side, I realized how comfortable I am writing contemporary romance from a snappy first-person POV. I can write from third person if the piece calls for it, but it’s nice to know I have a go-to skill that almost always works.

My story The Santa Drag first appeared in the Christmas Treats: Santa’s Nice List anthology in December 2011, and then was re-released as a stand-alone $0.99 short in December 2012. In between, I got to make another editing pass, which was a cool way of seeing how much I’d learned.  I trimmed several hundred words from a 6000 word short story because I realized they didn’t add much to the plot. Some bits got reconfigured and worked back in, but overall the stand-alone version is leaner and more fun to read.
IMHO  ;)

That experience illustrates one of the keys to writing a short story. You don’t have the luxury of 100,000 words to build your world and develop your characters. Every-Single-Word-Has-To-Count. Choose details that both reinforce your scene and illustrate your character. Trim unnecessary dialogue tags, and don’t tell the reader what they already know. Edit like a demon and don’t waste space.

Another key is to keep your plot tightly focused. Deal with one main conflict, with maybe one or two secondary threads, and limit the number of characters involved.  A cast of thousands – or even ten – won’ fit into five thousand words. If you’re struggling with this part, then the story might be too big for the format, and you may need to think in terms of a novella-length piece or even a novel.

Most compelling plots are built around a model like Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. You can do that with short stories, too, but you only have space to show some of the steps. Reference the other steps, so that your reader has a sense that your story has a bigger context as you hone in on one section of the model’s arc.

Like everything in writing, “the rules” aren’t cast in stone. These are just some of the tools I picked up that I hope will help you in your work. If there’s a specific technique you want to try – writing from a different POV or using a historical setting, for example – put it in a short story. You’ll have the chance to practice without committing hours of time and energy to a project that might just end up as a learning exercise.

Short stories and novellas are popular e-book sellers, so it’s a format that’s worth exploring for its own sake. If I apply the correct persuasive techniques to my beta readers, I can turn around a 5000 story in under two weeks. (I’m lucky that most of them will work for chocolate, or sometimes cocktails.) Some ideas simply work better in a short format, and I keep a list of possibilities handy, to work on between more extensive projects. Writing short stories takes discipline, but it’s fun and well worth the effort.


Liv Rancourt writes paranormal and romance, often at the same time. She lives with her husband, two teenagers, two cats and one wayward puppy. She likes to create stories that have happy endings, and finds it is a good way to balance her other job in the neonatal intensive care unit. 

Liv can be found on-line at:
Website & blog (www.livrancourt.com


Blurb:
Molly, a forty-something single mom, tangles with the wrong guy and gets a hell of a hickey. That blotch is really a demon’s mark, and she’ll have to face the three things that scare her most to get rid of it. First, Molly loses her job and then she has a near-sex experience with her philandering, not-quite-ex-husband. Worst of all, she has to sit by a hospital bed, wondering if her son is ever going to wake up.

The Powers That Be assign Cass to help her. He’s an angel who’s trying to earn a seat in the celestial choir by helping out a human in need. Vanquishing the demon would be his ticket up, but only if he plays by the rules. He’ll never earn his wings if he loses his heart to the lovely Molly. But she has even bigger things to worry about. She stands to lose her soul.

Forever And Ever, Amen is available from Crimson RomanceAmazonBarnes & Noble, and ARe

Liv Rancourt
Writer
Let's have a devil of a good time!



17 comments:

Liv said...

Thanks for having me, Cora! And I hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day ;)

Kris Lynn said...

Thanks Liv and Cora for this informative post. I love to read a good short story and have written two stories so far - not sure if they're so good, but after reading your post, I realize I learned something about writing by penning them. I appreciate that you made your year of short-story writing a "graduate" course. A refreshing, and inspiring way to think about the struggle to improve craft. I'll just tell my self I'm busy taking class - doing my homework to be a better writer!

Liv said...

Cool! See, it's all in how you frame it. All the best with your work, Kris, and have a Happy Valentine's Day!

elizabethfais said...

Wow, Liv! You were busy this past year. Congratulations on publishing 8 short stories! For a couple of years I participated in a writing group that focused on short stories. I agree with your assessment. You really do have to focus the story and make every word count. I never felt that I mastered short stories. I'll have to go back (some day, between novels) and see if I can improve in that area.

Liv said...

I wouldn't say I mastered the format, exactly, but I definitely have a better handle on it. And yeah, working in a short story between novels is like having one of those lovely little dishes of fruit ice between heavy main courses.
Thanks Elizabeth!
Happy Valentine's Day...

Jodi Lea Stewart said...

Congratulations on your amazing productivity this year, Liv! You've inspired me to look at short-story writing again!I think the same rules you mention can *and should* be applied to our novels...make every word count, trim the dialogue tags, etc. Am I a roaring success at doing it? Is the Pope Southern Baptist? Not! But,I'm still trying!

Cora said...

Thanks for talking about short stories today. I try to write at least one short story a year (for a contest or two). I find that short stories require you to learn to use every word effectively, to cut every word that is not absolutely necessary--to be succinct. When you write for a contest with a limited word count, you are forced to be clear and concise with every word, which only helps with all other writing.

You had a very good year, Liv. Hope you continue to be prolific with short stories.

catherinemjohnson said...

Congrats on all those stories, Liv. Great post!

Sally Carpenter said...

Excellent observations. You're quite gifted in that you can write in various genres and POVs. Last year I took a break from writing a mystery novel to knock off a short story for an anthology. The POV and tone was different from my book and made a nice change of pace and, as you said, a learning experience.

Tami Clayton said...

You are a writing machine, Liv! (So says the writer struggling to finish even one manuscript...)

Cora said...

You touch on another good point, Tami. A novel takes a good chunk of time. With writing a short story you get to have immediate satisfaction of a job completed. It is also a wonderful opportunity to explore any genre you might have thought about trying but didn't want to spend months on to write within the structure of a novel.

Liv said...

It's a worthy goal, but I think it's a lot harder to keep the necessary focus for the length of an entire novel, Jodi. That's why some of us are Hemingway and some of us, well...
;)

Liv said...

Thanks Catherine! I'm glad you found it helpful.

Liv said...

Well, and I think when you switch things up every so often, you bring new eyes to your main project. Thanks for the comment, Sally.

Liv said...

And my house is a mess, and my husband & kids are amazingly tolerant.
;)
Thanks, Tami! I'm looking forward to reading that manuscript when you get it done...

HughesWriter said...

Great post, Liv. I think the whole trimming the fat is what's keeping me from submitting the sequel to TORN. Though not a short story, I've found myself wanting to make every word count. It's very daunting in a novel length work, I cannot imagine how you manage with short story concepts! Kudos to you!

Liv said...

I must have a short attention span, Christine :) I have trouble getting the word count UP for a novel-length piece. Thanks for stopping by...