Monday, September 30, 2013

Man Up to Your Lazy Ways - Writing Short

After reading through many contest entries, I began seeing the same mistakes being made again and again by the writers of short stories wondering why they never win. Or, maybe they come close but can’t quite get there. There are plenty of craft books that will teach you all the elements of good writing, short story writing and mystery story crafting but most people just jump right in and think they can whip out a short story. Much like running a race without warming up first. This is my perspective without a lot of fluff.

Sometimes the path of learning is making the mistake—then seeing what you did wrong so you don’t keep doing it. The important part of that is the “seeing” part, understanding the what you did wrong part—acknowledging it. It would be nice to be told what to do and just do it, but unfortunately as human beings we can be a stubborn species. In Part I we began this process of what not to do. Today we have a little of what to do, concentrating on mystery and suspense.

Part II

      Tell the story – story first, writing second
Some people are plotters (they lay out the story ahead of time) and some pantsers (they write by the seat of their pants—whenever and however it comes). Whichever you are, you still will need to lay the story out in a planned format eventually (or you don’t have a story).

Pantsers lean heavily on being inspired and that can be a good thing if you hold what inspires you in front like a carrot to get your story down. It can be the element that shines through and makes it a winner. But eventually you need to pull it together. Think of it as the bones of the story. Be clear on these points and you will be less likely to get distracted or side-tracked—wandering down that yellow brick road getting distracted by the non-essentials. Build flesh on the story bones (without a lot of unnecessary fat). And who doesn’t love that?

When writing a mystery (or suspense). You will need to decide:
1.      What is the crime (or suspenseful incident)?
2.      Against whom (victim)?
3.      Why was this done (motive)?
4.      How (by what means)?
5.      By whom? (antagonist)
6.      Who reveals the crime, or triumphs in sorting out the suspense (protagonist).

Important to keep in mind: 

  • The hook: up the ratings on your story with a good hook. The hook is the first few sentences or paragraphs that draw the reader right into the fictive dream, without breaking his attention (with an info dump), so the reader wants to know what happens next. It is the appetizer or aperitif that whets the appetite and draws the reader right into STORY (See Part I, A).
It doesn’t have to be some car chase or explosion—any over-the-top action, but it must capture the imagination. Take some time reading first pages of successful short stories, and source out what makes them work so effectively. That will be time well spent.

To be fair, what works for some will not work for all because of subjective reasons—we are not all interested in the same stuff. But, if you can find that commonality we are all interested in, you will rock it.

  • Who discovers the crime? Under what circumstances? (your protagonist? A side-kick? A stranger who ends up important in the story?)
By the way—all characters in a short story should only be there only if there is a need for them to be there. They tend to clutter the landscape if they are not essential to the story.) You can’t have ten people on page one of a short story. We don’t have time to get to know them as we do in a novel, so eliminate them, or don’t give them names and let them be part of the scenery.

  • What clues point to the doer of the deed (or reason for the problem in suspense)? (you must sprinkle carefully throughout and not slam us with an ending we could not foresee coming) Readers of mystery want to figure out the puzzle part and you will fail if you don't provide the clues. The suspense reader wants to remain on the edge and needs clues to keep the suspense alive.
  • Who uncovers/reveals the connections? Why that person? (part of the puzzle or the suspense?)
  • The tie-up. A nice bow at the end to tie up your story can be very effective—corresponding to the hook at the beginning if well done. It can be a twist or the unexpected for greater impact.

The fastest way to learn these tips is to study good short stories. Take the bones apart and see them in isolated pieces (the hook, the ending, track the mystery, the clues, the characters). If you take the time to do this you will quickly learn to effectively write these elements into your story. A short story is not a novel in short form. Get familiar with the form to be effective.

Learn what you are doing wrong or not doing effectively. Man up and admit you can't get away with lazy writing.

Have I missed some important piece? Do you study short stories to see why they work or don't work?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Can't I Get My Short Story Published?

    Short Story Fiction
Part I

After having run a short story contest and read dozens of short story entries through the years, I keep seeing the same mistakes being made over and over. I decided to do a series of articles pointing out the big things that keep people from developing as a writer of short stories and share tips on what a good short story should and should not include.
I shared the dais with Ed Hock (well-known writer for Ellery Queen Magazine) on a short story panel at Left Coast Crime a few years back, won several short story contests and been published in short story anthologies. I certainly don’t think of myself as an expert, but after reading so many short story contest entries, I thought I could share some tips that might help you be more successful.
Whether you are trying to win a contest, or get your short story published, these will up your odds greatly. There is always the subjective element to contest judging and what a publisher leans toward for their platform, but if you have met all the guidelines and your theme is what is asked for, these will up your chances that you will be published or place in the top tier of a contest.
There are no quick to-do’s to accomplish success. But if you are serious about your writing and want to learn to write a good short story, follow these tips for success.
A.     One thing to remember above all else: STORY IS KING. Concentrate on being a good storyteller. It is the premier ability—not how cleverly you write, your beautiful prose or if you have all the commas in the right place (I know I'm going to catch some flak for that one). STORY is what people want to read. They want to be transported and enchanted, not preached at or bogged down by your beautiful or clever words.
B.     Don’t fall in love with your own cleverness.
This is a continuation of A. above. Fancy wording or phrasing is an intrusion into the story and often distracts, if it does not outright kill it. Beautiful prose is a good thing, but not if it interferes with the STORY.
“If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.” Elmore Leonard

Watch the cutesy ideas - some people love to be clever, they come up with cute scenarios or characters or dialogue to the detriment of STORY. They can be too clever for their own good—or the good of the story. Don’t get caught up in trying to be clever and have it come off silly. That is best left to the comedians, not the story tellers (unless you are a comedic storyteller). Though some pull it off, you probably won’t. So make sure the images you are painting are cogent and not silly.
C.    Keep your eye on the ball
When writing a fictional short story you should have only one idea. Don’t include more than the story needs. Don’t ruin your story with a political or social agenda that preaches. It can be spice but should not be a main ingredient. Write a non-fiction essay if that subject is important to you. Just like too much back story, it kills the momentum.
“You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
—George Singleton
So often when I start reading a short story, I almost immediately get hit with a back story info dump. When you want to fill in the reader with a bit of interesting past that you think the reader will be as fascinated with as you are, STOP. If not intrinsic to the story, don’t put it in. It should be directly related to the telling of the story and be integrated artfully, not dumped.
Again—as a reader, I ask, “Do I want to wade through this to read on?” If this information interrupts the flow of the story, I may decide it is not worth it. I want a story, not a history lesson or details of a character's past that I don't need to know. Only layer in what is necessary, when it is necessary.
The reader decides how much patience they have to wait for you to get back into the story. Sometimes the story picks up again relatively quickly and I continue, but sometimes not and I don’t read on. Don’t get lost along the yellow brick road, wandering around pointing out all the interesting things; being distracted by the flying monkeys.
D.    Be sequential  - Don't get your shorts in a bunch.
Keep things in order. Keep your feet moving forward while walking on the earth.
Some writers who are good with prose, stringing together events or ideas in what they think is a nice flow, but they are not sequential in how things happen in space and time. This throws the reader off, taking him out of the moment. Lay out the phrases in a sequential order. Don’t jump back and forth with information. 
Example of distracting structure: (D) Jane tentatively entered the room (B) after suffocating in the closet (A) all afternoon (C) waiting for the intruders to leave. 
Try instead: (A) All afternoon Jane had (B) suffocated in that damn closet (C) waiting for the intruders to leave before she grew brave enough to (D) open the door and ease out. 

Easier to follow when laid out in the order it happened. (A,B,C,D)
If the reader ends up having to re-read your last sentence or two—or five, to get clear on what you just said--to get back on the path you have distracted him off of, he may give up. Remember, one foot in front of the other along the yellow brick road.
And it is better and more interesting to have a variety of sentence lengths to keep the interest going, rather than lo-o-o-ng phrases strung together so we forget what the beginning of that sentence was about. Distracting!

Writing is changing. Structures that may have worked in years past are quickly becoming stagnant. Readers want to read faster, to the point, without a lot of unnecessary words. If you are writing a short story, especially a short short, say it and move on. 

Unlike writing a novel, short stories should be concise and to the point.

Any questions? Maybe you disagree. Put them in the comments and let's discuss it.

More to chew on next post--including writing for mystery/suspense contests.                                                            

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Dance is the Thing

When I picked today's #wanafriday post theme, I thought it would be easy. Click a picture from one of my Pinterest Boards, scribble a few words and voila, I'd be done. Not! The more pictures you have, the harder it is. And I have lots.

I finally decided to concentrate on dance. We all love to move our bodies to music, even if it is only to tap our toes. This first picture speaks for itself. 

When you feel it, you can't stand still.

Whether classically trained 
or culturally evoked, (whew, steamy)

we all get happy when we dance. Ever seen a sad dancer?

So go feel the music and dance today, even if only by yourself in your room, or in your imagination. I bet your mood will improve.

Go visit the other #wanafriday bloggers who have great pictures and comments:

Kim Moser
Liv Rancourt

(More posters with #wanafriday will be added as they post today and tomorrow.)

You might like to visit my board for more pictures on 'photography' and 'dance' here.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dance the Dream Awake - Snippet

I'm joining the Weekend Writing Warriors today to share a snippet of my novel Dance the Dream Awake:

I was flat on my back when I came to with Louisa was looking down at me, her eyes like black pools with no bottom—windows into another time.

“You have something that must be completed, a loose string that must be tied up and imperative to your happiness. We cannot talk now, but soon,” she said while closing my eyelids with the tips of her fingers.

When I opened them again, Nick was kneeling over me, calling my name and patting my cheek. I raised up on one elbow and asked, “What happened?”

“The curanderas were drinking some sort of psychotropic mixture and you barely had a few sips before passing out.”

“Did you pass out, too?”

“No, but it’s been a very interesting two hours.”

DANCE THE DREAM AWAKE: Romantic Suspense with paranormal elements.

Visit and see more snippets by other authors at the Weekend Writing Warrior site. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

All Those Pretty Little Apps

Going into fall, I will start to revive from our hot summer (although today is supposed to be 105) and post seriously, though don't count on me being THAT serious. I have a couple of posts on short story writing coming up, but today's not that day.

I am joining the #wanafriday gals today to post on: A NEW DISCOVERY. I have been very -- I hate to use  the word, busy, it sounds so excuse-laden -- so let's say, I have been very occupied with all kinds of disparate things going on in my life (don't we all?) that wouldn't yield to getting out any kind of serious posts these past several months. One major thing being finishing my next novel--which takes center stage at this point--almost there.

So, what's my new discovery? My new Samsung Galaxy S4. Why would I list such a thing for a post? Well it is not to advertise for Samsung. I suspect all new I-phones and present day androids (or whatever-I'm not tech savvy) do the same sorts of things. It is because it allows me to be me.

I suspect I don't think in sequential ways as other people do. I am more a circuitous thinker--around in circles--no, more like spirals. I often get that, huh? look because I am just off center at times. I know that about myself so those looks don't upset me much anymore. My husband and gal pals understand me and love me anyway so it's all good.

But I digress.

I love all those lovely buttons (well, pictures of buttons) and things to click on--so pretty. I really don't get that distracted, it just makes my life so much easier--and now I have my music! (my last phone had so little memory that putting up the Twitter app drained it of all remaining life--forget getting music)

My critique partner understands -- she tweeted, "How's your love affair with your phone? He cheat on you yet?" (romance writer humor)

That's it. 

So, what's your new discovery? 

I will be adding other #wanafriday posts as the gals post (no men yet):

Liv Rancourt -  Discovery, What Does the Fox Say Crazy new music video from Norway.