Writing short stories

daisiesAfter some of the responses I got from my last post, I started to get the impression that people might actually struggle with writing short stories. Until another writer pointed it out to me, I kind of always thought that short stories were easy for everyone. Ya know, something a writer could crank out in an afternoon, no problem.

I guess I developed that point of view because of my writing background. While most writers started out writing simplistic stories when they were kids, I started out writing poetry as a kid. See, my family is very Irish, and it’s a family tradition that all the girls learn to write poetry or lyrics. So, while everyone else was writing daring tales of their heroic pet cat, I was twisting words to describe a blue sky or the shape of a cloud.

In poetry word choice is everything. Poets don’t have the luxury to spend 40 pages describing something. They need to say what they mean in a word, maybe two. Because their format is so confining, each word has so much more weight then what you might find in something bigger like a novel. Though writing poetry can be tricky and even frustrating sometimes, the one good thing is that it makes a writer’s vocabulary explode! If you ever find yourself at a loss for words while writing, definitely try writing poetry for a few hours. IMG_0302

I hope you see where I’m going with this ramble. That’s right, the exact same skills a poet uses in writing poetry are also used to write short stories. Just like in poetry, in short stories every word has to have a lot of meaning. No filler words!

Here’s an example. In a novel a person’s voice might be described like this:

She had a voice that was pleasant for everyone to hear. It was high, but not so high that it was screechy, but not so low it sounded like a squawk. It was like listening to music even though she wasn’t singing.

While in a short story it would be described more like this:

Her voice chimed like a glass bell.

This word choice is important for two reasons. One, it’s a lot shorter and fits into the smaller format. And two, the words do double duty.

IMG_0230The first critical words are “chimed” and “bell”. What kind of imagery do they bring up? Well, where do bells chime? In churches, temples, during celebrations. Bells have been traditionally used for purification. So maybe this character is pure, innocent, or even holy in some way. The second critical word is “glass“. What kind of imagery does glass create? Glass is fragile, delicate, something you have to be gentle with. So maybe this character is fragile is some way.

These three simple words, chimed, glass, bell, described her voice but also described the character’s personality. In a short story, these three words are probably the only description I would give for this character. Even if she’s the main character. In fact, most of my short stories have no description of the main character. The MCs are only defined by their names and by the way they act.

I know this is only one element of writing a short story, and it takes a lot more skills and techniques to write a good story in a small format, but word choice is a really import skill. I hope this is helpful for all you short story strugglers out there. And if I could only give one little tip for you to take away with you, it would be to write more poetry. Really, it’s a great warm-up before writing short format anything.corrected homework with green check mark

Do you have any short story writing tips to share? I’d love to hear about them, please leave them in the comments area below.

Short story or first draft?

inside pages of the book A curious incident of the dog in the night time

Recently I’ve been noticing a trend. More and more writers have been writing short stories and then blowing them up into full novels instead of writing first drafts.

I have to admit, I’ve done that before too. In my novel, It’s a stony road through Hell, it was originally written as a short story and then years later I re-wrote it as a short-ish novel. It made a surprisingly high quality final piece. Usually I have to re-write a piece over and over again just to get it to be kind of readable, but from the short story starting point it came together fairly easily.

its-a-stony-road-through-hell-coverThe writer I heard about most recently doing this is Isaac Marion, author of Warm Bodies. Evidently, the story was originally written as a seven page short story (practically a flash fiction) and it only really covered what an internal monologue might be for a zombie. Later, he expanded on it to create an entire post-apocalyptic world for the main characters to live in. I think it’s amazing how he took just seven pages and turned it into a 239 page novel.

My short story of ISRTH started out significantly longer. I’m not sure I even doubled my word count.

But it really shows what you can do, if you have a good starting point. See, I think that’s the whole point of starting with a short story. You get to start with something that’s already good.

Writing a novel is hard. Writing a good novel is even harder. They’re big, they’re meandering, and they spiral out of control quickly. How novels are usually written is a writer writes the first draft and it’s terrible. Let’s face it, even first drafts from great authors are pretty bad. Then the writer is supposed to take this bad writing and re-write it over and over again until it’s good. The problem is your starting point is with a whole lot of bad writing.

IMG_0263In contrast, short stories are easy to write because they are so much smaller. It’s kind of like the difference between wrestling with a tiger vs. wrestling with a kitten. Best of all, short stories are easy to write well the first time around. So, if you start with a short story, you might not have much to work with, but it’s all high quality. All you have to do is expand on it.

Have you ever blown up a short story into a novel? Was it a blow-out or did it turn nuclear? Please share in the comments area below.

IMG_0261

When are character names too unusual?

caution tape over doorI seem to like the most unusual names for my characters. In an earlier novel I was working on I had a female protagonist named Hero. In Driftwood Island, I had Alley, as in the small side street. Along with her friends Cherry and Champaign. Even in Monster in the Basement, which out of all my books has the most average names,  I still had Archer Lee Grant Garfield Haversham the third. Though, he just went by Archer.

I’m not really sure why I like odd names for my characters. Maybe because I personally have such an average, forgettable name?

IMG_0048

Like a tiny island lost at sea, is the character name way out there?

Whatever the reason, I often go tiptoeing along the borderline of “too weird to work” for my character names. And in the book I’m working on now, I have a character that is hanging on a cliff’s edge by a fingernail. At any moment, ready to drop into the “Just too weird to be believable” category.

He’s the co-protagonist and love interest, a snobby vampire librarian, and his full name is Saint Crispin Saint Paul Saint James. Of course, typing all that out throughout the manuscript would be a royal pain so he’s Crispin St. James for short.

I don’t know why, but part of me really likes the name. There’s something old fashioned, and formal about it. I can imagine that name popping up in a Shakespearian play. And another plus about it is I can’t think of a single other book character that has a name like Crispin. Original names stick out a bit, don’t they?

Then there is the question of, how much weird is too weird? To me a name like Saint Crispin Saint Paul Saint James isn’t that unusual, but to others, it might be way out there. It’s always a difficult balance between expressing your own artistic tastes and writing something readers would like. My rule of thumb is: Name them whatever the heck I want, and then let the Beta readers comment if they think the name is too distracting.

glass colors frame

Character names make things colorful!

How do you know when you’re being too artistic with your character naming? Have there ever been unusual names that you just loved but couldn’t use? Please share them in the comments area below.