This Friday, I am looking forward to teaching a 90-minute workshop about writing and submitting short stories (concentrating on mystery, fantasy, romance, and other genres) at the South Carolina Book Festival. I plan to start out by focusing on craft, then provide attendees with marketing information and strategies.
In preparation, I’ve been thinking about the short story writing process. What organization is required before you write? Where do you physically write? How do you begin a story? Who do you write about? When do you know you are finished? Why should you submit a short story to a publisher for consideration?
What do you need to begin? Paper, writing instrument, computer, idea? You definitely want to have the tools and the writing space that make you feel comfortable and ready to write. But, you must start with the desire to tell a story.
You may or may not know the story itself, but you have certainty that you want to convey a story to others. This is your motivator, or why you keep returning to write. The reason may be as simple as “because I want to and it needs to be told.” It may be to preserve history; help your child get to sleep; explain something important to the world; respond to a call for submissions; or prove after having read so many [mysteries, romances, fantasies — you fill in the blank] that you can write one, too. The motive or justification is important because it keeps you writing. Some day you may share it with your readers or literary biographer, but that’s a different story from the one you want to tell.
What is your purpose for telling a particular story? What “spark” convinces you that a story must be told? Maybe it’s an idea, a character, a situation, or a place. Perhaps it starts with means (a way to hurt someone) or motive (an emotion such as greed or revenge).
|Columbia Pictures, City Slickers, 1991|
Like Curly explains the secret of life Mitch in City Slickers, “It’s one thing, and you have to figure out what it is.”
I’ve heard writers discuss whether they start with character or plot. Both are important, but after much consideration, I decided that in my own writing I needed to answer the “when” and “where” questions in order to figure out the “who” (character) and “why” (plot).
Think about it: knowing the time period and setting in which a story takes place are crucial components for determining the characters’ backgrounds and the challenges they will face. Whether it’s “once upon a time in a dark forest” or “on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,” the time and setting give a writer the conventions and limitations he must follow in developing a character who can live in, or a plot that can occur during, that period in that location.
When you know the spark of what the story is about, how do you organize what happens? Some people (“plotters”) require an outline or a basic idea of the beginning, middle, and end to begin the writing process. Others (“pantsers”) say that the action flows naturally from the characters’ inclinations and the author simply chronicles the characters’ journey as it happens.
In either process, a writer needs a strategy in order to encourage writing momentum. By definition, to “strategize” is to work out, devise, or chart a course of action to achieve a specific goal.
What is that goal? To produce a story, or a short factual or fictional narrative that has a plot. Plot involves a storyline, sequence, pattern, or series of related incidents that explain why a character starts out in one place and ends in another. Some writers contend that a plot works best if it reflects certain images throughout the story and has an unexpected twist at the end.
|Art Taylor (Photo by Catriona McPherson)|
My friend, award winning short story writer and Assistant Professor at George Mason University, Art Taylor told me that he had his students write a story in five sentences based on story structure. Each sentence described the following: (1) a character, (2) who wants something desperately, (3) but faces an obstacle in obtaining it, (4) and struggles to overcome the challenge, (5) then finally either succeeds or fails.
Ursula K. Le Guin says what makes a story is wanting “to find out what happens next.” See: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/WhatMakesAStory.html. She compares constructing a story with taking a tour through a house. The entrance should be inviting. The reader must be lured inside and shown a unique environment. Because it’s just a visit, the reader can’t stay forever, so the writer must provide an exit. A beginning, middle, and end — each significant and none more important than the others. What is necessary is that the overall experience be memorable.
|Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo by Marion Wood Kolisch)|
Why should a writer submit a story for publication? Finding the appropriate home for a story is as much a part of the strategy as writing the story. To become a published author, you need to understand not only story craft, but also the expectations and requirements of the market, an editor, and your audience. By completing and submitting a short story, you have: (1) accomplished a valuable personal achievement, and (2) learned something about what it takes to be a professional writer.
And, if the story is accepted, you have a writing credit.
Have I covered everything I should teach my students? What would you tell them, and what information and advice would you want to hear if you took the workshop?