Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Strategizing Story

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: 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?

Many thanks!


Jim Jackson said...

As a pantser, I am jealous of those who can strategize and plot their way to the perfect placement of the perfectly written story. I am (so far) hopeless in that regard.

I think of a story I want to tell, write it (badly at first and then progressively better through rewrites) and then I wonder to whom I should send it. All of which may suggest why I have so few short stories published.

I’m sure that you and your students will have a wonderful time at your session.

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

Most of my short stories have a circular structure--they start & end in just about the same place, having resolved (or not resolved) a conflict along the way. They pretty much appear to me as nearly fully developed entities, even if I'm not aware of it until I write them out. Sometimes I feel like the characters have taken over my typing fingers & I am channeling them, not writing a story myself.

Some of my stories are character studies, or variation in a larger story developing in my mind. I view them as similar to a painter's sketches--he/she may draw several versions of, say, a bridge to be included in a larger work, and each one of those has value in itself, in addition to being part of a larger picture.

Other times a short story may be a snapshot of a character in a time and place. Admittedly, some of those turn out to be only a picture, without enough action to really be a story, but my writing critique group points that out to me if I miss it myself.

In most of my writing, I am somewhat compelled to present situations and characters that I fell are underrepresented or misunderstood in most literature, or to show how a sincere person can go completely off track without realizing it.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I like to begin by stating that we can all be writers because we are all unique individuals who have at least one good story to tell.

carla said...

I love the exercise from Art Taylor. It would also be useful in writing a pitch or very brief synopsis.
Another important point: Just write. This is so critical. Even if what you write you toss away, the process will help you get to your story.

Shari Randall said...

Wish I could be at your workshop! I'm just figuring out who I am as a writer (pantser, plotter). I think of myself as a "scenester" since I write in scenes and then put them together, but sometimes the framework takes awhile to emerge....
So these exercises from Art and Ursula LeGuin are so helpful. Thank you, Paula (and Art and Ursula)!

Gloria Alden said...

I don't know how I could improve on your advice, Paula. What you presented is excellent. For me, I usually write towards a certain theme for an anthology. However, after I get an idea for plot I need a character who speaks to me. But still until I get that first line, I have difficulty starting. And then like KM, my characters sort of take over. For me the character is the mover of the story.

Dorothy St. James/Dorothy McFalls said...

It sounds like a great workshop! I know the students will learn tons from you. When I write, whether short or long, I plot first. Even if the idea came from a character, I then have to figure out my plot.

What I think would be helpful to me, and anyone listening to your presentation, is to tell them how you decide where to submit your short story after it's written. Also, do you pick where you'd like to sell it and write what you think would work for them? Or do you write it first and then decide where it would fit well?

I'm sorry I'm going to miss this, Paula. I look forward to seeing you on Sunday and hearing how it went!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you for all the wonderful responses and great suggestions. Jacqueline, that's a wonderful opening line.

I need to make a correction: Art suggested writing a story with 6 sentences, not 5. The topics for each sentence would be:
(1) character, (2) desire, (3) action, (4) conflict, (5) climax, and (6)resolution.

How could I forget climax?

Thanks, Art. I appreciate your excellent advice.

Just to let my students know, during the workshop, everyone will be given the opportunity to write a short story. Maybe two!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paula, for the great post—and for including me here too! It's been great exchanging ideas with you offline as well as here, and I hope that the workshop students will appreciate all the hard work and expertise that you're bringing them!

Warren Bull said...

Nancy Pickard talks about starting at the point when a life-changing event occurs.

Kara Cerise said...

Excellent advice, Paula. I think reading short stories is helpful, too.

su said...

It sounds like it's going to be a great workshop Paula. I'm sorry to miss it. One other little thing you might mention is to remind your students there is no such thing as perfection. It's more important to get something down, anything rather than to try write the perfect sentence/paragraph/story. And read, read, read...nothing is more inspiring than reading other authors. Good luck!

E. B. Davis said...

My main character and plot come first. Usually, who the character is will determine the time and place, but then the plot will determine where she has to go or be to solve the mystery. You'll do great, Paula. Take a look at your own shorts. Use a few as examples since you know how you constructed them. Have fun!

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks so much for all the great advice. I truly appreciate it!

Grace Topping said...

Your approach sounds right on target. Wish I could be in the class. You might add a carrot at the beginning, stating that there is a big market out there for short stories and then name just a few sources. Most people don't know where they could go to get their short story published. Have fun.

B.K. Stevens said...

Hi, Paula--
I really enjoyed your post. One other thing you might mention to your students is the importance of observation. Sometimes, I've gotten story ideas just by noticing strangers in restaurants, stores, and so on, and imagining an explanation for something odd about their behavior or appearance. When I taught creative writing, I sometimes had students observe a stranger in a public place, take notes, and then write a story with that stranger as the main character. Anyway, it sounds like a great class!