Many authors dream about writing the great American novel, but the following post from Claire Guyton reminds us that “No, You Do NOT Have To Write A Novel.” It’s time to celebrate the short story and the short story writer! Click here to read what she has to say. And while you’re at it, check out her blog, Daily Shorty.
Creating characters is always a challenge so I’m thrilled to have a guest post from author Marcy Blesy with hints on how to develop unforgettable characters. Marcy is the author of Prom for One (young adult novella), Confessions of a Corn Kid (middle grade novel), and Am I Like My Daddy? (picture book).
I have been writing children’s books (picture book to young adult) for several years now. I always ask “beta readers” to review various stages of my manuscripts along the way to make sure I am on target with what I am intending to convey through the story. One young adult historical fiction manuscript I wrote (unpublished) elicited responses like this with early drafts:
“Your main character is not likable.”
“She’s too needy. Make her stronger.”
And a middle grade contemporary novel brought these responses:
“I don’t like your main character.”
“She’s thinks too highly of herself.”
After the sting went away, for much of myself often finds itself in the description of the main character (I can’t help it!), I set to work tearing into the manuscripts to make the reader love my main characters as much as I did. I thought about them all the time. They became part of my daily life. Who couldn’t like them? Check out the response to the YA historical fiction manuscript from an editor after my final draft:
“This was a story filled with sweet and likable characters in a time period that was very believable.”
Here is one of many positive reviews I have received from the middle grade contemporary novel (now published on Amazon as Confessions of a Corn Kid).
“…She’s a truly lovable character and I believe middle grade readers will easily relate to her world.”
I personally read stories for the characters. I want to love the characters. I want them to make me laugh and cry and root for them despite their flaws. Learning how to convey what is in my head and heart as I write has taken time, practice, and many, many drafts, but I strive to make readers feel the same way about my characters as I do.
In my most recent publication, Prom for One, showcasing the main characters has to come quickly because the genre is a contemporary short story. In 40 pages there isn’t time to delve too deeply into descriptions as the plot must move along at a fast pace. I started with an idea in my head of how Lexie, the 17-year-old protagonist, felt. Through the plot I tried to show her vulnerabilities about her body image, her fear over her dad being in Afghanistan, and her longing to land the perfect date for her senior prom, the boy who already has the perfect girlfriend.
If a character can’t leave your mind after you’ve read a short story or novel, the author has done something right. That is my goal as an author.
Once again I’ve been lucky to snag a guest post from a wonderful, up-and-coming writer. Read on and discover how author Amaleen Ison learned to love the short story.
Not every story is a novel. Some ideas are just not long enough to sustain fifty-thousand plus words. But are short stories or novellas any less interesting or enjoyable because of their length?
Before I started writing I shunned short stories, considering them unworthy of my time or appreciation. They couldn’t be any good because they were…short. Daft, huh? My aversion began in school. Teachers forced me to read and evaluate short stories I had no interest in. I tarred all shorts with the same brush: boring and educational. It never occurred to me they could be read for pleasure. But I’ve discovered from speaking to family and friends that many people feel the same way.
Having read and written numerous short stories and novellas, I’m here to tell you that short tales can be exciting, filled with enchanting characters that tug at your heartstrings and despicable ones that make your insides shrivel. Mrs. Cruickshank, the antagonist from my novelette, The Trouble with Nightingale, is one of my favourite creations. She’s totally disgusting, and yet it’s her awfulness that entices the reader into the narrative.
Excerpt from The Trouble with Nightingale:
“The sixty-something skank with a too-tight pencil skirt, crooked beehive and five-inch stilettos sucked hard on a Marlboro. Smoke hung about her head like a grotty aura. Scarlet lipstick leaked into the creases around her lips, and canary-yellow eye shadow meandered past her squiggly-pencilled brows, giving the impression she’d applied it all without the use of a mirror.”
Designed to read in one sitting, short stories, novelettes, and novellas usually begin close to the tales conclusion and speed towards the final, and hopefully unexpected, revelation. They’re a whirlwind ride of conflict and unexpected consequences that ramp up emotional energy. With a limited number of words at the author’s disposal, the writing tends to be more concise than in a novel. Every word carefully selected, every sentence either developing character or driving the story towards its conclusion. Even descriptions must pay triple duty, setting scene, creating atmosphere, and foreshadowing plot.
Excerpt from The Trouble with Nightingale:
“Millie prodded the lift’s grimy call button and glanced over her shoulder. Shadows thick with movement skulked beneath the concrete stairwell, darting away from each flicker of the orange security light above her head.
She leaned an ear toward the graffiti-scratched doors and listened for the rattle-clunk of the descending elevator. Like the rest of Nightingale Estate after dark, the mechanism remained eerily quiet.”
So when you’re next perusing the pages of an on-line book store, why not purchase a short story, novelette, or novella? They contain the same elements as a novel but in a bite size package, bursting with concentrated conflict to set your heart rate galloping. Like me, you might be surprised at the incredible characters and adventures you discover.
When seventeen year old Millie Scrubbings moves to new digs on East London’s Nightingale Estate, she believes she’s finally closed the door on a childhood dictated by strangers. But overnight, her peaceful high-rise turns bonkers, and a series of grisly murders leaves Millie frightened and more helpless than ever. Millie must accept her lead role in rescuing Nightingale from its descent into anarchy, or risk all Hell breaking loose.
I recently found myself in the midst of a lively storytelling session with three of my nieces. Five-year-old Peyton told a tale of an evil witch who kidnapped a girl, holding her captive in a mountaintop castle. The story ended with a heroic rescue by the child’s parents as they steered a hot-air balloon up the dark side of the mountain.
Kadance and Anabelle, three and two-years-old respectively, recounted the same story (although with a few missing plot-points, which they made up for with their unlimited enthusiasm).
But it wasn’t until my seven-year-old nephew Jonah sidled into the middle of our group like a professional tale-slinger that the storytelling really took off. He recited accounts of Rumepstilskin and Snow White, complete with dramatic pauses, hand gestures, and well-timed pacing. After working the room for a while, Jonah explained that he’d learned about fairy tales in his second-grade class and promised to share more with us at a later time. (Hats off to his teacher for eliciting so much interest in storytelling and fairy tales!)
The experience reminded me of the timelessness of old stories (mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales) and it got me thinking about a collection of short stories I had stumbled upon recently–Please to See the King (view the: book trailer). For this collection, Kathleen S. Allen found inspiration in traditional English and Irish ballads and spun them into something completely fresh and entertaining.
So I’m very pleased to have the following interview with Kathleen in which she discusses inspiration and discovering something new in the old:
What first attracted you to English and Irish ballads?
I was taking a class at Eastern Michigan University as part of the Master’s in Children’s Literature program called, Ballads, Legends and Folk Tales. I got the inspiration from the professor, Dr. G.B. Cross. He inspired me to write the stories based on ballads we had heard in class. I already knew many ballads because I sang and played English, Irish and Welsh ballads on my folk guitar since I was fifteen. I’ve been fascinated with English/Irish history for ages. My great-grandmother was from Ireland.
I originally wanted to include a CD with the book but I didn’t know anyone who could write an original arrangement for the ballads. At my book signing I did have my daughters, both gifted singers, sing some of the ballads.
What were the challenges you faced in using old source material?
I had to use versions that were in the Public Domain and got permission for using The Child Ballads from the publisher, Dover.
Did you sometimes find it difficult to be original when using a well-known tale for inspiration?
No, I took the song lyrics and went further with them. For example, in the ballad Alison Gross,it is about a witch who promises a man anything he wants, if he will just love her. He refuses, no matter what she offers and she turns him into a worm for rejecting her! In my story, I added a tween sister who witnesses her older brother falling for a witch and his subsequent change into a worm. Another example is Reynardine. It is a song about a “rake”—what we would call a player today— not necessarily a vampire but I made him a vampire who preys on young women. I have the brother of a woman become a vampire hunter. That’s why I say “based on” or “inspired by.”
What books/websites do you recommend to writers who want to learn more about ballads?
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Volume Set . Lots of information in those! And Indiana University has a department on folklore.
Spirited: “Leap Books has summoned some big names in fiction to help put together 13 ghostly stories to support a good cause, with all proceeds to be donated to 826 National. 826 offers free after-school tutoring, workshops, and in-school programs because they believe that ‘strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.'”
From the Daily Telegraph: Over 20 unpublished stories by Anthony Burgess discovered in archive – “A collection of unpublished stories and scripts written by A Clockwork Orange’s Anthony Burgess have been found in the author’s archives.”
A Year of Flash: May 2010 – May 2011: “If you’re new to our site, what you will find is the result of a year’s worth of creative labor and love — on the part of 176 artists and authors who contributed over 1,500 flashes, poems and art.”
The Redwing’s Nest: “The Redwing’s Nest is looking for art and writing from children, pre-school through 8th grade, from around the world.”
4 Ways to Make Every Word Count: “Getting the full value out of every word you write is especially important when it comes to the short story. The key is to recognize the power of a single well-chosen word, and trust it to do its work. As a rule, the more economically you use language, the more powerfully you will deliver your message. Here are four techniques to help you make each word count.”
In her former lives, S.G. Rogers was a lawyer and an actress, but she’s now grown up and settled down as an author. Drawn to fantasy literature, she’s lived in some of the most magical places in America, including La Jolla, California, Asheville, North Carolina, and currently Savannah, Georgia. She resides with her son, husband, and two hairless cats—which look and act quite a bit like dragons. When she’s not writing, she enjoys practicing martial arts. You can find S.G. Rogers at http://childofyden.wordpress.com/ and Twitter: @suzannegrogers. And be sure to check out her new YA fantasy, The Last Great Wizard of Yden .
Man, it hurts to be rejected as a writer.
When that golden door slams in your face, your nose gets squished to one side and your lower lip begins to tremble. Then you go off into a corner, lick your wounds and wonder if you ever had any talent whatsoever.
I heard someone once talk about what makes a good salesperson. The axiom was that a ‘no’ is only a request for more information. I’m not a good salesperson, but my writing has improved from that advice.
If you truly believe you’ve got a good story, even though it may have been rejected for publication somewhere, approach it like a salesperson. Make it better and submit it to another publication. Easy to say, than to do I grant you. I’ve often had what I felt was a spanking great story rejected without explanation. It made me mad.
But you know what they say – don’t get mad, get even. Prove to the world that you’re a good writer. After the pain ebbs a little, go back to the story and figure out how to improve it.
The most common reasons I was rejected were the following: the story took too long to get going (no sense of change or tension), my concept was clichéd (ouch), the reader didn’t care about my characters, my points of view were wobbly, I was engaged in too much telling and not showing, and finally…my story didn’t have the right feel or wasn’t the right fit for the publication.
There’s no excuse for not learning the technical craft of writing (ie: good grammar, spelling, etc.). But after that, the best piece of advice I can give to aspiring authors is to join a weekly critique group. Be prepared to read a few pages from your work-in-progress and listen to the feedback with an open mind. This feedback will help you determine what does or doesn’t work. Some criticisms will be more valuable than others and sometimes you do have to consider the source. But this weekly ‘trial by fire’ will thicken your skin like nothing else.
I’ve gone back to a manuscript and reworked the beginning to make it more compelling. I’ve added details to characters to make the reader care (hint: Teflon-coated protagonists just don’t do the trick). Instead of writing that my main character feels bad about something, I write that she swallowed hard and averted her eyes to hide the tears stinging the backs of her lids. I try to MAKE you care enough to keep reading. Remember, your writing is only precious to you…until you draw someone else into the story long enough to become emotionally invested in the outcome.
Don’t quit. Keep writing. Remember, your next rejection is just a request for more information. Pretty soon, the rejections will come fewer and fewer. And when you get your first acceptance, go outside and yell, “Hello, World! I knocked the door down with my nose!”
~ S.G. Rogers
I have some sad news to share: Drollerie Press–home to mythic fiction–is closing up shop. Read about it here.
And other bits and pieces from the writing world:
Literary Journal Submissions 101 – “To submit your latest short story, essay or poem, you’ll need a cover letter—which is much different from a query. Use these tips from inside a creative writing program to help your letter make the grade.”
How to Let Plot Guide Your Short Story – “The short story is the art of abbreviation. We aren’t dealing with the panorama of life as we might be in a novel. We’re focused. If the novel is the art of the gaze, the short story is the art of the glance. The short story’s illumination must be sudden and should suggest an ongoing life, not present it in full. A short story must immediately pull the reader out of her world and drop her into the world of the story. There’s little time for setup. We begin when everything but the action is over—at the edge of the cliff.”
Kids’Magination Magazine Submission Guidelines – “Kids’Magination Magazine, where kids can enjoy learning and reading, is open for submissions of short stories, flash and microfiction. We want stories suitable for 9 to 14 year-olds – stories that will excite the reader found in all kids, of all ages, youth and adult.”
Pongo Teen Writing – “The Pongo Teen Writing Project is a volunteer, nonprofit program for teens who are on the streets, in jail, or in other ways leading difficult lives. We love to help young people express themselves through poetry, especially teens who have never written before. (And we want to share our teaching techniques with caring adults.”