The last few months have involved a lot more reading at Unsung Stories. It’s still proving to be a fascinating process full of surprises. But it’s also starting to reveal trends and common problems with submissions.
So rather than making you guess what they are, here are some notes I’ve taken in the last five months. These ones are going to be a bit more specific but, same as before, these are things I see too often. The presence of things like the below makes the delicate bit of my brain you are appealing to shut down.
First of all, to remind you: Short stories are disproportionately hard. Making 2000 words into a complete artefact is difficult. Really difficult. They are not easier because they’re shorter.
Two strands this time: Specific tips and broader principles.
The second section is an attempt to construct a process to help with writing short stories. Like stories, I assume this early version is imperfect. I suspect it will go through many drafts and in time to come look completely different. As with stories, feedback is essential. So all comments are welcome. Encouraged, in fact.
Whether these points make me seem like a belligerent upstart with no respect for literature and the endeavours of authors, or a font of wisdom is up to you to judge. Pornokitsch got it right:
Ellory Sedgewick said: “My selection is made according to the whim of one individual.” Which is empowering, terrifying, and a very good reason that no one should take it to heart.
It’s alchemy, both as an editor and writer. If we’re lucky we’ll make some gold together.
First of all, an idea someone suggested to me which I have tested successfully a number of times: Delete the first two paragraphs of your story. Does it still make sense? Have you removed action essential for understanding the plot? No? Repeat.
It’s galling the first time you do it, but the truth is some of us need to gain momentum when we write. I know writers who plan and start from a perfect first line, but I’m not one of them. I ease in and find my pace maybe 50 words in. Both techniques are valid, of course, but it doesn’t mean I should share those first 50 words.
Some things you should only use four times a year:
- Exclamation marks
- The word ‘suddenly’
- The phrase ‘In that/this moment’
Some things you should use once a year:
- Writers as characters (and that one time had better be damned good *glares at Paul Auster*)
- Angels as characters. It’s worth clarifying on this one, I acknowledge they come with a vast wealth of source material. They are also dripping with classic themes and imagery. Both of these things, however, demonstrate a countless number of precedents. You ain’t first, tread carefully.
Some things you should never use:
- Your first draft (Editing is essential. If you genuinely believe it came out perfect the first time you are wrong)
- Surprise, it was all a dream! AKA, The Dallas Fallacy
- Death as a character. It sounds a cool idea but remember you’re going toe-to-toe with Bergman, Pratchett and Gaiman and other heavyweights. The bar has been set.
- Stories where someone tries to work out if they’re in Heaven or Hell. You know that line you’re thinking of, ‘You look like this because your soul remembers it.’? I’ve seen it.
Concept, Characters, Plot, Message
Perhaps the most common problem I see has its roots in whether the stories are concept driven or not. One of the easy misconceptions when writing short stories is that things like cool ideas or well-executed twists are enough.
The truth is the concept is just one element of what you need. Writing a slick twist is a good skill to learn but with no characters or purpose to the story it remains a technical exercise. Don’t be fooled by the ‘short’ bit, they still need to be complete stories.
So say you have a great idea. Good start. Now build on that and work out the characters who will help you explore it. What is their place in this world you’re creating and how do they relate to each other? Why them and not some one else? Now what drives the story: do the characters act or react, and why is that important? That narrative tension you want to create depends on all of these things, not just one.
Perhaps most importantly of all, what are you trying to communicate? This is the chicken and egg question because you need to answer it first of all, but you can’t answer it until you have a good idea of the above.
Take Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, which hinges on a concept. The idea is strong, but the wider themes come from the combination characters and their relationships, the plot and, critically, how we as readers come to understand these things. The commentary on culpability and justice, contexts of violence in society, dehumanisation as a coping mechanism et al comes from a combination of techniques.
Applying the principles
To use a set of themes I see reasonably often in submissions: Stories where a character (who’s often anonymous) is trapped in a mysterious void- or weight-analogue as a metaphor for depression.
Message (Egg): How hard, lonely and scary depression can be to deal with.
Concept: Now the void-analogue might be pertinent but it’s not illuminating, or enough to sustain a story. Cathartic as a writer, perhaps, but for the story you need to look beyond solely expressing symptoms. You want people to understand what it feels like, and it feels complicated, right? Like it’s tied to every part of your life. The symptoms are just the front line. So there needs to be a narrative, a point of dialogue between writer and reader.
Character: Step one is giving your character an identity. It’s perhaps hardest with this story because it feels so intimate, but that’s precisely the point to embrace fiction. Make it your creation, not you. It is empowering. Now who are you writing about and in what ways are they similar or different from you? How can you take advantage of that?
Plot: A story needs change, progression. It can come full circle if you want, but it has to go somewhere. So is this about onset or the resolution? Is someone slipping into another world or breaking free, throwing that weight off? Did your character do it? Was it done to them? In the same way we deal with the state, when we look beyond the all-consuming moment we can see how it fits together. The potential lies in the context of the moment, not the moment itself.
Message (Chicken): Well that depends on you, now. Maybe it’s about how hard it can be to help introverted people. Maybe it’s an uplifting tale of unexpected charity. Maybe the other place has something to say about our world. Maybe your character has something to tell us. Whatever it is, it will speak of how hard depression can be to deal with, and more.
Got a cool idea with a neat twist/reveal at the end? Great. That’s only part of a story though. Message, concept, characters, plot, message again.