How to Think of Short Stories Sunday, May 8 2011 

This month is National Short Story month.  For many authors, writing a short story is a bigger challenge than writing a novel.

Much of our writing education is geared towards novels for economic, as well as artistic reasons. And if we get serious about our writing, our dream is most often to write the great American novel, not to come up with short stories.

However, short stories can open opportunities to writers, by providing additional markets for their work and helping them hone their writing craft.  In addition, in the digital age, some authors have taken to selling their short stories as 99 cent ebooks, which can make the whole excercise far more profitable:

How can we get our mind around writing short stories? There are several key ways to think of them:

1) Short Stories Are All Around You

When we think of short stories, we may think of High School English assignments when we were required to read or write them.  However, the truth is that they’re all around us.

If you watch a regular scripted 30-60 minute TV show, you’re watching a short story on film.  We grew up being read short stories with characters such as Dr. Seuss when we were young. When we were a little older, we may have read books such as, Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain which were collections of short stories.  Some songs are even brief short stories.

Beyond fiction, and tell each other short stories all the time. We say, “I had the worst experience at this restaurant…” And we start off into a short story.  Or, “Let me tell you what happened when my grandchild came over…” Some of these, if written down might be interesting, but the point is that we tell them.  And so one type of short story, actually takes a small incident that has a big impact on the lives of our characters.

2) Short Stories are Experiments

Short stories offer a great opportunity to experiment in your writing, because you’re not committing to doing a whole novel. You can try a story on for size.

Some ways you can experiment with short stories include having a different narrator or point of view character. This can include having a first person narrator if you always write your novels  in the third person. If you want to have a  POV character of a different gender or ethnic background than you usually write, this can be a great place to experiment. You could try writing a story with a blind man as a point of view character.

You can also experiment with different genres than you normally write. if you want to branch out

Some of your experiments may have positive results such as published short stories. You may even discover something that can be used in a later novel. For example, the solution to Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon was actually borrowed from a short story Hammett wrote in the 1920s.

3) Short  Stories are Opportunities to Tell Your Character’s Backstory

Well-developed characters in novels often have had very interesting lives.  If this backstory is really interesting, it could make a very good short story.

If one of our characters mentions that he was a sea captain during World War II, there may be a short story in that part of his life. If he tells our hero, “I was playing AA ball for the Yankees and I got word that my contract wasn’t being renewed. My life was over. I went out back with the shotgun and would have blown my head off except…”

This could easily be expanded into a short story with the speaker as the hero.

However, you find your inspiration, writing short stories can be rewarding to your writing career.

The Opportunity of Ebooks Friday, Nov 5 2010 

This is the first in a series of posts from Idahope members on the Book Extravaganza and the Booktober Fest.

Imagine being able to reach more readers and make more money on a book by cutting your price? With normal books, this is not going to happen. But ebooks, may be another story.

One of the highlights of my visit to the Friday night session of the Book Extravaganza was Stonehouse Publisher Aaron Patterson explaining how his ebook’s popularity and profit rose as he cut its price.  Patterson, at one point cut the ebook’s price down to 99 cents. He’s since increased it to $2.99, a happy medium in the ebook world between profitability and high sales when you consider that Amazon pays a 70% royalty on each ebook sold at the $2.99 price.

This is great for both writers and readers. People can read books for far less than they’d pay for a paper version and writers are still able to make a good profit, and by having an inexpensive ebook version of a past release, the writer is able to compete with people selling used copies of their book which don’t net the writer any new royalties.

I saw another Ebook author speak and became curious about his writing. I went on to Amazon and found that he had something called a “digital short” for sale. This digital short, it turns out, was a short story turned into a 99 cent ebook.

The digital short gave me a chance for a low risk sampling of the author’s work. He also included an excerpt from his novel at the end of the short, so if I liked the short story, I’d then have reason to take the next step and buy his  novel as well.

This is great for readers as they can sample a writer’s work and get a taste of their style and storytelling method in a complete story for only 99 cents.

For writers, this can be a great way to introduce readers to your work.  For those who are a published, a short that bears some similarity to their novel in style can be used to whet readers appetites for more with a sample that catches their interest.

It’ll be interesting to see how widely these practices are adopted as the future of ebooks takes shape.

Tips for Giving a Successful Critique Monday, Apr 19 2010 

Being a large man, I’ve crushed many things by mistake. It’s quite embarrassing. But I’ll never forget when I accidentally crushed another writer in a group critique. I could tell as we were delivering our critiques that we were loading him down with an Empire State Building of criticism that he couldn’t withstand.

The right reason to critique a manuscript is to help others get better. After hearing Jon Colson’s speech at our recent writer’s conference, I realized we can’t do that by being like Simon Cowell. Here are some guidelines for giving critiques in large groups:

1) Focus on Specific Issues

The show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is notable because viewers get to see a house built from the ground up. That model of a house being built should drive our group critique. Books, like houses, are built over a process of time. If writers are doing their job in submitting their critiques and asking for the specific issues they want you to critique for, then give them what they asked for and no more.

You may notice a manuscript needs a lot of work, but your job isn’t to fix the whole manuscript. Your job is to help with the specific areas of feedback they requested. If they’re asking you to help them put up the side wall, trust they’ll figure out the house needs plumbing. If they do indicate they think this is the book’s only issue, and love irresistibly compels you to confront them, please wait until after the meeting is over and gently tell them the truth in private. Public humiliation never helps anyone.

2) Give a Thoughtful Critique

Be specific in your critique and avoid using generalities. For example, these cut and paste critiques are not helpful:

“You need more description.”

“You need to work on having less telling.”

Instead, try:

“We spent the whole six pages in that kitchen, but we have no idea what it looks like. What color is the chair they’re sitting in? Is there wallpaper? What makes this kitchen unique?”

“Instead of telling us, ‘Joe is angry,’ show him raising his voice, clinching his fists, and with his cheeks turning red. Let’s hear him use angry words.”

If possible, before you share your critique, say it out loud so you can hear how the critique will sound to the writer. This is doubly important if you’re e-mailing a critique. The written word can come off as harsh and bossy to the recipient. Say it out loud to ensure you have an appropriate tone.

3) Provide Positive Feedback

Point out the good in the manuscript and the things you like. Particularly, if you’ve critiqued a manuscript for an issue before, remark on what they’ve improved. Praise what’s good. This encourages them to be better writers.

4) Don’t Argue

It is up to the writer whether to accept or reject your advice. Having provided your advice, don’t argue with the writer or try to push them into doing it your way. Some personalities tend towards arguments; don’t get hooked.

Be careful not to command writers. “I hate this! Change it!” is beyond your scope unless you’re an editor of a large press able to offer a generous advance. If you are, please e-mail me at this address. Otherwise, be respectful of the writer’s vision. Suggest ways to make their vision work and leave whether they implement it up to them.

Tips for Getting a Successful Critique Thursday, Apr 1 2010 

“Group Critique.” The words can send shivers down a writer’s spine. Any writer who has been doing group critiques for any amount of time has been through group critiques that have been as pleasant and helpful as getting dental work while delivering a public speech.

How do you ensure your group critique experience is positive? Let’s take a look:

1)      Know what you want and ask for it

Never send an item in for critique simply because it’s time to do critiques. Only submit if you really want help with your work.

In general, doing a line-by-line critique in a group session is not advisable. It demands a lot of time from those who are critiquing, and you may not get the feedback you really need. It’s quite easy to get overwhelmed by too much at once in a group setting.

So ask your fellow participants to focus on a known issue or two that you have. For example, a few potential issues to ask for assistance on are:

Dialogue

  • Point of View
  • Description
  • Realism
  • Flow
  • Show, don’t Tell

 If you don’t yet know the weaknesses of the project, ask a question that invites open, but limited feedback such as, “What did you like best, what is the biggest weakness, and how do I make it better?”

 Your aim in asking for a critique should not be to simply make the section being critiqued better, but to obtain principles that will help you improve as a writer.

 2)      Provide clean copies to the group

 In a group critique, you shouldn’t be critiqued on grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. but it is reasonable to expect you’ve been over your copy a couple times and removed glaring mistakes that would distract your fellow writers from the issue at hand. Doing this shows professionalism and courtesy and sets the mood for a good critique.

 3)      Respect Time and Space Requirements

 Time and space limits are set to make sure everyone has the time to review all the critiqued items and provide thoughtful feedback. So be a professional and follow them. If  manuscripts are to be submitted within a week of the meeting, have your work in well in advance or, at minimum, the day of the deadline, not the day after the deadline. Likewise, if you’re asked to provide eight pages to critique, submit eight pages, not thirty pages.

       4) Remember, you asked for it!

 As you get feedback from your fellow writers, take their opinions into consideration. Ask for clarification if you have a question, but let them provide their feedback.

 Don’t argue or try to correct their understanding of your story for the sake of defending your work. If you do honestly want help better communicating “what it really means” in the book, consider again the time limitations. Otherwise, simply accept that not every book is everyone’s cup of tea and respect that they may not be your audience.

 Take notes and be gracious even if a critique isn’t delivered graciously. Becoming upset over the critique won’t improve their opinion of your book or make you feel better.

Remember, in submitting your manuscript for critique, you do not hand the group control of the book. You don’t have to convince them. You can disregard advice you find unhelpful and accept advice that you do find helpful. Take the meat and throw away the bones. That’s the key to getting the most out of a critique.

Adam Graham is a columnist and President of Idahope Writers.