I want to be a published novelist. I’ve been working toward this goal for decades.
But I’ve decided to modify my long-form strategy and work on short stories as well.
I’m going through my links to online resources and compiling the best information I can find into a single document, and I thought maybe you could also use a handy list of excellent articles about the art of the short story:
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Have you had any short stories published? Do you have any on your blog that you’d like to share? Know any good markets for aspiring short story writers? Have any hints that have worked for you? Please share in the comments below.
Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell is not a comprehensive guide for fiction writers; neither is it a book for beginners. For someone who has at least written a complete first draft, it would be helpful in focusing your rewrite. In your subsequent stories, Bell’s technique will save you much grief, because you’ll know what to do in the dreaded middle of the tale.
Bell says there is a pivotal moment of truth at the midpoint of the story that pulls together the entire novel. Here the main character does one of two things:
I was relieved to discover my work-in-perpetual-progress does have this defining moment close to the midpoint, without me knowing Bell’s theory or planning for it. (Phew!) Bell’s research shows that it’s virtually universal in successful books and movies.
Interestingly, Bell discusses this most important information in Chapter 5 of 9. A coincidence?
After Chapter 9, he also includes five helpful writing tips.
Write Your Novel From the Middle is a quick read. I have it on my Kindle, but if you prefer hard copy, it won’t take up much space on your writing books shelf, where it would be a valuable addition. I rate it four stars out of five: what it does, it does well, but it won’t solve all your writing problems, nor does Bell claim it will.
Stephen King reflected on the magnitude of a novel’s first line. “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” he said. “It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Preach it, Steve.
I’m not saying a killer first line will get you an agent, get your book sold, or make it a NYT bestseller. But it sure won’t hurt your chances, and I’d make a case that a book that achieves all the above, more often than not, has a great first line.
Why is that? A first line is a promise to the reader, telling them what kind of book this is. What your voice is. Maybe who the main character is. A good first line will pull a reader into a story.
But how do you do that? Here are some suggestions:
Irony – A contradiction or opposite of some kind, something unexpected.
You just know from those 23 words, how Jane really feels about this ‘universal truth’. And you could guess how she’ll handle it in the book, right? Jane has just shown you her voice – snark, Victorian style. BTW, many will argue to the death that this was the best first line ever written. Let’s not go there – we’ve a lot more to do.
Catalyst – The catalyst is what sets your story in motion. A knock at the door, a phone call, please, just don’t start with a dream!
Comparison – A simile or metaphor.
“Unlike the typical bluesy earthy folksy denim-overalls noble-in-the-face-of-cracker-racism aw shucks Pulitzer-Prize-winning protagonist mojo magic black man, I am not the seventh son of the seventh son of the seventh son.” Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle
“Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
“He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Question – But be careful using this; it’s been used SO much that has to be fresh and intriguing. NO clichés!
Intriguing Character –
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Intriguing Premise – The line itself may not mean much, but after reading it, you HAVE to read on!
“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.”Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Here’s mine, from The Sweet Spot:
The grief counselor told the group to be grateful for what they had left. After lots of considering, Charla Rae decided she was grateful for the bull semen.
I screwed up with that line. I wasn’t going for funny. I didn’t even know it was funny until, when I read it at a writer’s retreat, Tessa Dare snorted coffee through her nose and almost wet her pants. See, bull semen is a legitimate industry – just as racehorse semen is. And Charla Rae owns a ranch where they raise and train bucking bulls. The book is emotional, and deals with grief and forgiveness. So, in this case, the first line breaks its promise to readers (unless they know the bull industry). But you know what? When people meet me, they mention that line. They actually remember it. So I can live with that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines, lately. I may not have the perfect first line when I start a book, but if I don’t, it niggles at the back of my mind until I come up with one – even if it’s after I’ve written half the book!
I knew I didn’t have the best first line for my current WIP – it’s a hard-hitting, right to die novel. Here was my first shot at it:
Funny, how knowing the exact time and place of my death makes me exquisitely aware of being alive.
It’s not bad; it raises a question in the reader’s mind. It’s in the voice of an upper-middle class scientist and professor, which the protagonist is.
But I knew it wasn’t a killer first line. Enter the brilliant Margie Lawson. On a Writer’s Cruise (yes, it was as amazing as that sounds, and they’re having another this year! You can check it out here), she worked with me on my first scene. Together, we came up with the first line:
Today, death rides a bicycle. My bicycle.
So, do you have a favorite first line for us? Either one of yours, or a memorable one from another author?
I was thinking about this the other day while on hold. I was waiting for a break in the music that signaled that someone was going to rescue me from the unending monotony, so when the music would change from stringed instruments music to a pause, I’d get excited…only to have the music start another movement.
And it got me thinking about plotting. I realized there are three things we can learn from good music (and from bad music, in a let’s-avoid-doing-what-they-did sort of way).
Of course, repetition can be a good thing. You can repeat elements in the story, just as a piece of music repeats a motif. You can weave certain themes throughout scenes, or even repeat actions, to where a character demonstrates how much he or she has changed by going for the same walk, facing the same challenge, or recalling the same memory with new information or a changed perspective.
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I’ve been doing this writing thing for a long time.
When I was a young wife in the 1970s, I subscribed to two magazines: Women’s Day and Family Circle. Back in the 70s, they often included fiction. I’d read those short stories and think, I can write better than that. My best friend, Peggy, thought the same thing. We promised each other we’d one day have good stories published in those magazines.
I got serious about writing in the 1990s. A stay-at-home mom with five kids, I thought freelance writing would be my way to contribute financially to my family. (The reality: I never made more than $600 a year with my writing.) However, I did get numerous articles and book reviews published (enough that a newspaper reporter who interviewed my young daughter about her poetry recognized my name from a local parenting magazine). I wrote worship dramas for my church. I also did lots of other writing for free, including a monthly column in a freebie paper. I considered it paying my dues.
I set writing aside to get a job that would actually pay bills. But when I resigned from my teaching position, I fell right back into writing again. My critique group started a blog, and I fell in love with the medium, so I soon launched ARHtistic License.
My dream for my blog was that it would become a gathering place for creative people among all arts. Of course, I love writing, and I especially hope to serve writers. I want to earn a spot on a Best Blogs for Writers list. Most months I include at least one article and/or one guest post or motivational quote related to the craft of writing (a total of 394 to date).
What would you like to know about writing?
Basically, if there is something you want to know about writing, tell me, and I’ll include the topic in a future post. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find one, or several. I have a whole library of writing books at my disposal, and I follow lots of writing websites. I can curate resources for you, or even select good ideas from multiple sources.
So, what would you like to know about writing? Share in the comments below.
I’ve always felt a kinship with Amy Tan. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants; I’m the daughter of German immigrants. She understands going to school and being different from the other kids, having parents who are different. She is the same age as me, and she married her husband around the same time I married mine. I feel like we’ve lived parallel lives.
Amy Tan would be annoyed I presume to know her. In Where the Past Begins, she says, “I am not the subject matter of mothers and daughters or Chinese culture or immigrant experience that most people cite as my domain.” Oops. That’s entirely what I think about her books. So apparently, I’m mistaken. I don’t get her at all. She goes on to explain, “I am a writer compelled by a subconscious neediness to know, which is different from a need to know. The latter can be satisfied with information. The former is a perpetual state of uncertainty and a tether to the past.” Tan writes to understand who she is in this world. She often explores old family stories in her work, copiously researching to learn what is historically accurate and how circumstances impacted the people who came before her.
Where the Past Begins grew out of Tan’s editor, Daniel Halpern’s, suggestion that she write a book about her process, based on “some of the thousands of e-mails I bombarded him with during the writing of The Valley of Amazement.” Tan didn’t like the concept, and I’m glad because the book is so much more; the one chapter that consists of some of the e-mails is not as interesting to me as it was to Mr. Halpern.
The rest of the book blends together the story of her life, her parents’ lives, and even her grandmother’s too-short life; it’s fascinating reading. Much of her writing process is described, especially concerning The Valley of Amazement. I am comforted somehow to learn that Tan suffers from the same insecurities that I and so many of my writer friends do—that the current project will never be finished, that it won’t be good enough…
There are photographs, too. Some of her grandmother, her parents, young Amy and her brothers, and pictures Tan has drawn. I love the pictures of Amy in the 1950s; they could have been me in my fluffy-skirted dresses. Her Christmas picture shows a tree decorated just like the ones from my childhood, with individual strands of tinsel meticulously hung from the branches; my family owned a TV just like the one standing in the corner of the Tan living room.
Tan details some of the devastating pain in her life: the deaths of her older brother and her father from brain tumors within six months of each other when she was a teen; her mother’s battles with mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease.
There are surprises, as well: I didn’t know Tan has a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters and Ph.D. in linguistics.
Reading Where the Past Begins makes me want to reread her earlier (2003) memoir, The Opposite of Fate. I suspect some of the same facts appeared there, but I’d forgotten.
Where the Past Begins is well worth the investment of time and money, especially if you like Tan’s novels. As a lily-white American of European heritage, I found reading about Tan’s family history compelling and enlightening.