I think we learned something important today.

Through the workshop, the same criticisms came up over and over again. On a certain level, I wish I had known some of these things long in advance so that I could have done things differently. It would have been nice to have the basics tackled so that they could critique things on a deeper level.

On the other hand, I had the opportunity to read James Gunn’s The Science of Science Fiction Writing before I got there, but didn’t. I was just too stubborn. It’s one thing to have a person you don’t know and haven’t heard of to tell you that you’re doing something wrong. It’s another to have a dozen people all say you’re doing the same things wrong.

So this is what I got from the workshop in terms of things to remember when writing a short story. Many of these also seem to apply to a novel. Keep in mind this is what I came away with, and I may have gotten some of this wrong. If you want it straight from the source, pick up Mr. Gunn’s book. Also, this is what I’ve been taught, not necessarily what I believe. (Or, at least, I’m too stubborn to believe in.) But I’m giving it a shot to see if it improves my writing and my acceptance rate. If you’ve done his workshop or read his book, feel free to correct me.

Also, these are on top of things like “narrative arc” or the dreaded Turkey City Lexicon.

  1. A story should be about something. By “about,” this means that it highlights some aspect of the human experience. And you should be able to summarize what it is about in one sentence. This is not to be confused with the idea behind your story. So, for example, in “A Crazy Kind of Love,” the idea I started with was a courtship between a human and a very non-human entity. But that’s not what the story is “about” as it would be handled in the workshop. I spent a good chunk of talking with Chris McKitterick getting my head around this. If I had to formulate it in hindsight, I’d say it was about how people react to non-standard relationships.
  2. Do not start a story with dialogue. Dialogue is looked down upon broadly. It’s an inefficient way to move plot forward in general, and really frowned on as a way to begin a short story.
  3. The opening paragraph should start at the beginning of the story and introduce the thread of story throughout the piece. Which seems obvious, but we had a lot of people (myself included) who did a lot of introducing things and having characters “walk” or “drive” to the plot. But that’s not where the story actually starts. It starts when you hit the portion of the narrative in which things actually happen connected to the plot. Also, one of the quotes that got used a lot was “the end of the story should be implicit in the opening paragraph.” You open the story with what it’s about, continue what it’s about through the story, and the last paragraph should complete what it’s about. I tried writing a short story while I was in Kansaas and I restarted it at least a half dozen times while trying to meet that goal.
  4. Throughout the story, avoid using the following as much as possible.
    • Exposition. This is the classic “show, don’t tell.” So, with one of the stories I had critiqued, I described someone walking through polluted air in a chemsuit. Instead I was advised to describe the experience of the character walking in the chemsuit: The smell, the heat, etc. I have two additions to this that came from outside viewpoints. In Kij’s workshop I overheard her telling her class that you can build up merit towards being able to slip in a bit of exposition. The more you write without exposition, the less noticable it will be when you slide some exposition in. From another workshop attendee I was told that some books favor exposition more than others. If you want to immerse readers into the book, you avoid exposition. But if you want to make it a lighter read, you may want more exposition. It’s more work to process then sensory input you have from showing-not-telling. Some fluffy summer-reading type books will have less immersive language that requires to to interpret what you are reading.
    • Adjectives and adverbs. When possible, use stronger nouns and verbs. There are not always good alternatives, but try to do it when you can.
    • Dialogue. Like I said above, dialogue is considered an inefficient way to move a story forward. Only include dialogue if it actually accomplishes something. I got nailed pretty hard for this because I love writing dialogue. Another thing I was critiqued on is filler dialogue. All the fiddly bits of conversation that don’t actually say anything. When you answer the phone, you say a lot of things that don’t get straight to the point. It pains me to handwave over those spots. The gap just nags at me. But it doesn’t move the plot forward.
  5. Engage the senses. One of the maxims dropped periodically was, “Nothing exists in the story unless you tie in three senses.”
  6. Every scene should advance the story. I’m prone to putting in scenes that just get people from one scene to the next, or scenes where they just share information or explain stuff. (Having characters have exposition in dialogue is not really avoiding exposition.) If you can summarize such dead space in a sentence, then you probably should.
  7. The end of the story should tie in with the beginning. Just as your opening paragraph should introduce the story, the last paragraph should bring it all home.
  8. In an argument between the author and the reader, the reader always wins. Regardless of what you intended to convey in your story, if people don’t get that from the story then it’s not the reader’s fault. The story should be able to stand on its own merits based off of what is on the page, not some vague intentions on the part of the author that never make it to the page.

Paolo Bacigalupi had said during the conference that he preferred writing short stories over novels because short stories could be honed down to near perfection. They were flawless little gems; deadly and precise stilletos. A novel is such a sprawling beast that you cannot hold it in your head, so there are bound to be lethal flaws in it. But a short story can just be a fast sucker punch.

All this said, there were plenty of short stories that I’ve read in professional venues that did not follow all of the rules listed here. And some of the stories Mr. Gunn said were ready to be submitted to pro markets during the workshop didn’t seem like they followed these rules. But these at least were the common things highlighted in people’s work. I hope you find this helpful. In the end, you are ultimately trying to please an editor. This advice may or may not help you in that regard. I find that it at least forces me to think a lot more about what I’m putting on paper.

11 thoughts on “I think we learned something important today.

  1. rose_lemberg

    Great summary, thanks. I’m adding this to memories.

    Yes, lots of pro-published stuff doesn’t follow the rules, but some of these pro-published stories, I notice now, *do something exceptionally well.* Like voice, or sensory, or emotion, or idea.

  2. admin Post author

    Oh, don’t even start with me. I was in the trenches for two weeks getting this advice and turning that lens onto other stuff I’ve written. Defintely shakes up what you think is good about your writing.

  3. admin Post author

    That’s also true. Those who break the “rules” are often good enough at something that someone enjoyed their book.

  4. rose_lemberg

    Have you read The Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm? I’m just rereading it, and I warmly recommend it. She says so many places focus on teaching plot structure because plot is teachable – other, less tangible, elements might not be.

    How are you doing on your revisions? I’ll be happy to read your puppy story if you want!

  5. admin Post author

    I’ve been trying to beat some stuff into shape in order to meet some deadlines, plus get ready for a writing conference this weekend. (Yes, a second one in quick succession. Poor planning on my part.) But the next stories I’m working to get out the door include a necromancer love story and a vampire-related story. If either of those sound interesting to you, I can send them on to you.

  6. admin Post author

    Okay. I’m about halfway through writing it. I’ll send it off to you as soon as I’m done.

    I’m attending the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association summer conference: http://pnwa.org/

  7. simonepdx

    bolthy wrote: Another thing I was critiqued on is filler dialogue. All the fiddly bits of conversation that don’t actually say anything. When you answer the phone, you say a lot of things that don’t get straight to the point. It pains me to handwave over those spots. The gap just nags at me. But it doesn’t move the plot forward.

    THIS is a big issue for me. Gaps bug me. I’ve started to learn to live with them, and my readers thank me, but damn, it’s hard.

  8. admin Post author

    See, prior to the workshop I didn’t have anyone complain about it. I received compliments for my dialogue sounding authentic and natural. Now I’m paranoid and not sure how to fix it. =P

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