Going Short

Here’s a grammar thing in my occasional (rare) remarks about grammar and usage. I just heard this mistake in an online poetry reading. You may know what’s correct, but if not, here it is. It isn’t a happy thing, but we writers should get it right. The past tense of hang when it comes to people is hanged. This from Merriam-Webster: “The Salem “witches” were not burned; they were hanged.” Otherwise, it’s hung.  For our purposes, though, there may be exceptions. If I were writing about elves, for example, I’d use hanged (although the idea of hanged elves is horrible). Same if the characters in my story were talking animals.

I have another less depressing one for the next post if I remember.

On December 12, 2019, Whimsical Wordsmith wrote, I was wondering how to keep stories short. I often come up with ideas for stories that I like and want to work on, and I dive right in. But the plots and subplots become more and more complex, and suddenly, I have a novel on my hands. I’m already in the process of writing a novel at the moment and can’t tackle another right now; how do I keep short stories short?

A conversation developed.

Katie W.: What you can do (and what I have done several times) is write a single episode in the larger story. Novel chapters are usually pretty good lengths for short stories. I’m not so good at incorporating the right bits of backstory to make it make sense to other people, but it might work a bit better for you. If you still want to try to write the entire story, you could try writing it from a summarizing standpoint, like authors do when they recap what’s happened in earlier books. It would make it more formal, possibly too formal for your taste, but it might work.

Whimsical Wordsmith: Thanks for the suggestion, that will definitely help. Maybe I didn’t word the rest of my question exactly right though:

How do I make short stories that stay short, but still include the important details? I try to incorporate the backstory, but it comes off as the character just spilling information to the character for no exact reason (I’m used to information being revealed through events and little snippets, but it becomes a little too long and slow in a short story). How do I determine what and what doesn’t need to be known to the reader?

Katie W.: Sorry, I can’t help you with that because I have exactly the same problem. I took a creative writing class this semester, and one of the most consistent bits of feedback I got was that there wasn’t enough world building/backstory for people to understand what was going on. The stories were about a third of the length I was used to, and for a lot of it I was working with characters I was already familiar with, and so I ended up leaving out a lot of stuff that apparently needed to be explained.

Raina: I think there are two ways to approach this issue: one is to recognize what story ideas are meant for short story form, and the second is to actually cut them down.

Some ideas are better fits for novels than short stories, and that’s perfectly fine! Just be aware of that, and be ready to approach them from a different angle. Generally a sign is complex or multiple subplots, or too many main characters. For me, the general rule of thumb is if I can’t plan out all of the plot events, beginning to end, without having to write stuff down, then it’s not meant to be a short story. Number of scenes can also be an indicator; short stories generally focus on a small slice of life that tells a complete story in a few scenes, or in some rarer cases, a large “tapestry” that covers a lot of time but uses a lot of telling instead of showing and never zooms in (like classic fairy tales). But it sounds like you already recognize when a short story is turning into a novel. What I’d recommend is to let it become a novel (just because you have an idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have to work on it right away! It’s perfectly fine to write your ideas down and come back to actually write the book when you’ve cleared off your plate) or get rid of all the subplots to turn it back into a short story.

As for how to cut your short story shorter: a good rule of thumb is that everything that does not relate to the central storyline in an important and unique way needs to go. And if you’ve gone through the steps above to make sure your story is a short story, your central storyline should be clear and relatively simple.

I’m going to argue that unlike in novels, details such as backstory, character development, and world-building only need to be there if they have a direct impact on the present action. And it only needs to be there once; if you already have a paragraph showing a personality trait of your character, you don’t need to have a different paragraph showing that same trait in a different way, unless it contributes something significantly new and important. For example, look at the classic short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (Upper middle school and up, link here: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lamb.html), which is about a housewife who murders her husband in a crime of passion and gets away with it by feeding the murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the unwitting detectives. The story is 3899 words and has approximately 3 scenes covering about an evening of real time. Notice what details Dahl leaves out: most of Mary’s relationship with her husband, including the actual details of the conversation that incites her to murder. If this was a novel, it would be great to show a lot of flashbacks to see the intricacies of the relationship between Mary and Patrick, or little details to show their individual personalities. But in a short story, that would be unnecessary, because the story isn’t about Mary and Patrick’s failing marriage; it’s about Mary getting away with murder with a clever scheme. Dahl tells us what we need to know in broad strokes. Mary’s pregnant (which is relevant because that’s her motivation for trying to get away with murder), she’s a doting housewife who adores her husband (which is why she’s so shocked and devastated when he asks to divorce her, and puts her in the mindset for murder), and her husband just dumped her (which is what pushes her to murder). All of those directly relate to the central storyline, which is the murder and the subsequent cover-up.

I’m with Raina all the way.

If a story wants to be a novel, I say, Hooray! My mind also makes a natural beeline for complexity. Some of us are mainly novelists and some mostly short story writers.

But if you’re a novelist and want to try a shorter form, that’s terrific. We should stretch ourselves sometimes, in this case by shrinking!

I’m also with Raina about bringing in only a few major characters. In fact, I think that may be the most important strategy. I’d also suggest that only one character–or none!–is allowed a backstory, which will narrow our plot and keep it focused. The reader should really care only about our MC. Okay, maybe one other character can matter.

I haven’t read many short stories, but my favorite is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (high school and up). There’s very little action. The MC and his wife are visited by an old friend of hers who’s blind. The MC, who is an unappealing character, doesn’t like blind people. They eat dinner and watch a documentary on TV about a cathedral. The wife goes upstairs, comes down again, falls asleep on the couch. The blind man and the MC draw the cathedral in the documentary. That’s it, and yet the unlikable MC goes through a transformation and is barely the same person by the end. The story is an astonishment.

There are just three characters, and the only back story is related by the MC, and it’s about his wife. We never find out what made the MC the closed-off, biased person he is. We’re shown his personality vividly through his thoughts and don’t need anything more to participate as readers in his transformation.

So one choice we can make is to focus on character over action.

And to remember that backstory often isn’t necessary. We may need it for ourselves to understand our characters, but the reader doesn’t have to be in on the secret. Even in novels, backstory is no more than optional. In the Sherlock Holmes books, for example, we never learn what makes Holmes so brilliant and peculiar or why Moriarty is evil, and why Dr. Watson is ordinary. They just are.

Another strategy is to paint on a small canvas. If our setting is limited, we don’t have to devote a lot of words to it. “Cathedral” begins and ends in the MC’s home. The action may even take place in only one room, but I don’t remember well enough to be sure.

I have four published short stories in anthologies. One is a contemporary fantasy, and another would probably be described as contemporary science fiction. The other two are simply contemporary without any magic. If we stick with the modern world, we have only the fantasy element to explain, if it’s there. If we try fantasy, I’d say we should impose limits on our world-building. We can set our story in familiar settings, like a medieval town and then leave most of it to the reader’s imagination. We can allow ourselves, say, one dragon and one elf. We’re just asking for a novel if we include ogres, fairies, and changelings.

The premise of my short story, “Wish Week,” a contemporary fantasy, is that in a certain town, during Wish Week, the sixth graders make a wish, which, within certain limits, comes true–for a week. Only the child who made the wish remembers the results in detail. At the end of the week, everything snaps back to normal. My MC, who is in the middle of an argument with her best friend, wishes for the metaphor in the saying to come true: to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. My MC sees the effects globally as people understand the effects of their actions. The major characters are my MC and her best friend. Walk-on roles go to a former best friend, Tam’s mother, and a few staff at the middle school. Settings are limited, too. There’s brief backstory about the two friendships. The story is twenty-four pages long.

Endings can be less resolved than they often are in novels. The reader doesn’t find out if the transformation in “Cathedral” lasts more than a day. In Raina’s example, the reader doesn’t find out if Mary goes on to become known as the frozen-meat serial killer.

One more strategy: Keep the time frame of the story tight. “Lamb to the Slaughter” takes place in an evening. Same with “Cathedral.” “Wish Week” lasts a week or so. Longer times will cry out for more pages.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC goes on a hike with a friend, and they meet one other person (or creature). When they come back, your MC has new insight into herself. Write the story.

• Fictionalize an anecdote from your life in a short story.

• If you’re in high school or high school plus, read “Cathedral,” which is available online, and write a short story (or a novel) that takes place earlier in the life of the MC. Or try one that takes place after the events in “Cathedral.” Or write both!

• Use my wish-week idea. Your MC makes a different wish. Write a story about what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Short and Young

On May 6, 2011, welliewalks wrote, How do you go about writing short stories or children’s books (children as in ages 7-9)? I like writing loooong stories and novellas because I can take a while to develop (and “solve” it) the plot and add more details. I feel like short stories can’t have a complicated plot because it would take longer to write them. Does anyone have advice on writing short stories and kid’s books?

And Emma wrote, I’m writing what I thought was a children’s book, and I’m realizing it may not be for the age I expected. It involves things like court trials, attacks from other nations, espionage, etc., granted the good guys always win. How much is too much for little kids? How much can the different age groups handle?

And more from Emma (or from a different Emma) two months later: I got a book about publishing with 30 pages of writing contests for amateur novelists, and it’s great, except for one thing; almost all of them must be short stories, and all of them have word limits, but I’m a very long-winded writer. How do you deal with word limits, and what details should you cut?
In answer to Emma’s second question, Charlotte wrote, I thought I’d weigh in on the word limits thing because I have had some experience in this. I’ve done several 500-word stories for the sake of writing contests, and I also had word limits on a lot of the scholarship essays I did the year I graduated high school. The thing about working with a limit is that every word and every sentence counts a lot more than in a longer piece. You’re free to get picky with your adjectives, because you want to get ones that give you a strong sense of the setting in place of a long description. I find that my words are a lot more vivid in my short stuff, probably because with something that small, you can easily go over it about 300 times before submitting it, combing out the unnecessary words, changing adjectives around and changing them back, etc., etc. Always keep in mind exactly how many words you’re at and how many you have left–Microsoft Word will tell you, and if you print your story off (I do a lot of my best editing manually), write the number at the top and keep track of what you take off and what you add on. Knowing what your budget is can help you decide what you can keep and what needs to go.

Along that same line, the plot itself obviously can’t be that long in a short story. Judging by a lot of the short stories I’ve read in school, etc., this is more of a genre that focuses on one event or emotion or aspect of life, rather than being a series of events like a novel is. There are a million and one different ways of writing a short story where all the action consists of the protagonist making herself a cup of coffee, or walking around her house, etc. It’s what’s going through her mind that makes it great. What I guess I’m trying to say is that short stories are more mood-driven than plot-driven–that’s why it’s a different genre–so the details that don’t contribute well to the mood and theme of the story are the ones to drop.

Excellent advice!

If you like inventing many scenes and building a story slowly, the short story may not be for you, but it’s worthwhile to try something new. As for detail, although you have fewer scenes, you still want richness so the reader can enter them fully, and you still want to portray rounded characters. You’ll need setting, but maybe not more than one or two, and dialogue, and thoughts, and action, all the facets of longer fiction. You can be long-winded in a short-winded way.

Along the same lines as Charlotte’s comment, trimming excess words, sentences, paragraphs, pages tightens the work. When I revise even a novel, I delete. And when I return to one of my books for one reason or another after it’s been published, I always find more I wish I had cut. When I go over the blog post before moving ahead with it, I use my knife. If writing short stories makes you a more concise writer of long stories, that’s a big benefit.

Although I don’t read many short stories, I’ve had a few published in anthologies for children anyway. In spite of my bad example, I’d suggest you read short stories, a bunch of them, to get a feel for their scope and economy. If you have a word limit, like 500 words, which is very short, I’d read a collection or two of short short stories (which there are). By reading you gain an intuitive sense of the genre, which will come through when you start writing.

My stories have ranged from ten to twenty-five pages, which is much more than 500 words. However, I’ve written narrative poems in fewer words, and in them, as in the short story, compression is key. One poem (not written for children) is about a modern-day Cassandra attempting and failing to warn a class of fourth graders about the troubles that lie ahead for each of them. The reader sees them listen and believe and then forget the moment they leave Cassandra’s tent at the state fair. That’s it, but the reader knows that each child will suffer as Cassandra said and that Cassandra suffers already from knowing she couldn’t help. The poem is 300 words long, and a short story could do the same thing, and so could a 600-page novel. In the novel we would see the dismal future played out for each child, but that isn’t necessary to convey the meaning.

My poem centers on an idea, but it could focus on a character, which many short stories do. There will be fewer characters in a short story than a novel, but they should still be well developed.

An important aspect of many novels (discussed in a long-ago blog) is character change or failure to change, a feature shared by many short stories. In the poem I described, the characters fail to change, which makes it sad. My novels focus outward on the world, usually a fantasy world. My short stories have a narrow field of vision, family or a few friends. In one, for example, the main character comes to understand and accept that her parents are more involved with her sister, who constantly creates problems. All that happens is that the main gets the lead in the class play and the sister threatens to change religions. In a single scene the reader sees the family in action.

An analogy might be an oven (the novel) versus a pressure cooker (the short story). In the oven the ingredients cook gradually while in the pressure cooker the boiling point is unnaturally high and comes fast. Another analogy might be a house versus a tree. In a house, many posts support the weight of the roof; with a tree, a single trunk holds up the canopy of leaves. In the novel, many incidents build to the climax; in the short story very few, and each one must bear a lot of weight.

On to writing for children. A reference book you may want to read is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books by Harold Underdown, which, alas, didn’t exist when I got started. The book I read and went back to again and again is How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published by Barbara Seuling. Both are excellent.

I also read tons of kids’ books, including  the books in the Newbery bookcase at my library and the new novels that were generating a lot of buzz. Later, when my editor asked me to write The Princess Tales as chapter books she sent me sample chapter books to read and study. (My favorite was Is He a Girl? in the Marvin Redpost series by Louis Sachar of Holes fame.) If you want to write for seven-to-nine year olds, read the books they’re reading, which covers a lot of ground. Some seven-year-olds read Ella Enchanted and Harry Potter. Some nine-year-olds read Junie B. Jones.

My education as a children’s book writer also included taking classes, joining critique groups, attending conferences, and joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was a process that took nine years to earn me my first book acceptance.

Some people – no one reading this blog, I’m sure – think writing for kids is easy. These people, I believe, have forgotten what it was like to be a child, how complicated it was, maybe more complicated than being an adult. Kids have to negotiate at least two universes, the world of adults and the world of their peers and possibly a third, the world of school, and all the while learning at an incredible pace, learning not only school subjects but the everyday science of being human.

Because of this complexity, children can handle the kinds of topics Emma asks about, such as “court trials, attacks from other nations, espionage, etc.” In fact, many kids are drawn to high drama and like to watch stories played out on a grand stage. I think that’s why children enjoy fairy tales and fantasy, because the events are huge, involving royalty and kingdoms, love, jealousy, rage, death.

The biggest difference between children’s and adult literature is the age of the main character. In a kids’ book the main will be a child, usually a little older than the reader. Occasionally the main will be an animal. Of course the reason is that the child can more easily identify with a child than with an adult.

I don’t mean to minimize the differences between books for children and books for grownups. I’m teaching my summer workshop for kids now, and each week I’ve been reading a poem aloud to them. It’s been a challenge to find the right poem, not because of subject matter but because of tone and sophistication and sometimes language. If I say that children can’t handle sophistication, it wouldn’t be entirely true, but we have to develop an ear for what succeeds and what doesn’t, which we do by reading and by writing and trying what we’ve written out on writing buddies and friends. Not necessarily by trying our stuff out on kids, who may be too polite, who may not know what standards to apply, who may be too forgiving.

And there are differences between writing for teens and writing for younger children. You can go darker with teens and more psychological. I’m distinguishing between dark and sad. Sad works with the elementary school crowd, dark not so much. Young kids understand the death of Bambi’s mother in Bambi, while the meaning of Hamlet’s indecisiveness and eventual death might elude them.

As for psychological, I once asked my workshop students to write a self-portrait, not only of their looks but also of their inner qualities. Those over eleven loved the assignment; those under couldn’t do it, and I had them write a portrait of a best friend instead, and that they enjoyed. Older kids like to look within. Younger children focus out.

Sometimes the author herself doesn’t know who her proper audience is. When my friend Suzanne Fisher Staples wrote her first novel, the wonderful Shabanu, she thought she was writing for adults until her editor told her she wasn’t, and the book went on to win a Newbery honor in 1989. Suzanne isn’t the only writer to whom this has happened. I’ve heard similar stories, and the people at HarperCollins thinks my book of mean poems, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It (out next March), may appeal to adults as well as to children, but I thought I was writing it strictly for kids. So we can be surprised.

These are the prompts I was given (and remember) for the short stories I’ve written. See what you do with them:

•    A character on the edge (not specified what kind of edge).

•    A brush with religion.

•    A mystery or mysterious story.

•    A wish.

•    A grandmother story.

I was also asked to write a story about menstruation. I came up empty on that one, but you may have more success.

Have fun, and save what you write!