3 Essentials of Short Stories, and a Good Reason To Write Some

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Here’s a great strategy for emerging as a writer. By emerge I mean get noticed by agents, by editors, even by the curators of writing blogs. Writing short stories can elevate your career. They will even help you connect with your peers in your writing life.

Short stories don’t result in much pay, at first. However, they can be your calling card as a writer. They are quicker to read than a novel and show off more of your skills in just the amount of time it takes to read 10 pages. That can be as many as 3,000 words of writing. A powerful story does not have to be longer than that.

In essence, the short story is an audition for a bigger role, as a book author. Your pieces of unfinished novels might even supply the ore that you can smelt into the good metal of a story.

There are three fundamentals to create short story. An immediate hook that reveals what a main character desires. A sense of place for the action, shaped by description and aided by characterization. The most important of these, though, is action that occurs in scene. Short stories need something to happen.

You can write other kinds of short stories, full of lyric prose and feats of language magic. You should, perhaps, as your dessert for when you’ve finished something. But only a short story will show off the most foundational skill of writing. Telling a story, with structure, in a space of just 20 minutes of time to read.

Today’s readers are busy. Shorts stories can make something happen in scenes that comes alive.

The Layover

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Sylvia toweled off in the truck shop’s washroom. She looked in the metal mirror and despaired about diesel grime that still coated her sunburn. Her cell phone sitting next to the scratched sink chirped at her, carrying the voice of her boyfriend Redmund.

“Sylvie,” he said over the speakerphone. “Watcha doing now? Real quiet in there.”

“Washing up, okay? You try slugging a rig down I-80 for six hours after a thrown fan belt tossed you off schedule. I’m a whole day behind on my miles.” The damn carrier knew, of course. They tracked her through that phone like a pelican after mackerel. GPS, yeah — Giddyup, Push and Steer.

“Okay, okay. Why so touchy, Trucker Gal?”

“Thinking of what my mom said when I stopped in Fort Collins on Monday. Had my laundry and that dog Butch to drop off. Mom said I wouldn’t look white again if I sat in a tub of bleach.”

“The grime, huh? Important to see you clean and girly.”

“You don’t know, fella. Her part of Fort Collins is so upper crust even the maids are European. Trucker Gal troubles her. Like I’m slumming on those 18 wheels. Instead of trying to pay off the old man’s gambling debts.” Banging rattled the metal door of the washroom. “Gotta go. Some rig-monkey wants his turn.”

“Whoa. I don’t like the sound of that.”

“His turn to shower, nimrod. I got this handled.” She thumbed the disconnect and stepped into gray pants and the company orange shirt with the logo and her name on it.

At the bar she perched on a vinyl black stool with a back. The barman eyed her like they all did, first at her chest and then her nametag. “So Syl, what’ll it be?”

“You’re asking me about my drink?”

“What else?”

“I think we both know what else. But I just got cleaned up, so let’s stick to the liquor. Make mine a shot of that low-rent scotch.”

He left a glass of Peat Brothers on the formica bar-top and started pulling beers. The laughter from the sports trivia game that was mounted on the corner of the bar made the back of her neck tingle. Mom wouldn’t even be thinking of her daughter’s color, or being clean, here in Cheyenne. Sylvia sipped at the scotch and shivered.

“None too smooth, huh?” This was a different voice, low and slow behind her. She turned to see a black man, something that stood out in Wyoming like an elk with bells on his antlers.

“Not smooth, no.” There wasn’t a tub of bleach that would ever turn him white, either. They had that much in common already, at least for a night of her layover on I-80.

Polishing up a short-short story

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I watched Melanie polish that band of silver every night, as faithfully as she took her birth control once we were parents. Her father’s MIA bracelet, stamped out in the ’80s and now older than our daughter, a co-ed prowling the job boards with a panther’s cunning. My father in law who I never met was less lucky. Mel’s story is that her dad fell into Cong hands in a province too remote for any exchange. On weekends she worries the Web like a squirrel collecting acorns, nuts of facts that shine up her story like she buffs that bracelet. She needs a hero that I can’t become, because I’m never going to be her father. I could use a hero too, but I didn’t lose my dad just months before I was born. Our friends all say that I’m lucky that way. But there’s no bracelet for me to wear, no auto-icebreaker that guarantees immediate compassion, love and acceptance.

Newspapering can lead to fiction

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Some people come to the joy of writing fiction from a lifetime of non-fiction. Journalists write what’s sometimes called Literature in a Hurry. Most of us turn toward fiction as some point in our careers, and some stay in the land of invented story for good. Hemingway is the classic example of a journalist turned novelist.

There are good connections between the two types of writing craft, but even a non-journalist can benefit from the work of these dutiful scribes. In a recent issue of The Writer, writing teacher Ruth Moose talks about what makes a good short story. Even amid lots of generalities, the article gives some good advice about stories starting with an idea. Some, she writes, start with an article from the paper.

One way to jump start a story is to take from the newspaper an item of some small event that actually happened. Here you have your Who, What, When, and Where. . . you just don’t have the WHY. That’s where you, the writer, come in. You change the names and places and fill in the Why. Make up the characters involved from your imagination, then let those characters carry out your story. When your story is finished, even you won’t recognize the newspaper item that triggered it.

I have a file in my drawer that contains curious start points for stories, clipped from a paper’s pages. These days you don’t even have to go for the scissors, since so much journalism is online. When you’ve found your “lotto winner is identified as escaped convict” idea, you can just copy it as a file to read from your computer.

Are there copyright issues here? No. Copyright protects expression, not ideas. (Concepts are a gray area, but reports of public matter don’t enjoy such protection.) The important thing here is to understand that a good idea will spark work toward characters. Journalists offer up short story ideas every day. Look for the people in the stories and imagine their lives.

Prescription for writers

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From a morning seminar I took with Lee Smith, a writer of short stories and novels:

Most people who come in here don’t have the possibility of entering into any story other than their own. You do. To do this, write fiction every day. Just sit in the chair and put one word in front of the the other. This putting one word in front of another is to put the world in order. It’s theraputic.

Good interview with Smith at the Writers Write site, written about the time that I heard her give the above prescription. I’m going off to sit in my chair and put the world in order.

Simple language leads to perfect stories

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It’s easy to find praise for simple things in life. But writing seems to evoke the opposite effect in building sentences, paragraphs, sections and stories. We want to be noticed with our writing. However, if you look underneath that wish you should find the desire to be heard and remembered. Simple language delivers those two results. Simple lets the story rule the reader’s attention.

Last night in our weekly Writer’s Workshop we enjoyed Blackberries, a simple short story that our member Kathleen Clark showed me over our summer break. The Leslie Norris sudden fiction story — another name for a short-short, under 1,000 words — has few sentences that run beyond 15 words. Despite the brevity, the language is rich in feeling and detail. Here’s one of the few, written about a blackberry vine.

His father showed him a bramble, hard with thorns, its leaves just beginning to color into autumn, its long runners dry and brittle on the grass.

Just count the verbs to see why this sentence works so simply. Show. Hard. Color. Even the adjectives are doing verb work, like dry, or waxing specific with an action, like brittle. The nouns swing into action: bramble, thorns, leaves, runners, grass. Of 26 words, 10 breathe simple life into this writing. (Kathleen called the story “perfect.” I struggle to find any reason to disagree.)

Blackberries, like many other stories in Sudden Fiction International, runs on three main characters and two minor players across the space of four printed pages. The writing doesn’t shy away from using variations of the verb “to be” in various tenses. Norris considers that advice, of using better verbs than be or were, but uses these simplest verbs along with others. Much of the simplest writing does.

Short Roth stories long on quality

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I just finished reading a short story from Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched Phillip Roth’s career 50 years ago this month. The gem included in the Norton North American Literature Anthology was Defender of the Faith, a tight, plainspoken tale about three Jewish Army trainees and the Jewish sergeant who both learns and teaches a lesson about the boundaries of faith.

Roth has plenty of acclaimed long works to his name, having won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. But like so many great novelists, he honed his craft on short stories. About himself writing Goodbye, Columbus, he said in a 30th Anniversary Edition:

With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20s, while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a soldier stationed in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and a novice English instructor back at Chicago following his Army discharge. Eisenhower, who was president, the embryonic writer despised, though not nearly as much as he was to despise Eisenhower’s Republican successors.

His cultural ambitions were formulated in direct opposition to the triumphant, suffocating American philistinism of that time: he despised Time, Life, Hollywood, television, the best-seller list, advertising copy, McCarthyism, Rotary Clubs, racial prejudice and the American booster mentality. Among the writers he was reading when he wrote these stories in the 1950s — and he was reading all the time, all kinds of books, dozens and dozens of them — were David Riesman, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Randall Jarrell, Sigmund Freud, Paul Goodman, William Styron, C. Wright Mills, Martin Buber, George Orwell, Suzanne Langer, F.R. Leavis, David Daiches, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Ralph Ellison, Erich Fromm, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, Sean O’Casey, e.e. cummings — who collectively represented a republic of discourse in which he aspired to be naturalized.

Celebrate our finalist!

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Lisa Carroll-Lee, who’s been in one of my writing groups for more than two years, has landed another short story as a Finalist in the Austin Chronicle 2009 Short Story Contest. The Chronicle has a really lean word limit, but Lisa has made it to the Top 10 with her story, Monsters of Nature.

We saw Monsters in October at our manuscript group meeting and gave her our responses to her flight of fancy about furry children. Congratulations to Lisa, and best of luck in the finalists’ round. As they say at Oscar time, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Lisa has made the finalist cut before on the contest. The Chronicle will publish the top three of this year’s 2,500-word gems on Feb. 13.

Submissions, Part 2

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Some literary publications never make it to paper. The Web world hosts untold numbers of what are sometimes called “zines.” It may not be any easier getting your writing published in an online lit mag. But there are more of them out there than the printed versions — and getting a look at the finished editions happens much faster. The lag between reading time and publication is shorter when there’s no printer or distribution in the process.

One of the pieces of paper from my 2006 AWP tour:

Just a simple business card, instead of a postcard printed in four colors.

Carve is named after the short story titan Raymond Carver. You can read their magazine online at carvezine.com. They have a yearly contest, judged by a PEN Award winner, with a top prize of $1,000. Unlike paper lit mags that are run by college students, Carve and these online pubs don’t have a formal reading period.

The odd part of the story: Carve Magazine doesn’t accept online submissions yet. Yup, postage and paper to get you in the door. For now, as most of the lit mags say.

Submissions, Part 1

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I’m doing some reorganizing of my office studio this month — so I’m chucking out a lot of paper in the process. A lot of what’s going made its way into the office after the 2006 AWP conference, held in Austin. Much of the departing paper was printed to inspire submissions of more paper.

Imagine a space the size of two football fields, side by side, lined with 10-foot-long tables, each representing a small press or smaller lit journal. Each has a stack of books or issues to sell. Sycamore Review was one of those. I scraped up the details on the twice-a-year fiction and poetry journal that prints just 1,000 copies for each issue. It’s pretty typical of the lit mag submission dance.

Sycamore has an eye toward what it calls “stories that have a ring of truth, the impact of felt emotion.” Its entry in the 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market uses the word “emotion” several times. You can offer up your writing to the publication only by printing paper and mailing it, but at least the Sycamore staff has let go of the No Simultaneous Submissions commandment.

They have an annual contest, the Wabash Prize, which accepts fiction entries until March, and Poetry entries in the fall. Don’t forget to send along your $10 reading fee. (By the way, some lit mags don’t charge a submission fee, like Farfelu here in Austin.)

They also want “fiction that breaks new ground.” On the pub’s Web page, the sample story Exposure begins thusly:

Wednesdays and Saturdays are my days off at the pharmacy, but Saturdays my wife is off too, so I do my flashing on Wednesday afternoons.

Edgy, as they like to say in Hollywood (a place where not much writing is going on for TV, since the writer’s strike remains unsettled. But I digress). Exposure was also this year’s Wabash winner. The Sycamore editors read until March 31, and they just put an issue to press this month, so they’re reading for their first 2008 issue. You can submit to

Sycamore Review
Purdue University
Department of English
500 Oval Drive
West Lafayette, IN 47907

And if you wonder why Sycamore Review, like most literary magazines, demands the paper on ink plus stamp and envelope ritual, the answer is: they’re a little magazine, with old computers, and they read paper. Oh, and taking the trouble to submit through the mails, um, that’s part of the weeding-out process. It eliminates the riff-raff, according to the world as one editor described it during 2006.

There’s something about having to actually print out submissions, write a cover letter, get stamps, and go to mailboxes that weeds out the dilettantes. With emailed submissions, every high school student whose creative writing teacher praises him would be sending submissions. (I’ve seen this happen, the hordes of emails not hardly worth reading…But I’m not knocking high school students, creative writing teachers, or you in any way.) You can’t just walk onto American Idol—they have a screening process. Similarly, you can’t just write your way into Sycamore Review—there’s a built-in screening process called “submitting” that allowing emailed submissions takes away.

Computer budgets and tiny staff aside, the handsome postcard at the top of this entry is part of the Sycamore Review budget, one of several hundred printed for the AWP show. Paper for the journal issues is even more dear, apparently: there’s only enough pages for five stories and eight poems in the most current issue. The good news? There are thousands more publications out there to send your paper to, including a $10 check. A couple of football fields full of them.

But a lit mag with two issues per year, payment of two copies to successful contributors, and a yearly contest with a $1,000 first prize? That’s about what you can expect. Do the math. $200 a year will get your five of your stories considered by four journals. Or you could spend the money on a good editing job for a novel. That kind of work sells here in Austin for about $800 for a novel.

But that’s another kind of submission, one that puts you on your way to being in print.

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