Monday, June 21, 2010

CRR Blog Carnival: Writing the Short Story

Thanks for joining me here on the Prairies today! I’m pleased to be a part of the Classic Romance Revival’s Blog Carnival in promotion of our short story anthology “The Cupid Diaries: Moments in Time”. Thirteen romance writers have combined to create an anthology of sixteen short stories that range from contemporary and historical, to urban fantasy and futuristic romance. There’s truly a story here for every reader’s taste.

“Moments in Time” is a very apt title for a short story collection because a good short story endeavors to capture that one riveting moment when an event occurs that changes the course of a character’s life. Or perhaps it’s the moment when a character must make an important decision. I thought I’d take this opportunity to explore short story writing and that all important “moment in time”. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from studying the art of writing the short story:

1. Theme is everything. What is your story about? I’m not talking the events of the plot, but the ideas a writer wants to convey. A writer of a short story wants to explore a theme and pass her interpretation of that theme on to her readers. For example in my story “Hometown Hearts” I wanted to explore the idea of going back to live in the hometown that wasn’t always a happy place for you when you were a kid. Can you go home again? In “The Way to a Man’s Heart” I wanted to know if two people who had been best friends since childhood could risk that friendship to become a couple. Can friendship survive love? A clear theme throughout the story will resonate with readers and help the writer sort out what to include and exclude in her story.

2. An effective short story covers a very short amount of time. The time span covered in “Hometown Hearts” is brief; the evening of Jamie’s class reunion when she meets Chris again after so many years, and then later at the fire station, where Jamie returns the jacket she’d spilled soda on. It may be tempting to write extensively about your character’s background, family, friends, etc. but resist the urge. Remember this is a moment in time. Save your deeper explorations for your novel.

3. Start with a bang. A catchy opening line is critical in short story. Dennis G. Jerz says “the first sentence of your short story should catch your reader's attention with the unusual, the unexpected, an action, or a conflict. Begin with tension and immediacy. Remember that short stories need to start close to their end. “ Draw your reader in with your opening and it will hook them for the rest of the story.

4. Make every word count. A short story has no words to waste. Eliminate passive verbs, unnecessary dialogue tags, and any words or passages that don’t contribute to your overall theme. It may be tempting to give poetic descriptions of people and settings, but if these explanations don’t add to theme, or create emotion or conflict, delete them.

5. Too many characters spoil the short story. Use only as many characters as necessary to tell your story. Every additional character brings their own personalities, their own storylines, and can take focus away from your main characters and the story and theme you want to tell. A short story doesn’t have room for subplots and casts of thousands. Remember, a moment in time. Like novel writing, you need to know much more about your characters than you’ll every reveal in your short story. Dennis G. Jerz gives a list of characteristics to consider in “Ten Tips for Creative Writers” when deciding who your character is.

This is only a brief outline of things to keep in mind when writing a short story. Short story writers also need to consider elements of plot, conflict, and characterization that are essential to longer fiction. The important thing to remember is that whereas a novel may portray a character’s entire life, the short story picks one important moment out of that life and shines a beacon of light on it. A Moment in Time.

Have you written short fiction? Do you enjoy reading short stories? What do you find are the differences, and challenges, in writing short fiction as compared to a full-length novel?

To celebrate being part of this blog carnival I have two prizes today. I am giving away one copy of “The Cupid Diaries: A Moment in Time” and one copy of my latest novella “Burning Love”. To be eligible to win please answer this very difficult question: What are the names of my two short stories included in “The Cupid Diaries: A Moment in Time”? Be sure to leave your email address in your comment. To fool the Internet trolls, use "at" and "dot" instead of the symbols, as in jana dot richards at hotmail dot com. Two names will be chosen at random from all the correct answers.


Janet said...

This is a great primer on short story writing, Jana! I'm bookmarking it as I hope to do more short stories and get them out there for publishing credits.

One question - the anthology, was there a specific word count you were writing to or was the publisher open to a variety of lengths?

Joanne Brothwell said...

Great suggestions for short story writing, Jana! I wish I'd read it before the retreat in St. Pete's! I recently completed my short story for the Saskatchewan Stories project of the SRW, and the word count soared up to 9,000 words! Now the story doesn't fit the guidelines, in fact, it's 3,000 over. Maybe I'll go back, keeping your suggestions in mind and re-work it.


j.leigh.bailey said...

This was great advice. I'm trying to write some short stories as a way to hone my craft a bit. I tend to be wordy at the best of times. Writing a short story forces me to focus more on word choice and plotting, something I hope will translate to my novel in progress. Thanks!

Eleanor Sullo said...

Hey, Jana,
Terrific advice for short-story writing. I cut my eye teeth on short stories before I turned to novels, and I especially like keeping the characters to a minimum and the time span short. One of my short stories some years back was nominated for a Pushcart Prize (didn't win, though, drats!) and it took place on one day and an hour the next day, between an American food writer and a high-end Italian chef in Florence, Italy. I've wondered why that one was better than some of my others, and clearly, you got it right--time span and few characters. Thanks for the nice analysis.
Too Damn Hot, TWRP, out now

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I think you have a flair for short story writing and I hope you'll write more.

You know, I can't remember exactly what the word count guidelines were. I believe it was under 3000 words (if some fellow authors drop by I hope they can confirm or correct this for me). Both of my stories were were in the 1500 to 2000 word range, making them very quick read reads.

I find I like writing short. I like having that one moment in time to concentrate on.

Good luck with your own "moments in time".

LK Hunsaker said...

Hi Jana, I think the word count was mainly "typical short story length" and not horribly restrictive. Like yours, mine tend to be 1-2,000 words so I didn't have to worry.

I started writing shorts a few years ago for contests, actually, and I found I loved the exercise of it and how it forced me to learn to tighten. I'm hooked now.

Nice guidelines! My biggest remark for new short story writers is to be sure there is some kind of character growth so it's an actual story and not just a scene. On the other hand, Hemingway is known for his shorts being just scenes. I much prefer his novels for that reason. ;-)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
Wow! Nine thousand words! You really had a productive weekend. Good for you!

I suggest you narrow down the focus of your story if you can. In my Saskatchewan story that I call "Wings of Fire", my original plot featured a longer length of time, many more characters, and many more plot points, twists etc. I quickly realized it wasn't a short story at all but probably a novel length, or at least novella length story. So what I did was simply limit the short story I was submitting to the moment when the two main characters have their dramatic first meet.

I want to mention that stories in the 9000 word range can still find a home, perhaps not in our Saskatchewan stories anthology, but with other publishers. I know that a couple of my publishers, and publish novella length stories of various lengths. Check their websites for more specifics.


Jana Richards said...

Hi j.leigh.bailey,
Yes, short story writing forces you to make every word count. You can't afford to go off on tangents, or use extra adverbs and adjectives. You need to work to find that strong verb or one perfect adjective that conveys your meaning the way you want it to.

Good luck with your "short" writing.

Helena said...

Doesn't anyone else want to win? I am very pleased that you have posted this excellent info about short stories, since quite a few of us are trying to polish our entries for the the SRW anthology of Sask. stories, but here is also my entry for your contest.

Your two stories, "Hometown Hearts" and "The Way to a Man's Heart" appear in Moments in Time, according to your website. And my email is hekhmk (at) sasktel (dot) net.

Thanks for a great post and an exciting contents today, Jana.

Helena said...

Oops! That was supposed to be "contest" in my last sentence. Fumbling fingers on the keyboard this morning!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Eleanor,
Wow, I'm impressed by your short story cred! Too bad you didn't win, but really, what an honour to be nominated.

To write a successful short story I think you must keep your focus very narrow. Even a simple thing like adding another character or two will take your story in directions you perhaps didn't want it to go. A new character always brings their own agenda that the writer is forced to deal with.

Thanks for dropping by!

Jana Richards said...

Hi L.K.,
Thanks for dropping by and clarifying the word count thing. I believe you're right in saying the word count criteria was fairly flexible.

You are also right in pointing out that even characters in short stories need an arc. Something has to change for them from the beginning of the story to the end, or I would argue that what you have is not a story, but more a scene, as you said. In my short story, "The Way to a Man's Heart" my female character learns that she doesn't have to lose her best friend to gain the man of her dreams.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Thanks for entering my contest! I'll put your name in my virtual contest barrel.


Kathy Otten said...

I think my shortest story was 9 pages and took place during a battle in the Civil War. The toughest part was conveying the sense of place without writing any descriptions.

Karyn Good said...

Great timing, Jana! Like Joanne, I'm attempting a short story for the SRW, but honestly I had no idea where to start. Thanks for the tips on theme and timeframe. I've got a much better idea of prep work and how to start it off. Thanks!

Also congrats the anthology!!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Kathy,
There's no doubt that writing a short story has its challenges and one of them is the lack of space for description. The writing really has to be tight. That's not to say there can be no description, just that it must be accomplished with a few well chosen words rather than a few paragraphs.

Thanks for dropping by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I'm glad to hear you're working on a Saskatchewan story. With any luck we'll have enough stories for an anthology of our own soon!

I'm also glad that this blog is a starting point for you and can give you a place to begin. Just remember, moment in time, not epic saga!


Judy said...

I really enjoyed the post!! I am not an author, but it is interesting to me how you write, what one author does compared to what another one does, as long as it works for you: that is the main thing!!

The answer is The Way to A Man's Heart and Hometown Hearts

Judy (magnolias_1[at]msn [dot]com

Jana Richards said...

Hey Judy,
I'm glad you dropped by! Yes, every writer works differently and what works for me (pre-plotting and character sketches) might not work for the next writer. But as long as we can get to "The End" in a satisfying way, we're happy, regardless of how we got there.

Thanks for entering the contest. I'm putting your name in the virtual barrel. Good luck!


Stephanie Burkhart said...

Awesome tips for short story telling. I try to keep my short stories under 4,000. My story in the anthology is "Royal Pretender," a historical fiction about how George II met his wife, Caroline of Ansbach. I was tickled pink to include it in the Cupid Diaries.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Steph,
Thanks for stopping by! I love that "The Cupid Diaries" includes a variety of romance genres and a variety of lengths. There's something here for everyone.

All the best,

Lynn said...

Clear, interesting, common sense for a muddled mind... Thanks so much for the intelligent commentary and for sharing this.

Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

Jana Richards said...

Hi Lynn,
Welcome to the Prairies! I'm glad you found the information useful.


Mary Ricksen said...

A short story is my next project. I find it daunting to say the least. Good luck and thanks for the tips!!!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
If you're used to writing full length novels, writing a short story can be a real challenge. Good luck with your new venture!


DebH said...

i appreciate the concise way you've set things out for us. i actually prefer writing short stories because i think i do a better job capturing a moment in time. it's harder for me to draw anything out longer. this may be due to my animation background where i kept things short so i didn't have to draw so many pictures *grin* i've also written short film scripts - again, easier to keep it short over long run time.

your stories are "Hometown Hearts" and "The Way to a Man's Heart".

when is the anthology getting pubbed? it sounds like something i want to read. i love exposure to variety of genres.

nm8r67 at hotmail dot come

Jana Richards said...

Hi Deb,
Just as some people love to write epic sagas, some writers gravitate towards moments in time, capturing a tiny piece of a character's life. Both are great, and both take a certain talent and temperment.

Actually "The Cupid Diaries" has already been published. If you don't win a copy here, you can purchase a download copy at
All the best,

prashant said...

Maybe I'll go back, keeping your suggestions in mind and re-work it.
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Mindy said...

I LOVE your rules on writing short stories!
I'm also bookmarking it for reference when I write.
Mindy :)

Mindy said...

Your two stories in “The Cupid Diaries: Moments in Time" are “Hometown Hearts” and “The Way to a Man’s Heart”

Mindy :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Prashant,
Thank you for joining the discussion. I'm glad you found the blog useful to your own short story writing.

All the best,

Jana Richards said...

Hi Mindy,
So great you could drop by! I hope you found some useful tips here.

I'm happy to enter you in my virtual contest barrel. Best of luck!