Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Excess Baggage: Turning Lurking Themes into Short Stories

I’d just finished writing the first draft of yet another novel that seemed to have wandered off in several directions when I made an important discovery. I was trying to work out (in retrospect) what my theme was, and so got out my old creative writing coursework books (this was pre-Google).

As I checked through my manuscript for any inkling of the theme, I realised what I’d done: I tried to fit every single thing I wanted to say about everything (except for the stuff I’d written about in a previous novel) into this one book. And because I hadn’t planned on this particular book being very long or meaty, it really suffered from the lack of focus.

I opened a sticky, peeling binder and found a yellowed sheet of paper with some old notes that jumped out at me:

Determine your theme for your story – one theme per story [double underlined]. New theme, new story. (Complementary subthemes are okay.)

Protagonist is “pro”-theme vs “anti” Antagonist.

Every additional (unrelated) theme you throw into the mix dilutes the power of that first theme - the one that made you want to write the story in the first place.

I listed all those extra themes I’d found in my novel and realised I was looking at a list of potential stories. Some of these themes that meant so much to me were strong enough to explore in future novels, but many of them were narrow and specific: ideal for short stories.

What about you? Have you considered writing a list of themes that speak to you and deliberately writing one story to a theme? Or do your themes tend to hijack your writing?


Elsa Neal is currently on maternity leave, but is volunteering (mostly one-handed) behind the scenes at Blood-Red Pencil. Her three-year-old "edited" this post (thank goodness for back-ups). She writes fiction as Elle Carter Neal and is based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Break Writer's Block with Flash Fiction

Flash fiction can be even better than journaling for working through writer’s block. Creativity and imagination require an open mind ready to receive new ideas and play with them. Many of our feelings and reactions to a situation (even a fictional one) can shut this valve off, often when we most need a creative response.

Sometimes the very reason we experience a block is due to an ingrained and conditioned aversion to digging too deeply into something we don’t understand. You may be writing well when suddenly a character confronts you with a behaviour you don’t want to write about. Perhaps it’s your own behaviour, but it may be that of someone close to you, or someone who has hurt you. Flash fiction is an ideal vehicle for exploring your feelings about behaviours that you were told were acceptable but are not, or vice versa.

Let your characters explore subjects for you. Prejudice, insecurity, fear, misconception and misunderstanding, rules and religious laws, jealousy, resentment, disappointment, frustration, boredom, disillusionment – any of these can cause paralysing block if we let them control us. Why not let a character control the situation instead? You can try different responses, personalities, and histories for the characters and see if it changes the scene in any way. It also gives you empathy for all of the people involved, instead of just a single reaction or a list of feelings.

The funny thing about creativity is that it responds to a challenge. Present it with a preconceived idea fully accepted as truth and it will nudge at you until you explore the idea further.

Another reason fiction-as-self-analysis works so well is that it distances you from your problem; your resentment or other negative emotions that can cloud your view of the situation are removed. Many people find it difficult to assess themselves fairly. We tend to either put a better spin on our actions, or make ourselves out to be worse than we really are.

What can your character do, or ask someone else to do, that will help to ease the situation? Is your character showing you that you need to change your attitude to a situation or to somebody you interact with regularly? Your characters might be stronger than you are, but when you see that strength portrayed on the page you can realise the steps you need to take to empower yourself.

Flash fiction is therapy in a paragraph. Spill your guts.


Elsa Neal is currently on maternity leave, but is volunteering (mostly one-handed) behind the scenes at Blood-Red Pencil. She writes fiction as Elle Carter Neal and is based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Short Story - A Gift or a Chore?

Some people plan to write short stories. Some people also plan out their short stories, much like they plan out a novel, thinking about characters, plot, setting, etc, before they ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

I am not one of those people.

With only a few exceptions, my short stories have been gifts from my muse that have come almost fully formed from word-one to The End. Some novelists are similarly gifted. Alas, I am not one of them. Novels take much more advance planning and thought.

The first short story I had published in a major magazine was titled A String of Pearls, and my muse woke me up one night with the story. I stayed up for several hours writing it all in longhand - have I mentioned my writing career started when dinosaurs roamed the earth? This was also when a bunch of little kids roamed my house, so it was several days before I could get back to the story and see if what I wrote in the middle of the night made any sense.

It did. So I typed it and sent it to Lady's Circle magazine. They published it, and I was thrilled. Now, these many years later, I reworked the story a bit - we do learn and mature as writers after all - and published it electronically. It has a new title, Making it Home, but the essence of the story remains the same.

The three stories in my collection, The Wisdom of Ages, published by Books We Love Publishing, were also gifts that came in one great creative surge - not at the same time, mind you - but they needed very little tweaking after that first effort. One of the stories, Maybe Someday, won the Page Edwards Short Story Award a few years ago, and that is one I am particularly proud of. That story came to me when I saw an old black man sitting under a mimosa tree watching traffic pass on a country highway in Texas. I wondered what he thought about as he watched the cars pass, and my muse provided the answer.

One of the few short stories I've written that did not come from my muse is The Visitor. As part of a writing class I was taking, we were asked to adapt a fairy tale or nursery rhyme into a new story. I decided to play around with "Goldilocks and The Three Bears" and came up with a story about a family who is camping in the Rockies and has an unusual visitor, and, no, it is not a bear.

By far, that story was the hardest to write and took a lot more time. It also took a lot of editing. Not that I didn't do a bit of editing here and there with the other stories, but none of them needed as much work as The Visitor.

My friend, Jory Sherman, a renowned novelist and poet, has said that we are all connected to a large creative spirit that feeds us all when we open ourselves up. That creative spirit feeds those writers who can write an entire book with very little editing needed, and I am sure it is where my short stories came from.

What about you? Have you had these magical moments of creative lava just flowing and flowing? Do you wait for those moments, or do you keep on writing every day whether it is lava or just a bit of ash?

  Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor and sometimes a short story writer. To check out her editing rates visit her website.  When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

The Long and Short of It – Stories, That Is

As a writer and editor of novels, I found May’s theme to be challenging. Even after completing a Writer’s Digest course in short-story writing twenty-five-plus years ago, I favored the longer, more complex content of the book-length tale—and I still do, both for reading and for writing. 

Recently, however, an author whose fantasy novel I had edited decided to write companion short stories to give her readers some background on the main characters in her published book. The shorts, which range from 30 to 40 pages in length, will be made available to readers who want to know a bit of the back story that led up to the moment where the book started. It was an interesting idea to me, and I found myself quite taken with the history and events that shaped her characters into the beings that populated her novel. 

The more I read, the more I saw the value in these peeks into a character’s past—particularly in the case of life forms from alien worlds. Having said that, I believe such pieces could also be great marketing tools for books in a variety of genres. Those who might never choose our work in an online or brick-and-mortar store might well be intrigued enough to buy it by reading a compelling short that hooked them into wanting to know what happened next. But is such an e-format-only deviation from our typical novel writing a shot in the dark? 

British author Lee Child, who is published by Delacorte Press (part of Random House), wrote such a short about the teenage years of his enduring Jack Reacher character. Now he is planning a second short in response to his publisher’s urging. To learn more about this and other marketing strategies being employed in the increasingly competitive book sales market, you can read a very informative New York Times article. See also for an example of what another writer did.

The world of book sales is changing dramatically. Old strategies no longer produce the desired results, and new ones challenge us to think outside that proverbial box. Creating short stories (which might cost 99¢) to captivate potential readers sufficiently to sell our more expensive long ones adds another element to book writing (as if we don’t have enough to do already). However, we’re not starting from scratch. We know our characters and plot very well, so the “development” process has been completed. Also, we typically will be focusing on one character and one point of view. In other words, a complex novel with multiple POVs can be promoted by a simple, single-POV prequel. 

Hmmm. It’s an intriguing idea, don’t you think?


Linda Lane focuses on teaching writers to write well, a skill that will enhance a lifelong writing career. Read about her professional team and her work at

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Corner Cafe Soon to Open

I'm excited to be part of a fun enterprise, called The Corner Café: A Tasty Collection of Short Stories, edited by Dani Greer and Helen Ginger, with special assistance by Bob Sanchez, and cover design by Sherry Wachter.

Featured are stories by the following authors: Marian Allen, Shonell Bacon, Karen Casey Fitzjerrell, W.S. Gager, Helen Ginger, Dani Greer, S..B. Lerner, Audrey Lintner, Morgan Mandel, Maryann Miller, Bodie Parkhurst, Bob Sanchez, Mary Montague Sikes, Red Tash, and Christine Verstraete.

Dani Greer
Dani Greer, fearless leader of the BBTCafé e-group and The Blood-Red Pencil blog, is the instigator. She's the inventive one, who always comes up with great suggestions to expand our blogging and marketing horizons. This time she asked for volunteers from her BBTCafé e-group to compose short stories for a free collection to offer our readers. Not just any stories. Each must contain the words "Corner Café" somewhere in each story.

Though I was accustomed to writing full-length novels, I accepted the challenge. Much to my surprise, I found short story writing a refreshing change of pace. After finishing the first, called The Closing of the Corner Café, I was inspired to write another, which I called What Nice Blessings.

You'll learn more about my contributions during my visit with Helen Ginger on June 14 at

My stop is but one in a massive Blog Book Tour by the authors of the collection, as well as fellow members of the BBTCafé. Stay tuned for more details about the tour.

Morgan Mandel is a past President of Chicago-North RWA, was the Library Liason for Midwest MWA, belongs to EPIC and Sisters in Crime.

Find Excerpts and Buy Links to her four full length novels at

Connect with Morgan on Facebook at 

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Novelists Should Write Flash

If asked to list the top three literary activities that have aided my growth as a novelist, they would be:
  1. an intense study of story structure 
  2. my written evaluation of stories, both published and unpublished 
  3. writing flash fiction 

Did #3 surprise you? It may seem counter-intuitive. By definition, a novel is long (60,000 to 120,000+ words) and flash fiction is short (usually 100 to 1,000 words). What could the long-winded novelist have to learn from writing flash?

The answer: everything.

You will learn to get to the point. Flash fiction must have a beginning, middle, and end, with a character arc involving a turning point, often using only four times as many words as I crammed into this sentence.

You will choose words wisely. Flash fiction is, in essence, a prose writer’s exercise in poetry. The yellow flowers scattered across the lawn will become buttercups or daffodils or dandelions—whichever contributes best. Instead of cranking out word count, you’ll spend your time deepening meaning with just the right words.

You’ll become more architect than bricklayer. The blathering novelist can unwittingly build a wall of words that discourages the reader from entering her story. Flash fiction tolerates no word dumps. A severely limited word count encourages you to prop up designed spaces in your story. You’ll learn to write between the lines, and invite the reader to fill in the rest. You’ll choose wide-shouldered words capable of carrying denotation and connotation and resonance, and carve away excess.

You'll gain an unrivaled education in story structure. Do you have an inciting incident that creates a character goal? Do you complicate that goal? Does the story have a climax that indicates indelible character change? You won’t lose track of these elements within hundreds of pages of drifting verbiage. There they’ll be, before you, all on one page. And when you return to the long form to apply your new skills, and all the right words come together so that each 100-word chunk contributes to the integrity of your story, you’ll have a fine novel.

Flash fiction can earn you publication credits. Check out Duotrope (in the search engine, under length, select “flash fiction”) for hundreds of markets that publish flash fiction!

As my favorite flash teacher, Randall Brown (founder and managing editor of Matter Press), says: “Flash is for the fearless.” Of course he also says, “Hear that POP! That’s the sizzle of your prose, your veins like wires.”

Are you man or woman enough to try? A 100-word story would fit neatly into a comment box. I’ll get us started. This story weighs in at 99 words. An expanded, almost leisurely 750-word version was previously published in Flash Me magazine.

Belated Promise 
by Kathryn Craft 

They’ve been together twenty years now. Raised two great kids, but never married. I’m old-fashioned and think it’s high time.

George’s family lived next door. I’ve bandaged his knees, written job referrals, fielded despair over affairs of the heart. He wipes sweaty palms against his suit.

“Nervous, son?”

“Silly at my age.”

“Love’ll do that to you.”

A molasses smile spills across his face. “Oh, yes.”

Steven enters my chambers and trips on the rug. We all laugh.


Taking Thomas’s hand, he nods, eyes wet.

I'd better begin the ceremony. A teen and his pregnant girlfriend wait outside.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How to Win a Writing Competition

Please welcome Dr. John Yeoman* to the Blood Red Pencil today. John is here to share some tips on improving your chances to win an online writing competition. 

After a disappointing experience with an online contest, John decided to use his expertise as a university tutor in creative writing to offer contest entrants feedback on the stories they submit to his Writer's Village contest. He says, "Just for fun I decided to run a contest where every entrant was awarded marks out of 45, across six publishing criteria, and given a brief practical critique on how their story might be improved. That’s how students are treated on MA (MFA) programs. Why not contestants?"

The criteria John uses in judging the stories entered in his contest is as follows. "I award the highest marks for ‘emotional engagement with the reader’ (a maximum of 10) and ‘originality of concept’ (10), followed by ‘the power of the first paragraph’ (8) and ‘structure, including conflict and closure’ (8). ‘Apt language’ gets 6 and ‘professionalism of presentation’ is 3. The cash prize winners usually achieve 42-43 marks out of 45."

And now, as promised, here are John's tips for increasing your odds to win a contest:

First, rate your own story against the criteria above. Better still, have someone else do it. Judges of other contests probably use a similar system. (And if they don’t reveal their system, how can you trust their qualifications?)

Second, be aware of the three main reasons why stories - which might otherwise have promise - fail to win a prize or get published. I can’t answer for other contests but here are my own big no-no’s:

a. Poor structure. A tale starts slowly or doesn’t start at all. It has too much background. It digresses into pointless incidents and irrelevant dialogue. The close is weak. Readers are left asking “What was all that about?”

A story should be a “globed, compacted thing”, as Virginia Woolf put it. Clear structure is vital.

b. Plot clichés. Stephen King once said that he never again wanted to read a story about a cute pet or precocious child that read minds and/or saved the family heroically when the house burnt down.

My own list of clichés includes a visit to a dying relative who reveals a terrible truth, the scandalous funeral (five mistresses turn up, each claiming to be the dead man’s wife), the magic cottage (now you see it, now you don’t), aliens in the bus queue, and my personal bête noire - the writer who’s struggling against Writer’s Block to write the very story you’re reading now!

c. Dull language. Some stories are a Yorkshire pudding. (This is a traditional English dish that, no matter how you cook it, ends up as a soggy mess.) Over-long sentences, unbroken paragraphs, tedious descriptions that could be replaced by one crisp phrase...

A story doesn’t have to dance with metaphors - the most emotive tales are often told in the simplest language - but it should persuade us that the writer knows their craft.

Entering short story contests is a way of earning while you learn enough of the craft to complete your first novel. Regard every story as a five-finger exercise. You might practise body language in one, gain experience with characterisation in another, and try different approaches to dialogue in a third. After you’ve won a dozen top prizes, you’ll have acquired every craft skill necessary to write novels. All you need then is stamina.

As for the Writers' Village short story contest, I plan to keep raising the prize values. Every time I’ve done that, the quality of the entries improves, and I have a more interesting challenge. How can I distinguish between twenty shades of excellence? The job gets harder each quarter but having a rigorous set of criteria makes it possible.

I wish that more contest judges used formal criteria and clearly published them. Above all, I wish that more contests told entrants why they didn’t win, rather than leaving them in darkness and frustration.

*Dr John Yeoman passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).
Posted by Maryann Miller, who has also judged a contest or two.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New Adult Genre

Our guest today is author Lynn Rush, who is touring her new release, Awaited, second in the Wasteland Trilogy. To celebrate, she is offering a FREE “Prelude to Darkness” short story.

About five years ago, when I first began writing for publication, I just wrote. Seriously, I just put down everything that came to mind. Heck, I didn’t even know what point of view (POV) meant—much to the dismay of my very first critique partner. 

As I learned the craft, I soaked up anything and everything I could find about my new-found passion. Then around six months into my journey as a writer, I was told my characters were too young for Adult novels yet they were too old for Young Adult (YA) novels. 

Naturally, being a newbie I asked, “So what should I do?”

And the overwhelming response was, “Change the age of your characters.”

That didn’t sit right with me, so I didn’t change anything. 

Then, as I continued writing, I heard that my romance was a bit sweet for Adult but a little too intense for Young Adult. 

Once again, when I asked what to do, I was told to change what and how I wrote. Now, perhaps it was either me being stubborn or just being too new in the industry to care, because I decided to stick with what I was doing. If it kept me from getting published, I was okay with that, because I just loved writing.

Don’t get me wrong, as the agent and editor rejections came pouring in, I did second guess things—a few times. But it always came back to the point of me feeling like I needed to write the stories of my heart.

Then I heard about something called New Adult (NA).
A couple of years ago a publisher, St. Martin’s Press, started throwing the phrase around. I don’t think it went as far as the publisher actually releasing any novels in that category, but it started something.
And, it confirmed that maybe what I wrote might be okay after all. 

So, I kept writing. 

It was Wasteland (my 13th novel) that helped me break into this category. A boutique publisher, Crescent Moon Press, was ready to jump into the New Adult category full force. They even developed a line for it. And I was to be their flagship genre-breaking author. Very exciting indeed!

But is there an “official” definition of New Adult? I’m not one for “official” anything, so this is how I explain it when I’m speaking about this new and exciting space: 

YA is fairly sweet on the romance side of things, and Adult romances can get pretty intense and detailed.
Think of it in terms of a bedroom door and how “open” it is. In YA it’s not really open at all—or maybe just a tiny crack. In Adult romances, it can be wide open and the romantic scenes are sometimes very detailed.
New Adult is right in the middle. The door into the bedroom is cracked open, but a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.

With Wasteland (Book1,Wasteland Trilogy), I have been told my story falls between being very sweet, all the way to being called a very steamy read. The reviews for Awaited, (Book 2, Wasteland Trilogy), are describing the romance portion as more of a focus in the story, yet decidedly calmer than Adult levels of steam. 

I really focus on the emotional intensity rather than the physical steam, but ultimately how it’s interpreted is up to the reader. 

Just the way I like it.

I hope this sheds some light on the exciting genre called New Adult. But feel free to leave questions in the comments. I’m happy to try and answer them. 

To read an excerpt from Awaited, go to Lynn's website  
And register here for a FREE download of “Prelude to Darkness”. During the tour Lynn’s other eBooks are being offered with a special price for Wasteland ($5.99).  Awaited is available for $7.99.
Driven to write, Lynn Rush often sees her characters by closing her eyes and watching their story unfold in her mind. Book reviewers say that her plots are well developed, and the writing is strong and full of artistic details – stunning in both characterization and her action-packed storylines.
A prolific author who began her writing career in 2008, Rush now has more than 25 novels to her credit. Six are currently under contract with Crescent Moon Press. Wasteland, the first novel in the trilogy was released in August 2011 and continues to receive five-star reviews. Rush holds a degree in psychology from Southwest Minnesota State University and a master’s degree from the University of Iowa.
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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Craft of Writing Short Stories

Or Why I Stick to Writing Novels

The title of this article, I realise, is provocative. It would seem to imply that I consider short stories to be inferior examples of the writer’s art: practice works produced by novices, or the second-rate oeuvres of mere dilettantes incapable of the sustained creative effort required to produce a full-length novel.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Painful as it is for me to make this confession, the reason that I don’t (or very rarely) write short stories because (in general) I lack the intense, tightly-focused imagination needed to write a good one.

The question now arises: what are the attributes of a good short story?

Opinions here will differ, depending on who is addressing the question. A writer of Literary Fiction (who has read and admired the works of Raymond Carver) will contend that a good short story is one which evokes the cultural ambiance in which the writer is writing. By this standard of measurement, the excellence of a particular work depends not on plot or character development, but on the writer’s use of language and imagery to generate mood and atmosphere.

By contrast, writers of genre fiction (mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy) devote the lion’s share of their attention to plot and character development (elements which don’t particularly interest Literary Fiction pundits). By these standards of measurement, the primary virtue of a good short story is a compact, tightly-orchestrated sequence of events, enriched with dramatic irony and governed by an underlying pattern of cause and effect.

Of course the best short stories – classics like O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi or Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber or Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat – provide readers with the whole package. The critical issue has to do with the question of scale – the difference (if you like) between painting a mural and painting a miniature. You’re using all the same elements of your chosen medium. But in the case of the smaller work, you have to use those elements with the precision of a diamond-cutter to produce a real gem.

In writing short stories, the modus operandi is to cultivate a Spartan attitude when it comes to detailing. More specifically:

1) When describing people, places, etc., retain only the very best of your descriptive passages. (Relegate merely “pretty good” descriptive elements to a reserve file on your computer.)

2) Dismiss any and all non-essential characters. (Even a walk-on can become a distraction.)

3) Keep your plot on a strict diet of necessity. (Don’t allow yourself to indulge in any plot speculations - however intriguing - that may weigh the story down with non-essential complications.)

4) Look for opportunities to take short cuts when it comes to advancing significant plot and/or character developments. (Do we really need to know how Leyla spends her time when she’s not with either Demon-Ted or Angel-Jim?)

If you have the self-discipline as a writer to keep your short story under tight control and still produce a piece with all the ingredients necessary to provide a good read, you have my sincere and unfeigned compliments

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Makes a Short Story Short ?

Our third Wednesday Guest, Susan Malone, is here today with an interesting look at the short story form.

Those of us who write fiction are often drawn to both novels and short stories, although most folks will say they love one over another.  Many write both, and many focus only on one form to the exclusion of the other. And while we can all point to authors who are proficient at both, in reality that’s tough to do. 

Because they are different art forms.  Yes, both require wonderful prose, well-drawn characters, and a storyline that takes off from jump and keeps the reader’s interest until THE END appears. Sounds pretty similar so far. But where most writers get tripped up is in thinking that a short story is just a shorter form of fiction than a novel. And therein lies the rub. Because short fiction is its own beast, rather than a condensed full-length work, and what makes it a short story goes to the heart of our matter.

Similarities do exist between short stories and chapters or scenes in novels. The structure of each, while not exactly the same, follows the same pattern. We have scene setting, conflict rising, that conflict coming to a climax, then a period of denouement and resolution.  But in a novel, the drawing to a close of one scene or chapter sets up the next one.  And many times, the denouement and resolution don’t even come in until later in the book (although they do have to come together!). 

You don’t get this luxury in a short piece. While, as in a novel, we have to have a beginning, middle, and end, the short story must have a point to it all on its own. That point must be completely encapsulated   in the scope of this one story. That seems to go without saying, but from the writer’s side of the desk, it gets murky in the mind. Even if you’re writing a series of short pieces based on one theme, or one set of characters, each story has to stand entirely on its own—as if that’s all your reader will ever see.  

A novel is often a slice of life. One can even argue that Lonesome Dove in all its length was just one slice of life—Gus and Call at their best—and McMurtry wrote oh, Lord, I forget how many prequels and sequels to it!  Short fiction is also a slice of life, and it, too, must expose a bigger theme, speak to something universal, touch us with understanding.  Not only do you have very little time to get this done, but the feel of it is different, too, in that what is often most important is exactly that—the feel of it.  And that has to stay consistent throughout.  

At the crux of the issue is that raison de’ etre of a short story has to be powerful.  The story’s moments (of which novels must be filled as well) must be front and center and occur often.  While every word of a novel counts, in short fiction, each of those words count so much more. And in the end, in a few amount of words, you must have left the reader with an ah-ha epiphany, one stunning second, where she feels what you are conveying through your characters and storyline. Even if she can’t put into words exactly what the story was about, she knows it in her heart. 

And then you know you’ve written something beautiful.


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who loves to read a good short story that touches her heart.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Expressing Thought-Reactions in Fiction

I wonder if she thinks of me?
Here again is another helpful post from our guest, Jodie Renner.

How do you express thoughts and inner reactions in fiction? Thoughts, like dialogue, need to drive the story forward and sound natural and appropriate for both the thinker and the situation.

For this article, I’ve purposely used the term thought-reactions, instead of just thoughts, because in fiction, in any given scene, we’re in someone’s point of view, so in their head, privy to their thoughts. In that sense, all the narration for that scene is, or should be, in their thoughts, written in ordinary font, with no special punctuation or thought tags.

For example, in Sandra Brown’s Ricochet, we’re in Duncan’s point of view. We read: “Within seconds Jenny appeared. All six feet of her, most of it sleek, tanned legs that looked like they’d been airbrushed to perfection.” This is obviously Duncan’s viewpoint and his opinion/thoughts. No need to say “he thought.”

Thought-reactions, on the other hand, are when that viewpoint character (and only the POV character – we shouldn’t know the thoughts of anyone else in that scene) has an inner, emotional reaction to something that has just happened, or something someone has just said, whether it be anger, delight, confusion, frustration, surprise, or whatever.

In popular fiction written in third-person (he, she, they) past tense, you’ll see thoughts or thought-reactions appearing in either present or past tense, in first-person (I), second-person (you), or third-person (he, she, they).

Indirect introspection, or indirect thoughts, summarize, or paraphrase, the thinker's words. Indirect thoughts are usually expressed in third-person, past tense and written in normal font (avoid italics for indirect thoughts), with or without tags, like “she thought” or “he thought.” This is the equivalent to reporting what somebody said, rather than using their exact words in quotation marks, only of course these words are not spoken.
-    She wondered if he’d be late again.
-    Why couldn’t she understand where he was coming from?
-    If he didn’t know better, he would swear she was genuinely perplexed.

Direct introspection or direct thoughts use the character’s exact (unspoken) words, normally expressed in first-person, present tense. They can be in normal font or in italics. This is the equivalent to dialogue in quotation marks, except the words aren’t spoken out loud.
-    Why doesn’t she get it?
-    I’d better call Mom today.
-    Where’s that phone number?

Putting direct thoughts in italics can be very effective for expressing a sudden strong emotional reaction. Showing these visceral reactions of your characters helps us get inside their heads and hearts more deeply and bond with them. Showing a thought-reaction in italics works best when used sparingly, for a significant or urgent thought or reaction:

Leave out the thought tag, as the italics signify a direct thought, in this case.

Here are some examples of indirect thoughts contrasted with the same thought expressed directly.
Indirect: She felt lucky.   
Direct: Lucky me!
Indirect: He was such an idiot.
Direct: What an idiot! Or, in second person: You idiot!
Indirect: She had to be kidding.
Direct: What? You’ve got to be kidding! (second person)
Indirect: Did she really think he’d believe that?
Direct: Give me a break!
Indirect: She opened the curtains. It was a gorgeous day.
Direct: She opened the curtains. What a gorgeous day.
Indirect: Jake took a step back, wondering what he’d done.
Direct: Jake took a step back. Holy crap. What have I done?

Here’s an example from Don’t Look Twice, by Andrew Gross:
It was already after ten! She tried David’s cell one more time. Again, his voice mail came on.
What the hell is going on, David?
She started to get worried….

Finally, here are three basic no-nos for expressing thoughts or thought-reactions in fiction:
-    Never use quotation marks around thoughts. Quotation marks designate spoken words.
-    Never write  “he thought to himself” or “she thought to herself.” That’s a sign of amateurish writing—who else would they be thinking to?
-    Don’t have your characters think in perfect, grammatically correct, complex sentences. It’s just not realistic. Many of our thoughts are emotional reactions, flashes or images, expressed through a few well-chosen words.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor, whose craft-of-fiction articles appear regularly here and on four other blogs. For more information on Jodie’s editing services, please visit her website 

Posted by Maryann Miller who has just learned that less is more when it comes to internal dialogue.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Writing Short: Is It For You?

Please welcome our regular 3rd Tuesday guest, Terry Odell, with some interesting information on selling short stories in this era of e-publishing.

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I've written a long one instead." - attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and probably others too.

That's how I feel about short stories. For me, they're much harder to write, because you don't have time to spend on character development, elaborate descriptions, or sub-plots—all things I enjoy. I rarely bring a novel home in much under 100,000 words. My first completed draft of my first novel was 143,000 words. (It was published at about 85,000 words.)

Yet the very first thing I published was a short story. A very short story. 1800 words. In fact, it was really two stories, 900 words each. The completed piece is a simple scene told first from the man's POV, and then repeated in the woman's POV. I wrote both POVs because I couldn't decide which one worked better. I still couldn't decide, so I submitted it with both. That story is still out there.

For me, the hardest part of writing short stories is finishing them. My early mentor was reading my attempts at fan fiction, which is where I started learning the craft of writing, and she said, "Terry, you have a beginning, a middle, and more middle, and more middle. You need to have an end."

In mystery or romance short stories, you've got a "given" for an ending. The crime is solved; the hero and heroine get together.

Eventually, I figured out how to cut to the chase and get rid of the extraneous stuff. In reality, when you're writing a novel, your scenes and chapters also require a beginning, a middle, and an end. The main difference is that in the novel, until you get to that last chapter, the end needs to lead into the next scene.

So, why don't I write more short stories? With the upsurge in indie publishing, there's now a market for works of any length.

Market yes. But profitable? According to Mark Coker, the founder and CEO of Smashwords, the best selling works are longer ones. The average length of the best-selling titles at Smashwords is 110,000 words. My theory? Given the vast amount of full-length novels priced well below print versions, people want the most bang for their buck. If I can buy a novel for 99 cents, or $2.99, and the lowest price anyone can set at the e-stores is 99 cents, I'm not going to fork over the money for a story that might take me half an hour to read, at most.

I collected four short pieces that connect to Randy & Sarah from my Pine Hills Police series. They'd all been published individually by Cerridwen Press, either as short stories or free reads. None did particularly well. In reality, they're not even all true "stories". One's a prologue, one's kind of an epilogue, and one's a tongue-in-cheek look at the life of an author (from the characters' POV). Now that I have the rights back, I decided to bundle them rather than try to sell them individually. Did that help? I don't think so. The bundle is priced at 99 cents and is, overall, my lowest selling title.

Of course, if you're a major player, all bets are off. One noted author published a 6600 word short story, and charged $2.99 for it. People bought it, although judging from reviews, the price was an issue for many.

Terry's short romances are published by The Wild Rose Press. You can find more about them HERE. She's also written two short mysteries, one of which is published by Highland Press in DECEPTION.    As for the second … based on the above, she's still deciding what to do with it.

You can find her at her Web site. If you've followed her blog (or want to start!), note that it's moved and is now HERE   You can follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Posted by Maryann Miller who always enjoys a good short story.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Importance of Care in Becoming a Better Writer

I attempted to write this post for my Writing in 140 series, but it couldn’t be done. Perhaps in four, five posts, but not in one.

What topic presented itself with this abundance of words?

Care. The care to become a better writer.

For the last 12 or so years, I've edited hundreds of books, short stories, essays, etc. Only a handful, less than 10, have made me want to run for the hills and give up the editing profession. I mentioned this in passing to someone recently, and the person was surprised that the latter number was so low. Thinking about it at the time, I have to admit I was surprised by the number, too. Then I thought about it.

How I present myself as an editor goes a long way in determining the type of clients I will receive. I am an educator. I teach. In everything I do, I teach—to include editing. My main goal as an editor is always to have a return client whose next work is better because of what was learned in the initial experience. Growth. That matters to me, potential clients realize this, and so those writers wanting to learn, who care about becoming better writers, are the ones who often contact me.

Now, what does that previous paragraph have to do with the low number of run-for-the-hills books?


The care to become a better writer can shine through a book that needs work. That care can make a reader (even if that reader is an editor) see the good things of that work despite the issues that need to be fixed.

I have had people tell me explicitly that they had no goal to become a better writer. They wanted all the work done for them, and even if there were to be another book, again, they wanted someone to handle making the writing sing on the page. More often than not, the stories that made me want to run for the hills were the stories written by people who didn’t care to become better writers. They didn’t care about the craft and the work that comes with developing a story that, even in draft form, shows what it could become in revisions.

Someone could easily argue that fresh-faced new writers probably don’t know enough to develop a “could be really good with some revision” draft. However, I would argue that there is a plethora of information and resources freely available to writers today online (like this very blog). People who want to take their writing seriously can help themselves by using these tools to outline and prepare for the writing to come, to write their first draft, and to do some self-editing prior to submitting their work for a professional edit.

That care, even if it’s just seen in short sparks throughout a work, matters. When there is care for the writing, the story, and the development of self as writer, that care is going to show in the end product, no matter how much work is needed for it to be polished. In addition, it will make others, like editors, more eager to want to see that work revised, rewritten so that the good stuff in it shines throughout the work.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. Her second mystery, Into the Web, was released April 2012. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Cues from the Coach: Avoiding Homonym Headaches

During my years of editing, I have found homonyms (words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings) to be problematic for many writers. It’s not always that the writer doesn’t know the right word, but rather that—in the heat of getting the story down before something crucial is forgotten or the roll falls victim to daily distractions—we type the first spelling that comes to mind . . . or that flows automatically off the tips of our fingers without conscious thought. These little errors are big red flags to our readers, so we need to do a thorough self-edit of our manuscripts and then use readers and a competent editor to watch our literary backsides.

Below is a list of frequently misused words that often show up in manuscripts, but it is by no means complete.

• Carat (weight), Caret (punctuation mark), Carrot (vegetable)
• Cent (money), Sent (caused to go), Scent (odor)
• Cite (to summon, to quote, to refer to), Site (place, situation), Sight (view)
• Council (administrative or advisory group), Counsel (to advise, advice)
• Depravation (corruption), Deprivation (loss)
• Descent (downward flow or fall), Dissent (disagreement, to disagree)
• Desert (waterless region, to abandon), Dessert (last course of a meal)
• Dew (moisture), Do (perform), Due (owed)
• Dual (two), Duel (combat)
• Flew (past tense of fly), Flue (chimney), Flu (influenza)
• Gait (manner of walking), Gate (door)
• Grate (iron frame), Great (large, magnificent)
• Grisly (frightful), Grizzly (bear)
• Haul (pull, carry, transport), Hall (passageway, large room)
• Heal (cure), Heel (scoundrel, part of foot or shoe, end of bread loaf)
• Herd (a drove), Heard (did hear)
• Here (in this place), Hear (to perceive sound, to sit in judgment)
• Idol (image, object of adoration), Idle (not busy), Idyl (poem)
• Leak (hole, to drain out of), Leek (vegetable)
• Lesson (learning task), Lessen (to diminish)
• Lie (falsehood), Lye (caustic substance)
• Made (created), Maid (domestic servant, unmarried woman)
• Meat (animal flesh food), Meet (a gathering, to encounter, to convene)
• Miner (mine worker), Minor (underage person, of lesser importance)
• Morning (before noon), Mourning (grieving, to grieve)
• Naval (nautical), Navel (center, where umbilical cord attached)
• Oar (rowing blade), O’er (over), Or (conjunction), Ore (mineral)
• Pair (a couple), Pare (to peel), Pear (fruit)
• Palate (roof of mouth), Pallet (storage platform, bed), Palette (art tool)
• Paws (animal feet), Pause (hesitation)
• Peace (quiet, not war), Piece (a part)
• Principal (chief, amount of debt minus interest), Principle (fundamental truth, rule of conduct
• Profit (gain, to benefit from), Prophet (foreteller)
• Rain (water falling from clouds), Reign (rule), Rein (bridle)
• Raise (to lift), Rays (tiny amounts, beams of light), Raze (to demolish)
• Rap (strike, chant words to song), Wrap (enfold, conceal)
• Reek (to emit a smell—often foul), Wreak (to inflict)
• Retch (to vomit), Wretch (miserable person)
• Road (street, way), Rode (did ride), Rowed (did row)
• Scene (a view, story element), Seen (looked at, viewed)
• Sealing (fastening), Ceiling (top of room)
• Sew (to stitch), So (in this manner), Sow (to scatter seed)
• Shoot (to discharge gun or arrow), Chute (inclined trough or tunnel; parachute)
• Soar (to rise high), Sore (painful)
• Some (a part), Sum (total)
• Stair (steps), Stare (to gaze intently)
• Stationary (motionless; in one place), Stationery (writing paper)
• Succor (aid), Sucker (candy, fish, fool)
• Tale (story), Tail (flexible appendage, rear section of airplane)
• Taught (instructed), Taut (tight)
• Their (possessive pronoun), There (in that place), They’re (they are)
• Threw (did throw), Through (from end to end, by way of)
• Too (excess, also), To (preposition, toward), Two (couple)
• Vice (sin), Vise (a press)
• Waist (part of body), Waste (trash, to destroy)
• Weather (climatic conditions), Whether (if it be the case)
• Wood (substance of trees), Would (was willing)
• Yolk (yellow part of egg), Yoke (collar)

What homonyms have you found to be a problem?


Retired editor Linda Lane heads a mentoring team that trains authors to writer better and more effectively. Visit her at

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