Short Story Categorization

The Short Story Series

When you’re writing short stories with the intention to publish, you’ll want to pay attention to your word count. Short story publications most often pay per word, and will have limits on the size of stories they are willing to publish.

As a general rule of thumb, shorter stories are easier to get published than longer ones. Many publications won’t accept longer stories at all, and those that do accept them will often only accept a small number per issue.

On the other hand, the internet has provided new opportunities for longer stories that still fall short of novel-length. Novellas are becoming more common on e-book services like Amazon. If your story lends itself toward serialization, you can also consider breaking it up for episodic publishing, like Vella.

Microfiction/Nanofiction (<500 words)

Not everyone agrees on the definition of these terms, but they typically refer to the shortest of stories. I’ve used the microfiction tag for twitter-sized stories, but some people apply the term to stories up to a page long, or up to 500 words (about two pages).

Drabble (100 words)

Drabbles focus specifically on a length of 100 words. Some publications, like Martian Magazine, require exactly 100 words. Others, like The Drabble, treat 100 words as an upper limit.

Flash Fiction (<1000 words)

Flash fiction is a blanket term for the shortest fiction. One thousand words is a common upper bound, although some publications will categorize up to 1,500 or even 2,000 words as flash.

Short Story (<10,000 words)

Again, this is a little nebulous, but once you get beyond ten thousand words, you’re getting outside “standard” short story territory. Many publications will have tighter limits for what they allow, like 7,500 or 5,000 words.

Novelette (10,000 – 17,500 words)

There is a weird limbo between the short story lengths typically published by magazines, and the length of full-fledged novels. Novelettes live at the shorter end of this range. They’re typically defined as anything from ten thousand to 17,500 words, although some definitions cap them at an even 20,000. Sometimes novelettes are considered a subset of our next category, novellas.

Novella (20,000 – 40,000 words)

Novellas are the top end of the range before you get into novels. These are rare in traditional paper publishing, but they’ve become more common with the proliferation of cheap e-books.

Novel (40,000+)

Anything above 40,000 words is typically considered a novel. If you’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, this is the default goal. However, a higher word count is expected in most genres. This leaves “short novels” in a similar situation to novellas. As with novellas, these have become more common in e-books, where customers are less likely to consider how thick a book is before buying, and the economics of printing are less of a concern.

Others?

Any length-based categories I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Reblog: So You’ve Decided to Unfollow Me — Cory Doctorow

In today’s reblog, the insanely prolific author, blogger, tweeter, speaker, etc. Cory Doctorow gets a little misty-eyed for the days of yore, when the internet was all about finding the little corners where people liked the same things you liked and you all could collectively geek-out over it.

Doctorow is of the opinion that the rise of social media, cross-site user tracking and online advertising empires drew people away from many of those hidden corners of the internet and encouraged websites to cast the widest-possible nets, seeking sheer number of views over engaged communities.

Whether or not you believe that narrative, it does seem like we’ve lost some of that early internet magic. Doctorow is here to remind us that we don’t have to try to please everyone. We don’t have to chase those big, but barely-engaged viewer numbers. It’s better to build that little corner of the internet that’s all about the thing you love. It’s better to get together with a few people who also love that thing.

It’s hard to overstate how liberating the early years of internet publishing were. After a century of publishing driven by the needs of an audience, we could finally switch to a model driven by the interests of writers.

That meant that instead of trying to figure out what some “demographic” wanted to read about, we wrote what we wanted to read, and then waited for people who share our interests to show up and read and comment and write their own blogs and newsletters and whatnot.

[…]

In the golden years of internet publishing, the point was to find the weirdos who liked the same stuff as you. Freed from commercial imperatives, the focus of the blogosphere was primarily on using your work as a beacon to locate Your People, who were so diffuse and disorganized that there was no other way to find them.

That’s the dynamic behind the explosion of fandoms and fanfic, behind esoteric maker communities and weird collector rabbit-holes, behind conspiratorialism and fringe politics and the whole loompanic wonderment of it all.

Read the rest over on Cory Doctorow’s Medium site

Why Read Short Stories?

I began my series of short story posts with the question, “Why write short stories?” This time, I want to look at the other side of the coin and ask, “Why read short stories?”

For Fun

This one should be obvious. This blog is mostly about becoming a better writer, and we all got into this whole “author” mess because we really enjoyed a good story, right? (If you got into it for the fame and fortune, well…maybe you should consider letting someone else make your career choices for you?)

As I mentioned in the last post, novels have become the default unit of fiction. If you chat someone up at a social event and discover you both like science-fiction, you wouldn’t be surprised to be asked, “What’s your favorite book?” But it seems like it would have to be a very specific crowd of people to get asked, “What’s your favorite short story?”

And yet, there is a smorgasbord of great short fiction out there. There are still fiction magazines, even in this very non-magazine-friendly era, but there are also piles of short stories out on the internet, many of them available for free. If you’re the sort of person who reads dozens of novels a year but never reads short stories, I’d encourage you to go out there and try some. You can read a lot of short stories in the amount of time it would take to read one or two novels.

Recently, I’ve been savoring the anthologies of short stories I got from the Martian Year 2 Kickstarter. They’re great, because I can pick up one of these little books and read a story or two when I have a spare ten minutes. When I’m reading a novel, I much prefer longer reading sessions, where I can really get into it. Short stories are more like literary snacks. I can just pop one or two whenever I’m in the mood.

To Feed The Compost Heap

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read widely, both inside and outside of your chosen genres. Short stories are a great way to survey the scene and expose yourself to the ideas and techniques that other authors are using.

I haven’t been able to find the attribution, but some author suggested that the writer’s subconscious is like a compost heap. You put bits and pieces of stories and style and weird ideas and the nightly news into it, and every once in a while you turn it over with a pitchfork. That mix of stuff becomes good dirt, a fallow base to grow your own stories from.

Short stories give you a lot of good fodder for the compost heap. You expose yourself to so many more ideas and styles by reading an anthology or an issue of a lit magazine than by reading a novel. Of course, short stories are necessarily smaller and less complex than a well-crafted novel, so there’s certainly value in both.

By reading more and more varied stories, you can cover more ground. One of the nightmares that keeps some authors up at night is the idea that they’ll finish their perfect novel, only to discover that an almost identical book was written in the early ’80s. Honestly, I think this is an overblown fear, and that for pretty much any story you can find something similar in the past, if you try hard enough. However, the more aware you are of the “story landscape” that you exist within, the more likely you are to come up with ideas that go beyond what others have done with a particular topic or style.

To Learn Technique

For the most part, we all have the same words available to us, whether you work in the deeper or shallower ends of the vocabulary pool. And yet we manage to have incredibly different styles of writing. Compare three semi-random examples from my bookshelf: Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tolkien. They’re all writing in English, but in a side-by-side comparison, they certainly feel like they’re writing in different languages.

By exposing you to more variety, short stories let you experience more varied techniques and tones. In the span of an hour, you could experience stories with the tight, simple language of Hemmingway, the lush descriptions of Tolkien, and the sly, comedic-yet-depressing viewpoint of Vonnegut.

Short stories also tend to be distilled and concentrated. A novel has some room to meander. A short story needs to be tight; it needs to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. If a novel is a big, bright search light, a short story is a laser.

To Research Markets

I won’t get into this too much, because we’ll talk about it in a later post, but if you’re writing short stories and you want to submit them for publication, it’s always good practice to read some of the stories from that publication before you submit. Magazines and anthologies usually describe in some detail the kinds of stories they’re looking for, but you’ll get a much better idea of the things the editors like by reading some of the stories they actually picked for previous issues or editions.

When you get into the short story submission grind, it might feel onerous to research a lot of different markets like this, but really it’s a great opportunity—you get to target your stories to markets that are more likely to accept them, you get to read some good stories, and the magazines get more readership and maybe a few bucks if you buy a sample issue or two.

Get Started

Whether you want to publish short fiction or not, don’t overlook short stories in favor of novels. There are a lot of great stories out there, and you’re going to miss out on so much if you only read the ones that are hundreds of pages long.

If you want somewhere to get started, check out my page on drabbles. These are super-short stories of exactly one hundred words. That page has links to ten of my favorite drabbles, as well as a couple of my own stories.

Beyond that, a simple google search for free short stories will turn up more than you could ever read. If you prefer reading words on paper, pretty much every genre has a few short story magazines you could subscribe to. Or you could visit your local library where the librarians would no doubt be delighted to help you find anthologies in the genre of your choice. Once you start looking for short stories, they’re not hard to find.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 14

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

So Many Characters

This chapter felt strange. Suddenly it’s not all about Christopher, and we have brand new characters. I have to think about how other made-up people might talk and think and walk around and point guns at people.

Just when Christopher thinks all his problems might be over, he discovers some brand new problems. These people are weird, and they definitely don’t trust Christopher. They aren’t eager to put him on a plane back to the Midwest. They apparently live in a run-down underground office building in the middle of nowhere.

This new group is big, and it’s not really practical (or necessary) to introduce everyone, so I tried to give the impression of a larger group while focusing on only a couple of characters that will actually matter going forward. This is always a balancing act, because I want to set the scene clearly, but I don’t want to waste too many paragraphs describing people that will never show up in the story again. Firstly, that slows down the story, and secondly, it sometimes gives the reader the impression that they’re going to need to keep track of these characters, only to find out later that they don’t.

Maintaining Tension

I often worry that I’m not making things awful enough for my characters. A lot of characters in fiction are well and truly miserable. Characters need problems to push against, or the story just doesn’t have enough tension. On the other hand, tension needs to ebb and flow throughout the story for it to feel meaningful. A book that mercilessly beats the protagonist the entire time can wear you out. Slowing down before throwing in new problems can make the next big bad thing feel bigger and badder.

At the end of Act I, some of the sources of tension were relieved. Christopher didn’t die in the wilderness (yet). He no longer has to wonder if he’s all alone. In this chapter, the tension comes mainly from not knowing the intentions of these strange new people and the interrogation Christopher receives. So I was a little worried that it would be too easy for him when they let him off the hook at the end of the chapter and don’t keep him at gunpoint.

On the other hand, this doesn’t immediately solve any of his bigger problems, and those are still hanging over him while I set up some new mysteries and resolve or provide breadcrumbs for other mysteries. Plus, I know that there are new problems on the horizon.

Up Next

Next chapter is another Christopher chapter, and it’s going to be another relatively low-key one where a little more info is revealed. If I learned anything from Locke and Key, it’s that mysteries can keep the story interesting even when it’s slow.

After that, we get to return to God-Speaker and do a little bit of jumping through time.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

“Tell me, Christopher, how do you like living in Minneapolis?”

“What?”

“Do you like Minneapolis?”

Christopher shrugged.

“I guess so.  It’s too cold in the winter and usually pretty miserable in the summer too. But I wouldn’t want to live somewhere like California or Nevada where they don’t have real seasons.”

“That’s it?”

“Fuck, I don’t know!” Christopher said, getting to his feet and knocking the chair back. “Why does it matter how I feel about Minneapolis? I’ve been lost in the woods for weeks. I just want to go home and drink a Coke and buy a big steak and, I don’t know, call my parents and friends and tell them I didn’t die in a horrible plane wreck a week into my new job.”

“Sit down, Chris.”

He stared at her.

“It’s Christopher.”

“Sit down, Christopher.”

He sat.

“How do you feel about America?”

“Jesus. I love it. It’s worked out pretty well for me.”

“That’s it?”

He picked at his lips where they were chapped and flaking.

“What do you want me to say? I grew up in America, and it seems like a better option than a lot of other places. I have a good job, when it doesn’t almost kill me. All my friends are here. The politics gets worse and worse every year, but my day-to-day is pretty good. At least it was before this all happened.”

“Christopher, what do you know about the U.S.S.R.?”

He stared into her eyes. Her face was blank.

“Probably not as much as my history teachers would like? I think it was the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia and a bunch of countries around Russia. Communist. A lot of people died when they changed their whole economic system. They helped us win World War II, then we had a few decades of the Cold War where we hated each other. Everyone piled up nukes on both sides, once or twice there was almost a global atomic war. We had a space race and America got to the moon. Eventually the U.S.S.R. fell apart. Now it’s just Russia trying to recapture their faded glory.”

“To your knowledge, have there ever been any nuclear strikes against America?”

Christopher blinked.

“No. Not unless you count the tests where we did it ourselves, out in the desert or on islands. Something like that.”

She leaned back in her chair.

“Alright, I think that’s enough. Let’s start over. Who do you really work for?”

Christopher put his face in his hands.

“I already told you, I work for Peak Electric Solutions. In Minneapolis. Look it up. Call them and ask them about me.”

She pulled her gun from its holster and set it gently on the table, resting her hand on it.

“I don’t have a lot of patience right now, Christopher, and I don’t think anything you’ve said so far sounds very believable.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“I don’t know what you want from me or why everyone here is so worried about me, but everything I’ve told you is the truth. It sounds crazy to me too, and I lived through it.”

“You tell me the truth,” she said, “and you tell me about your extraction point. I’m willing to make a deal.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Christopher said. “I was hoping this would be my extraction point. I just want to go home.”

“If you don’t cooperate, you could spend the rest of your life in that closet across the hall,” she said, “although that might not be very long.”

“Do you want me to make something up? I told you the truth, about everything. If you want more details, I can give you as much detail as you want. Or at least as much as I remember. I’m not lying.”

“Alright,” she said. “Let’s get into details. Back on the plane, when did you know you were going to crash? Were there other passengers?”

“Ah,” Christopher said. “Yeah. Sure. I guess I should probably just start every sentence with ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…’”

There was no clock in the room, but Christopher felt like he had been talking for hours. He repeated his story twice more, including all the details that came to mind. He explained the empty plane and missing passengers. He gave her the seemingly random code that gave him access to the bunker. He thought that talking through his story might give him some sort of epiphany, but it still didn’t make sense to him. It didn’t sound any more believable to him with the additional details.

The corporal listened with her unreadable expression, occasionally interjecting to ask questions. Halfway through the second telling, she took out a canteen and poured two glasses. Christopher half-expected alcohol, but it was just water.

When Christopher had finished his second retelling, the room fell silent. Ema had stood and was pacing along one side of the room. She came back to the desk and sat down. She sighed deeply.

“I hate to admit it, but I don’t think you’re lying. I don’t have the slightest idea what the hell happened to you or why you ended up here. And unfortunately for you, I doubt you’re any better off with us than you were before.”

They sat and looked at each other. Ema yawned.

“Can you please tell me something about where we are and what’s going on here?” Christopher asked.

“I suppose,” she said, “but I’m exhausted. You can ask the others. I need to think.”

She led him out of the room, back down the hall to the central area. There were still several others still there—two at the table, playing cards, and several more sitting or laying on cots that had been set up.

“I don’t think he’s a threat,” Ema announced to the group at large, “but I don’t think he’s going to be much help to us either. Feel free to make your own assessments.”

Christopher stifled the urge to groan, imagining a dozen more of these people interrogating him. However, he saw Amaranth sitting in the corner, and she gestured to him. He walked over, trying not to look over his shoulder. He felt the eyes of the others on him.

She scribbled in her notebook and held it up to him.

Sleep?

He nodded gratefully, and she gestured to one of the cots. He lay down with his back to the room. He knew they were watching him.

He really was exhausted. The cot wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it was no worse than sleeping in the tent had been, or the hard bunks in the bunker. Christopher felt his mind still racing with everything he had relayed to Ema, and everything he had seen here, but he was too worn down. The ideas were fractured and disorganized, like glassware shattering in his brain. He couldn’t hold on to any idea for more than a few seconds.

Despite feeling frantic and frustrated only moments before, he soon  found himself falling into feverish, hallucinatory dreams.

<< PREVIOUS ] [HOME] [ NEXT >>

Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher had never had a gun pointed at him before, but within seconds of entering the maintenance room several of the people in fatigues had guns drawn and aimed near his feet. Amaranth immediately interposed herself between Christopher and the others and began gesturing vigorously in some sort of sign language. It was clear by their blank looks that some of the people didn’t understand her, but two or three of them seemed to be following along.

The people whispered to each other in their little cliques, and one man broke off from the card game and disappeared through the door on the far side of the room. Christopher stood, hands up, and waited for someone to decide what was to be done with him. Eventually, Amaranth directed him to an old wooden chair against the wall near the group playing cards.

After a few minutes of awkward silence where Christopher felt like some sort of zoo exhibit, the man who had gone out came back through a side door. Behind him was a woman with her black hair in a tight braid that fell to her waist. She had chevrons on her shoulder, and a few of the others saluted when she came into the room. Christopher wondered what the circumstances were where people in the military were allowed to have long hair. He had a vague sense that everyone got their head shaved in boot camp, and he thought it had to remain short after that, but several of these people had longer hair or beards.

Where everyone else in the room had been content to watch him from a distance and whisper amongst themselves, this new woman walked directly up to him. She had a jingling ring of keys hanging from her belt, and a sidearm holstered at her other hip.

He stood as she approached, slowly and with his hands clearly visible. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should he salute?

She looked him over without speaking, the muscles around her mouth twitching. Then she turned to Amaranth and motioned in sign language. The gestured conversation went back and forth, and Christopher was unable to follow. He tried to stay calm and be patient, knowing that his safety probably depended on it. Finally, the woman held up her hands to Amaranth, as though asking her to pause. She turned back to Christopher.

“Come with me.”

She pointed to Amaranth, then to the man who had brought her. She led the way back through the side door. Christopher followed, with Amaranth and the man following behind.

The door led to a short hallway. There were several doors, some of them open. They had labels etched into the wood: B5, B4, B3. Some of the doors were left ajar, and Christopher could see what looked like dark, disused offices.

Christopher suddenly wondered about the lights. They were simple circles of frosted glass, set into the ceiling every few feet. The color of the light reminded him of sunlight, but he thought it would be impossible to somehow reflect sunlight this far down underground.

The woman with the long black hair stopped in front of one of the doors, “B2C,”  and located a key on the keyring to unlock it. She opened it up and gestured for him to step inside.

It was a closet. The floor was dirty, and the discolored and scraped olive paint on the walls showed where furniture or something else had once rubbed against the walls. Now it was a just a bare room, barely larger than an elevator.

He stepped inside, and the man stepped in after him. As the man shut the door, Christopher caught a glimpse of Amaranth and the woman going into an office across the hall.

“Sit,” the man said. His tone was more a suggestion than an order.

Christopher sat in the corner, facing the door. The man stood next to the door, arms crossed over his chest. He had no weapon, at least that Christopher could see.

Minutes went by. The man seemed content to just sit and watch Christopher.

Christopher began to wonder if he had made a mistake by not speaking up. These people were treating him like he was some kind of danger, when he clearly wasn’t.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” he asked.

The man shook his head sadly.

“Just try to be patient. They’re going to talk for a bit, then the corporal will talk with you.”

Christopher sighed.

“I’m just a guy who got lost. I’m a sales person. My plane crashed. I was never meant to be here. I’m just trying to find a way to get back home.”

The man held up a hand.

“You need  to be quiet and wait patiently, understood?”

Christopher nodded. He rubbed his palms against his closed eyes. He was so tired. Even here, after all this, he could fall asleep. He let his head tilt back against the wall.

He wasn’t sure if he had dozed off when he heard a knock on the door and it opened again. The woman stood there. He saw Amaranth pass by behind her.

“Stand up, come on,” she said.

Christopher got up, and she gestured that he should go through the door across the hall.

“Thanks, Harold,” she said to the man as he came out behind. “And try to keep the gossip to a minimum until we get this sorted.”

“Sure,” he said.

Christopher realized as he stepped into the room that it wasn’t really an office. It was just another, bigger storage room masquerading as an office. A long folding table had been set up at one end, with an office chair behind it. A pair of beat-up metal folding chairs were set in front of the “desk,” and a pair of wooden benches had been set up in the opposite corner.

She closed the door behind them, then walked past him to sit in the office chair while Christopher looked around. After a moment, she gestured to the folding chairs.

“Take a seat.”

Christopher sat.

“What is your name?”

“Christopher Lamarck.”

“Christopher, my name is Ema. I’m the boss here. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer.”

“Sure..”

“You should know that I have no reason to trust you, and my goodwill is going to depend entirely on how honest I think you are.”

Christopher shook his head.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m just trying…”

Ema held up a finger.

“What did I say?”

Christopher sighed. “You’re asking the questions and I’m answering.”

“Good. Now who are you, what is your job, and where are you from?”

“I’m Christopher Lamarck,” he said. “I’m a salesperson for Peak Electric Solutions. I’m from Minneapolis. Well, the suburbs.”

“And why are you here?” she asked.

“I was on a sales trip. Visiting three of the power companies we work with up here.”

He paused to think. It felt like such a long time ago.

“I…I flew into Anchorage, then down to Homer. I spent a day there, and then I was supposed to fly to Fairbanks. But the plane…the plane crashed.”

“What kind of plane was it?” Ema asked.

“I don’t know. It was small, maybe ten passenger seats?”

“How did you survive the crash?”

“I jumped.”

“You jumped out of a plane? While it was flying?”

“Well, I think it had slowed down, and it was low, and I landed in the water. And even then it hurt like hell. I almost blacked out when I hit the water.”

She looked unimpressed.

“So you somehow managed to survive jumping out of a plane by landing in freezing cold water?”

Christopher took a deep breath.

“Yeah, I remember thinking how ironic it was that I would survive the jump and die of hypothermia. I got to the shore and I was freezing. But there was this…door I found,. It opened into some kind of bunker. It was heated. I just kind of collapsed inside.”

Ema’s index finger tapped quietly on the edge of the table. Christopher looked up from his hands to her face.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy. Well, it sounds crazy to me. Maybe it makes sense to you, since you’re out here in…whatever this place is. I found the bunker and I was able to avoid freezing to death. There was food and water and heat. I was there for weeks. I made a signal fire. There was some kind of old military radio that didn’t seem to work properly.”

She held up a hand again.

“And how did you get here?”

“There was a map. It had different points marked on it. I figured nobody was coming to find me, so I had to go try to find someone. So I hiked toward the points on the map. It honestly didn’t go that well. Then I was camped out one night and someone started shooting at me. Amaranth found me. I guess she had been following me?”

“Who was shooting at you?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

Ema rubbed her temple.

“What happened after that?”

“I left all my supplies at that camp and she marched me through the forest all night to get to this place.”

“And here we are,” Ema said.

“Here we are.”

<< PREVIOUS ] [HOME] [ NEXT >>

Why Write Short Stories?

Recently, I’ve been looking for ways to write more. I’m currently in the middle of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. A novel is a huge commitment, and while it can be immensely satisfying, it can also feel like a slog sometimes when it’s all I’m working on. So I decided to do something I hadn’t done in years—start writing short stories again.

This is the first post in a series I’ll be doing about short stories—reading, writing, editing, and submitting. Modern fiction has become really fixated on the novel as the most prestigious form of fiction, but novels are just one of the many shapes a story can take. Short stories have a lot to offer.

This week, let’s get into some of the advantages of writing short stories.

Write More

At the risk of controversy, I think that great writing is more about execution than ideas. A great idea is the foundation of a story, but we’ve all read stories with an interesting premise that just fell flat. Likewise, a master of the craft can sometimes make a great story out of a very mundane premise.

Most writers have piles of ideas and just not enough time to figure out the story for each one, let alone actually write it. Even very prolific writers usually don’t manage more than a couple novels per year. For slow writers like me, that kind of pace is impressive. But how many of us only have a couple story ideas per year?

One of the joys of writing shorter stories is that you can write them quickly. A thousand-word flash fiction story can be drafted in a single sitting. Short stories are easier to outline and prepare, if you’re the sort of writer who prefers to do that. Even if you would never dream of jumping into a novel without a thorough outline, you might be tempted to try exploratory writing on smaller stories.

Finish More

Listen to your crazy writing uncle, Chuck Wendig, and finish your projects. Finishing your stories forces you to practice every step in the writing process, and practice is what helps you become better.

Of course, if you’ve ever played a sport or an instrument, you’ll know that the best way to practice is through purposeful repetition, especially of the basics. That’s why you run drills at football practice or play your scales and arpeggios every day.

The truth is that it’s hard to practice writing through novels. Short stories are great because they take you through the full cycle of writing, from ideation to draft to editing and critique and final polish. The shorter the stories, the more you get to practice all of these things. And beyond honing your skills, you can also develop a better understanding of what you like and dislike; what your strengths and weaknesses are; what styles and themes you enjoy.

Publish More

Short stories aren’t only an opportunity to practice your craft and explore more ideas. They also represent more chances to publish.

If you’re going the traditional publishing route, it can take months or years to write a novel, then months or years more to get an agent, go through revisions, get an editor, go through more revisions, and (hopefully) actually get published. If you’re self-publishing, you need to take on the editing and publicity yourself. Either way, a lot of effort goes into the publication of a novel. Even scarier, many authors write several books before they come up with something that catches an editor’s eye or climbs the Amazon lists. Each novel takes a lot of effort and carries a lot of risk of failure.

By contrast, there are hundreds of active publications, anthologies and contests that accept short story submissions. You don’t need an agent to represent you, and the turnaround time is typically measured in weeks, not months or years. Because each story takes less work, it represents less risk of failure. Authors who write a lot of short stories aren’t phased by rejection letters. They know that they can just submit that story somewhere else. They might have five, ten, or more stories out for submission at any given time. And while some of those stories might never find a home, others will, and may even find a long life through anthologies and reprints.

Short stories are not as lucrative as books. You’d have to sell a lot of stories to match the a single mid-list advance. But they provide more opportunity to get your work, and your name, out there for others to see. There is a small (but not insignificant) advantage when you’re able to list a few recent publications in that cover letter for your novel submission.

Level Up

For better or worse, modern authors tend to measure success by novels. But if you think short stories are beneath you, you’re wrong. Great short stories can be every bit as artful as great novels, and while building a big cohesive story in a novel can be challenging, the brevity of short stories can be equally demanding.

If short stories don’t sound fun to you, you might be surprised. Short work provides the opportunity to play, and to try out all sorts of new ideas and techniques. And if you’re trying to get better at writing (as I think we all are, perpetually), each short story is an opportunity to level up.

What I Learned From Locke and Key

I was on vacation this week, and along with some other vacation reading material, I borrowed the first three volumes of Locke and Key from my local library. It’s a suspense/mystery/horror comic series. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be reviewing from the angle of useful writing lessons I took from these books.

The story of the Locke family begins with a murderous attack in their own home. Rendell Locke, the father, is killed, and his three children and wife Nina are left severely traumatized. To get away from it all, they move to the ancestral Locke house, in ominously named Lovecraft, MA.

In the new house, the children soon discover that there is some kind of paranormal creature lurking around who seems to have a vendetta against the Locke family, and the house is filled with strange keys, each with their own magical powers.

Don’t Raise Stakes Too Quickly

The very first scene in the story is a home invasion and murder. There are a couple problems with this. Firstly, we don’t know any of the characters yet, so the situation loses some of its punch. It’s obviously a bad time for everyone, but the characters are still strangers to us, so I didn’t sympathize with them as much as I might later on.

Secondly, the stakes are immediately sky-high. It doesn’t get much worse than being chased by a crazy murderer. Later on, when the kids are worried about classes, making friends, or relationships, it all feels small and unimportant in comparison. How do you ramp up the tension from that beginning?

I think it might have been better for the story if the entire incident had happened “off-screen” and only been revealed in flashbacks.

Make Characters Likable in Some Way

All the living members of the Locke family are traumatized. Nina becomes an alcoholic, while the kids try to take solace in relationships, and later, in the powers of the keys.

However, in these first three volumes the characters’ relationships with one another steadily deteriorate. They are all unhappy and everyone acts selfishly most of the time. Only when there’s an immediate threat of physical harm do they work together.

In recent years, there has been a sharp uptick in TV “anti-hero” dramas like Breaking Bad or Ozark. These are shows where the main characters do bad things, and they escalate by transforming the characters into worse and worse people. I’m not a big fan of these shows. Why would I root for someone who shows no positive qualities?

The Lockes are hardly anti-heroes, but they have the same problem. Why should I root for these characters when I never see them in a positive light?

A Good Mystery Keeps You Reading

What kept me invested in the first three volumes of Locke and Key is the mystery. What is the origin of the keys? How are they tied to the house? Who is this villain, really, and what is their ultimate goal?

Even when I wasn’t that invested in the characters and their troubles, I still kept reading to find out more about these mysteries. Wanting to know more is a powerful way to keep the reader engaged.

Vacations Are Great!

I don’t know if I’ll read the rest of Locke and Key. I borrowed it from the library to try before I buy, and it hasn’t compelled me to keep reading.

On the other hand, I enjoyed all my extra vacation reading time, and I feel rested and energized to get back to my writing projects!

Five Ways to Fight Through the Middle

I recently finished Act I of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. That means I’m officially done with the beginning of the book, and I’m starting on the middle. Admittedly, these ideas of three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end are all just scaffolding designed to help us talk about the structure of stories, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors run into similar roadblocks in specific parts of the process. One of the most common problems is a certain…malaise when getting into the middle of a novel.

There’s a lot to be excited about at the beginning of a book: introducing the main characters and setting, and all the big ideas that the book is about. Likewise, the ending has to pull all those desperate ideas and characters into a big exciting finale. But the middle, the middle has to find a way to connect the beginning plot to the end plot in a way that makes sense. It can take many different shapes.

So, as I embark on the middle of my book, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of ways to fight through a difficult middle.

1. New Characters

Usually the main cast of characters is introduced in the beginning (although not always). They’ve had some time to form their relationships and perhaps develop some interpersonal conflicts to spice things up.

The middle is the perfect time to introduce some new characters into the mix. These don’t have to be part of the main cast. In fact, characters may only come in for a scene or a few chapters, as they’re needed. While main characters can often feel like a lot of work, these characters that only briefly touch the story can be an opportunity to try something new. You might hate a quirky or obnoxious character if you have to keep them around for the entire story, but those same traits may make a short-lived character more memorable.

2. New Information

Coming out of the beginning of the story, the main characters probably have some open conflicts to deal with and some goals they’re trying to achieve. However, it may not be clear to them (or to you) how exactly they’re going to do that.

Going into the middle of the book is a perfect time to start laying down breadcrumbs that lead them in certain directions. They might learn something about the villain that can be useful when they face off again. They could find out about people, items, or other macguffins that can help them in their quests.

This mid-book info doesn’t always have to set up future plot points. They can also find out why things have happened. A whirlwind beginning can leave a protagonist lost and confused, in a situation they never wanted to be in. Understanding what happened and why can help them come to grips with all of that.

3. New Obstacles

For some authors, dishing out pain to their characters comes naturally. Others tend to fall in love with their characters and have to fight the urge to give them what they want.

If you come into the middle of the book and things seem to be going a little too well for your characters, it’s time to introduce new challenges and roadblocks. Life is full of ups and downs, and stories are no different. As an added bonus, as soon as a new conflict is introduced, it provides some instant direction to the plot. Characters faced with a problem are going to want to find a way to overcome that problem.

4. New Disasters

Sometimes, a mere obstacle isn’t enough. A disaster can change the whole landscape of the story. And often, the best time for a disaster is just when the characters think everything is going their way.

This might take the form of a villain-behind-the-villain reveal. Friends could turn out to be enemies in a cruel twist. Maybe the characters’ original goals no longer apply, and they’re cast adrift, trying to figure out what to do next.

Disasters can serve as a sort of “reset” button to take the story in a whole new direction.

5. A Victory

A story where the characters just get beaten down continuously can feel exhausting. If the characters never succeed, then it feels like the story isn’t theirs—they have no agency.

If the beginning has left the story feeling bleak and the characters really need a win, give it to them. It doesn’t have to be something big. It may be as simple as earning a breather in the midst of larger battles. The characters have likely been through some things at this point. Now is a great opportunity to let them get to know each other a little better, and deepen relationships.

Don’t Fear the Middle

Getting into the middle of a book can feel daunting. For many of us it’s the hardest part to write. If you’re an exploratory writer, you might wonder if you will even be able to find a way through to a satisfying ending.

It’s not all bad though! Middles are opportunities to really dig into the parts of your beginning that really excited you. Get to know your characters. Find the interesting nooks and crannies of your setting. Remind yourself what made you want to write the book in the first place, and double-down on that in every way you can think of.

Storytelling Class — Mysteries

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was mysteries.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side collections, and started on the first book of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading collections of short stories, including some of the anthologies that I got from the Martian Kickstarter. I also checked out the first three volumes of Locke and Key from the library, and I’m working through those.

What Did We Write?

Freya continues to work on her chapter book, Amber and Floria. She recently felt the downsides of exploratory writing as she had to rewrite her first two chapters to match the way the later parts evolved.

I’ve been working on Razor Mountain, and spending a little time here and there working on short stories.

Mysteries

Our topic for this class was crafting satisfying mysteries.

The first thing to note is that there are “big mysteries” that drive the whole plot of a story, as in murder mysteries and police procedurals. There are also “little mysteries” that can serve a few different purposes in a story, but all boil down to reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Little mysteries don’t have to be long and drawn out like big mysteries. They can be posed and resolved in the same chapter, or even a single conversation.

Many mysteries are just questions the reader asks the story, like:

  • What happened?
  • What happens next?
  • Why is this thing like that?
  • Who is this person and why did they do that?

Mysteries can also be just for a character, while the reader can see all the answers. Then the question for the reader becomes “how will the character find the answer I already know?” A lot of tension can be added to a story by letting the reader get information that a character doesn’t have. The character, using the limited information at their disposal, may make reasonable choices that the reader knows are bad. Few things are more harrowing for a reader than watching a character make bad choices that they think are good choices.

Driving a Story With Mysteries

Mysteries are a great way to define a section of a story, or an arc. Each mystery naturally has a beginning (when the mystery is first posed), a middle (when the characters work through the clues and overcome obstacles) and an ending (when the answer to the mystery is revealed).

To drive a story with mysteries though, you’ll need multiple mysteries being created and resolved over the course of the plot. This can be done in two basic ways, which I’ll call overlapping mysteries and feeding mysteries.

Overlapping mysteries are not necessarily directly related to each other. A character might have a personal mystery that affects themselves, and a larger mystery they’re working on that ties into the big plot. For example, a police detective who is trying to solve a murder, but spends his off-hours trying to find his long-lost child, hidden from him by his late ex-wife.

Feeding mysteries are arranged so that the solution to one mystery provides clues or ties into another mystery. A common type of plot twist is when two mysteries that appear to just be overlapping may turn out to actually be feeding into one another. In our example, maybe the detective discovers that he did have a child, and the picture he found looks suspiciously similar to the killer he’s tracking.

Feeding a personal mystery into the bigger plot mystery is a great way to set up personal stakes for a character, and then make those stakes affect the outcome of the story.

Making a Mystery

I won’t claim there is a single formula for creating mysteries, but I’ll provide a few steps you can run through to get started.

  1. Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
  2. Answer the question. This is the payoff.
  3. Add an obscuring complication.
  4. Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
  5. Repeat and nest as necessary.

When you’re first coming up with your question and answer, don’t worry if the answer seems obvious. The key is to start by having something to ask and knowing the answer.

Once you have a question and answer, you can add an obscuring complication. This can be anything that makes it harder for the characters to discover the answer. This is how you can adjust the difficulty of the mystery.

Will the mystery be more difficult for the characters if some piece of critical information is missing? They could solve it easily if only the murder weapon wasn’t missing! Perhaps a character flaw would make it harder for them to solve. Too bad the character is an antisocial lone wolf, because the person they never get along with would be able to see exactly what’s going on. You can add multiple obstacles if you want the character to go through several steps to solve the mystery.

Then, for each obstacle, you must determine the way that the character(s) will ultimately overcome it and move the plot forward.

Once you have a complete arc—question, obstacle, overcoming, and solution—you can begin to overlap or feed one mystery into another.

A Mystery Is Only as Good as Its Payoff

A final warning: one of the most dangerous things you can do as a writer is to create lots of mysteries without knowing the answers or how to resolve them.

Episodic TV shows fall into this trap all the time, because creating big mysteries gets viewers excited. However, as the show carries on, they either fail to provide solutions to the mysteries or create such tangled, nonsensical plot webs to justify their solutions that the whole thing falls apart.

Nobody will remember or appreciate how well you built up that tantalizing mystery if the payoff turns out to be garbage.