Author Archives: Lori DeBoer

Six Short Story Traps and Quick Escapes, Plus a Giveaway

By Lori DeBoer

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry nailed it; writing short is more challenging than writing long. There is promise and magic inherent in the short story, but there are common common traps that waylay unwary writers.

Many traps are caused by the form itself. Short stories create a sense of mystery, because their small footprint requires them to allude to larger themes, rather than hitting readers squarely over the head with them. Short story writers should look for the epiphany, the transcendent moment. A strong piece of short writing almost always focuses on a moment of profound realization, of creating that singular, atmospheric effect.

As V.S. Pritchett noted, a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

Joseph O’Connor, writing in Dublin in 1997 in his introduction to his Fish Anthology: Dog Days and Other Stories, had this to say about the form: “The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. When we read the work of a short story maestro like Joyce or Frank O’Connor or Richard Ford or Alice Munro or Mary Lavin, we think, yes, there is just a rightness about that sentence, that image, that line of speech. But anyone who has ever tried to write a short story will know just how tough it is to hit that reverberating note, to say something – anything at all – worthwhile about the human condition, in five thousand words or less. It’s hard.”

The shorter the piece, the more perfect and polished it must be. That’s why many writers come to short stories later in their careers. Writing in this genre requires a sense of precision; everything counts, nothing is extraneous or by chance. A short piece of fiction at once a work of art, as closely related to poetry as it is to its long cousin, the novel. Yet, it still must still contain elements of story.

With these parameters, it’s relatively easy for a newbie writer to go astray, but it’s also easier for a beginner to fix short pieces. Let’s talk about some traps that imperil the untutored writer.

 

The trap of writing too large

A good short story is concise, I repeat, and creates a singular effect. For example, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories create a sense of dissonance and eerie unease in the reader. Kevin Brockmeier’s short stories rely on a punchy absurdity with profound moments of realization. Antonia Nelson’s short stories contrast everyday reality with points of pain and crisis. Beginners go awry by trying to say too much. They cram too many story lines or encompass too large a period of time into their stories. When you do this, you simply skim the surface, and end up writing a story treatment or plot outline for a novel.

Quick escape:  Contain your short stories to a short time frame and only two or three settings. When I write a short story, I find it useful to shoot for something really short, such as a prose poem. When things get out of hand, as they often do, I’ve then ended up with an actual short story rather than a novel.

 

The trap of writing too small

It’s fine to shoot for shorter, but a typical short story is larger than a poem or piece of flash fiction. You end up writing too small when you have a weak premise or trivial theme; the result is a story that lumbers along, trying to pick up speed. Trivial themes arise when there’s nothing at stake and really no point in the main characters to pursue their story goal. You’ll know you have a trivial theme when you are finding it hard to stretch your story out to five pages or more, or if your characters are all sitting around drinking coffee or smoking weed. If you find yourself not caring about what happens to the characters, neither will your reader. If you feel you are writing a narrative that is merely experimental or for effect, chances are you are writing too small. If there’s no heart in your story, you might also be writing too small.

Quick escape: Make your story events arise out of character goals set in each scene. The stories unfold because of the consequences of each decision the main character makes. Doing so automatically enlarges the story.

 

The trap of too much backstory, too early

If you’ve been trapped at a party with a stranger who is regaling you with all the sordid details of their life, you’ve experienced too much backstory. It’s harder for writers to realize they are doing this, because you don’t actually see your reader backing away. Backstory for the fiction writer functions the same as research; as a creator, you need to know all that background to make sense of what you are writing. That doesn’t mean the reader needs an info dump at the beginning. A prologue is nothing more than formalized backstory, and unless it’s done very cleverly, most agents and editors hate prologues. Backstory works best when it comes in at points where the reader needs to know some personal history to make sense of the character’s motivations. The current story line needs to be taut and tense enough—like a clothesline—to hold up a certain amount of backstory.

Quick escape: Think of backstory as being on a “need to know” basis. Dribble it in judicious, gossipy bits, instead of throwing it in one big chunk at the front of the story.

 

The trap of too many characters

Unlike the novel or the epic series, short stories occupy a small stage. If you have too many characters crowding that space, it becomes difficult for the writer to clearly convey what’s going on. Too many characters dilute a story’s singular effect. The crowd of characters makes it difficult for the reader to hone in on individual voices or mannerisms, to differentiate the important players from the walk-ons. As a bonus trap, when you have a group of characters on the stage, beginning writers resort to moving them around as a group, rather than letting each person occupy space fully. Symptomatic sentences read like this: “Everyone chuckled” or “we all nodded our heads.” If you can’t move your characters around individually, they are just cluttering your story up and taking up word count that you could better use for something else.

Quick escape:  Think of the cast size of your short story as being akin to a duet or quartet, rather than a full orchestra.

The trap of writing too loose

Short stories are typically more experimental and atmospheric, with an attention on the language as much as the actual action. While it is true that short stories do not need to be as plot driven as novels, beginning writers should stick with the tried and true elements of storytelling. In the hands of a beginning writer, a postmodern, nonlinear story is harder to pull off. A short story that is too much a pastiche, or series of impressions, tend to make something read in an episodic manner. The longer the story, the more strain on the reader. It’s hard to build a singular effect if the disparate scenes don’t hold together and showy writing can turn quickly into something that is self-indulgent. As a bonus trap, without a traditional narrative, it’s hard for beginning writers to sort out what happens next. Without the main point of view character having story goals and consequences in each scene, the writer may end up writing in circles.

Quick escape: Have a little structure, a blueprint, a map, a plan. Understand the traditional function of storytelling and break that rule only when you have mastered the ability to keep tension on the page and your story in motion.

 

The trap of moralizing

It is true that stories have profound power, but writers who come to their stories with an agenda—to instruct, convert or reform the reader—put the storytelling in the wrong harness. Such stories always suffer from becoming thinly-disguised lectures, with the narratives so stilted and dull that readers simply stop reading.

Quick escape: Be aware that you are standing on a soap box and then step off it. Let the moral lessons stem naturally from the storytelling, and not the other way around. Throw yourself into telling a riveting story with engaging characters and trust that your values and beliefs will be present in an organic, natural way.

 

These are just a few of the traps that short story writers can fall into, but there’s more. If you’d like the full list, plus some of simple strategies for making a short story more publishable, please hop over to my website and sign up for my monthly newsletter. The address is: www.lorideboer.net. The signup form is on the home page, two-thirds of the way down.

I’d also love to hear your suggestions for traps that waylay unwary short story writers. If you comment below, before May 1, 2014, and give me permission to quote you, I’ll throw your name in the hat for a drawing for a $20 gift certificate from Amazon.com. You’ll use it only on books, of course.

Happy writing!

 

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog or connect with her on Google+.

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense–Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft–I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot–I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter–This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter–dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line–Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part–Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself–If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery–If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging–You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it–Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending–I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Reading Like a Writer

By Lori DeBoer

We read for many reasons—to be entertained, to be swept up in a story, to be transported into an interesting world, to laugh, to cry, to learn, to gain insight and to be inspired. But when we become writers, we need to read like a writer. We become active readers, slowing down the process and becoming conscious of the material. We examine published writing to learn what moves us, to figure out what works and what—in our not-so-humble opinion—doesn’t. By doing so, we gain insight into what we want to write and how we want to write it. Ultimately, we learn about both craft and art by reading and emulating great writers.

Someone reading for merely for pleasure engages in a passive process—he or she may romp through a book or story but probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about what went into it. An active reader may read something the first time through for pleasure, but pays attention to which parts of the story were memorable, which passages were funny, sad, thrilling or merely confusing. An active reader goes so far as to make notes in the margin to flag passages that call for a more in-depth look. Active reading requires revisiting a piece of writing many times to understand its underlying structure and all its nuances.

When I worked as the public relations director for the Liquid Crystal Institute, a research center at Kent State University, I remember that one of the research scientists showed me a really expensive, tiny computer from a competitor that he was going to take apart.

“This will show me they work.”

“Can I have one after you’re done?” I asked.

He looked at me, frowning. “After I reverse engineer them, they won’t work anymore.”

Lucky for us, when we reverse engineer a piece of writing—taking it apart to see what components it contains and how they fit together—we rarely ruin the story. In fact, we can come to appreciate the story even more because the skill of the writer is revealed. Reverse engineering is a good model for the process of active reading.

Another way of thinking about being an active reader is to think about a piece of writing the way you would a house. If we visit someone’s house for the first time, we like taking a tour and looking at all the cool pictures and furniture. If you were an interior decorator, you might observe that the rooms are harmonized with blue and red accents, or that the walls have a rich, faux paint. An architect, however, would likely visit the house and become engaged by its structure and design style, and perhaps may not be jarred if the décor doesn’t match the period. Bring along your buddy the building inspector, and you can bet he’s not going to go gaga over the décor or the architectural style. He’ll peer at the porch to see if it sags or has termites. He’ll poke around in the basement with a flashlight to see if the foundation stands firm.

Taking a cue from various building professionals, the professional writer needs to roll many roles into one, examining writing in the same way that a potential home owner might scrutinize houses. You need to incorporate not only your penchant for interior decoration (the aesthetics of the writing), but you need to cultivate your appreciation of architecture (how the story is designed) and the critical eye of the home inspector (for construction details such as grammar and spelling).

You can learn just as much from pieces you don’t care for as the ones that you love. Reading like a writer requires that you read widely, that you venture into territory outside of your preferred genre to see what you can bring back to sustain your own work.

Action Step:  Make a list of your all-time favorite books, essays or articles. Note the genre you like most to read. Leave room to jot down what you liked about these works. Be specific. Was the story riveting or were you most moved by the quality of the language? Did the characters stick in your head and heart?  You might want to revisit a few works in your personal library and read them more closely, practicing active reading.  Please let me know what discoveries you make.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.

Six Ways to Make More Writing Time

By Lori DeBoer

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I once met a successful mystery author at a conference in Tucson who told me she wrote all of her books in 15-minute snatches of time because, as a mom, that’s all she had. Her pronouncement horrified me. I was childless and working full-time at home as a freelance magazine writer.  I could not imagine writing anything “artful” or “serious” without having hours of unrushed time to noodle over it.

Flash forward at least 15 years and my beleaguered mommy brain can’t remember the name of the author, but I remember her advice.  In between running the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, working as a writing coach, homeschooling our son and attempting to keep the house in order, I only have small snippets of time in which to write. And I make the most of the minutes I have, poking away at my writing in short bursts. Last year, one of my short stories was shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize and appeared in the April issue of The Bellevue Literary Review. I also landed a spot in Gloom Cupboard.  I started 2014 with a piece in Pithead Chapel and was recently asked to be a contributing editor for Short Story Writer. which is available in the Apple Store.

Not only do I not feel deprived because I don’t have whole days to write, I’ve found that working in short bursts really works. There is something satisfying about coming back to a piece of writing time and again and watching it unfold. Consistent effort, applied in short snippets of time, yields a pretty decent word count.

When you are looking for more writing time, consider piggybacking your efforts onto some activity you already regularly allow time for.  Also, look for pockets of time that that would otherwise go to waste.

Here’s some strategies to get you started:

Arrive Early—Use the pocket of time before an appointment—whether it’s a doctor’s visit or a business meeting—to work on your writing.  Instead of twiddling your thumbs, reading trashy magazines or catching up on Facebook, you could spend a few moments fleshing out a plot point or writing a scene.  To maximize that space, plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early.  As a bonus, you’ll gain a reputation for being well-organized and considerate; just don’t let on what you are actually up to.

Join the Gym—If exercise is already a regular habit, expand your discipline by writing for 20 minutes before or after your workout.  Some gyms have a café you can write in, or you can hit a nearby coffee shop.  When I was a single mom working on my collection of short stories for my MFA, I did most of my writing at the Lifetime Fitness Café.  The monthly fee came with childcare and was more affordable than hiring a babysitter. As an added bonus, my son had some fun and I eventually started exercising after my writing sessions.

Write On the Go—Many great ideas and solutions to writing challenges come on the go.  There’s no surprise there, getting out and about stimulates creativity and sends blood to the brain. Whether you are on a hike or standing in line at the bank, be prepared to capture your thoughts.  Bob Early, my former editor at Arizona Highways, is a big proponent of carrying a writing notebook wherever he goes.  Christina Antus, Colorado humorist, mom and BWW member, recommends a more high-tech approach of using the Evernote app on her smartphone. “ I can jot down ideas as they come to me. I do this through the day and can write from anywhere,” she says. “Evernote syncs to your online account so everything is on your computer when you are ready to tweak and finish up.” Colorado poet Rachel Abeyta Newlon uses a voice-recording app to record her writing on the run.

Make a (Secret) Lunch Date—Whether you spend your days at home or at the office, that regular lunch slot can offer another opportunity to make writing in snatches an ongoing habit.  If you schedule a regular lunch date with your writing, as though it were a valued friend, you’ll be that much further along. Your office peeps may wonder who you are trysting with on your lunch hour, but they don’t need to know until your book comes out.  Or ever.

Snuggle Up—With the advent of noise-cancelling headphones, laptops and tablets, there’s no reason you can’t snuggle up with your sweetie while working on your writing.  Think of it as the adult version of parallel play. At our house, my husband watches football while I curl up on the couch next to him with my computer.  He’s happy I’m nearby, doing what I love.  As an added bonus, merely sitting through a game has given me wife points.

Sleep On It (Or Not)—Instead of counting sheep or worrying about the day’s events, use that time between wide-awake and drifting off to solidify your writing plan.  “Before you drift off, think through what’s coming up next in your novel,” suggests Judith Robbins Rose, Colorado author of the forthcoming middle grade novel MISS and BWW member. “Don’t spend a ton of time, but consider the many different ways you can write that next scene.”  Be sure to capture your ideas before you do drift off.  As a bonus, putting your subconscious to work is likely to yield some creative ideas the next morning.  Can’t sleep?  No problem. “When you’re wide awake at 3:30 a.m. get up and write,” advises Mandy Walker, Colorado author of Untangling from Your Spouse: How to Prepare for Divorce. Plus, there’s no better fix for insomnia than writing a few hundred words.

Please weigh in. What are your best tips for sneaking in a little writing time? The writer whose tip gains the most likes will win a free hour of coaching, in person or over the phone. Use the little “Vote Up” arrow under each comment.

Entries will be accepted through Saturday, 1/11/2014. The winner will be announced on this blog on Sunday.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer, a Boulder-based author, journalist and writing coach, is the contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  She has volunteered to help edit the RMFW anthology and will be sharing information about writing short stories at the educational workshop in January 2014. For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.

 

A Few Reasons to Write Short Stories

By Lori DeBoer

It’s official: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers now welcomes writers of short fiction into its fold.  Since I am noodling away on a collection of short stories, a few of which have been finalists for awards or been published, I felt relieved to be able to come out of the 10,000-words-and-fewer closet, so to speak.

This change of policy makes a lot of sense, especially since the RMFW is putting out its fourth short story member anthology. (The most recent one, Broken Links, Mended Lives, was a finalist for the 2009 Colorado Book Award.) This year’s anthology is themed “Crossing Colfax” in honor of the avenue in Denver that Playboy Magazine dubbed “the longest, wickedest street in America.” The deadline for submission is March 14, 2014; for more info, click here.

While securing a spot in the RMFW anthology is a great goal — I hope you’ll submit something — I believe writers of all stripes can benefit from writing short stories. Think of it as a cross-training exercise. Here are a few reasons why:

You Gotta Start Somewhere
You wouldn’t run a marathon without taking a few short runs and working your way up. You wouldn’t get married without going on some dates.  (Well, some folks would, but that’s a topic for another type of blog.)  The point is that writing short stories has been a time-honored way for fiction writers to learn their craft. Garth Risk Hallberg has been building buzz for scoring a $2 million book deal for his 900-page novel, but he published a novella and a fistful of short fiction first. Many successful authors of all genres cut their teeth on short stories, including Mary Oliver, Ron Carlson, Joyce Carol Oates, Kelly Link and Ray Bradbury.

You Should Expect to Experiment
Most beginning writers are still finding their voice, let alone their genre, and writing short fiction gives them ample room to experiment. Even experienced writers sometimes long to break out of their niche and play the field. Short stories offer plenty of room to experiment with voice, style, genres, characters and other narrative nuances without breaking the bank or frittering away too much time. If something does feel right, you can always scale things up.

Practice Perfects Process
Completing and polishing a short story so it’s publication-ready gives you an understanding of your writing process, from drafts through revisions. If you take the step of submitting to the types of magazines that accept short stories in your genre, querying becomes more mundane and less intimidating. While it’s always painful, getting rejected on a short story you spent months on, then dusting yourself off and submitting again, helps inoculate you against falling completely apart when your novel gets rejected.  Plus, any feedback you receive on your short stories might just be applicable to your novel-in-progress.

To Shorten the Time to Publication
Writing and submitting a short story provides a short-term goal to punctuate the months (or years) it takes to write a book.  Professional writers can generally draft, revise and polish a short story in two to three months, though some work more quickly and some are more patient, taking  much as a year or more to perfect a piece. With the trend toward micro-fiction—stories of a thousand words or fewer—the investment of time in writing becomes even more dialed down. The writing pace is up to you, but short stories in general have a quicker turnaround time for getting published than do novels. With a few thousand literary magazines of every genre in the United States alone, new writers may find a foothold in publishing more easily by writing short.

You Can Fashion a Reputation
Getting published in literary or genre magazines helps you pitch your novels, because those credits indicate that you are a working writer, not just a one-hit wonder. Many agents and publishers troll these magazines, looking for the next writing wunderkind. Marketers know you need to get a brand in front of consumers seven times before they remember it. The same holds true for building a base of fans. Short story writers have plenty of opportunities to reach the kind of readers that can eventually build a book’s buzz, be it a novel or a collection of short stories.

For the Love of the Form
Writing short stories need not be a station on the way to learning to write novels; the form can be savored for its own sake. The art of the short story differs from long-form fiction in a myriad of ways; it focuses on the present, what is, rather than running pell-mell toward what-may-come. Its compact form means that every phrase, nuance, gesture and narrative element needs to be worth the space it occupies. Because it requires a deft and practiced touch, many consider writing short stories more of a challenge than writing novels. The relationship between the form and the writer can be more complex than it first appears. Canadian Alice Munro, master of short stories, started out writing short when she had children to raise and a household to run. After her fourth book of short stories was published, she told The Guardian that she realized her attempts at writing a novel “never worked.” This week, her daughter accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in Sweden on her behalf in recognition of her short stories, which includes 14 collections. In her interview, she noted that short stories are “often brushed off as something people do before they write a novel .  .  . I would like them to come to the fore without any strings attached.”

Do you love to write short stories?  Please tell us why.
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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer, a Boulder-based author, journalist and writing coach, is finishing up a collection of short stories that started as her MFA thesis at Arizona State University. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  She has volunteered to help edit the RMFW anthology and will be sharing information about writing short stories at the educational workshop in January 2014. For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.

Pushing Through The Middle: Tips for the NaNoWriMo Crowd and Other First Drafters

by Lori DeBoer

DeBoerIf you are hitting your daily word count (about 1,666) for National Novel Writing Month, by the time this post is published you’ll be nearly about halfway through your 50,000-word goal and sailing into the middle stretch of your novel.

This is where the story gets complicated. The middle passage is the longest section of your novel. The plot should thicken, the stakes should increase and your protagonist(s) should be thwarted at every turn.  Your narrative arc should be more mountainous than curvy, and climbing steeply.

This is also the point where your story is most likely to stall. If you’ve been “pansting,” the honeymoon with your big idea and great beginning may be over.  Even plotters can lose their confidence and momentum in the middle passages.

If you find yourself bogged down or stalled altogether, here’s a few tricks to get you going:

Look How Far You’ve Come
Instead of contemplating how far you have to go, look at how much you’ve already written. Print out your manuscript to give it some heft.

Don’t Start Revising
There’s nothing more tempting than revising when the path ahead is murky.  After all, rewriting is an important part of writing, right?  Yes, but not when you are drafting.  You’ll have plenty of time to revisit those first few chapters after you plot a course through your first draft.

Create Some Go-Getters
One of the biggest story stalls is characters who are merely responding to events in the story.  If your characters don’t have desires, they don’t have goals and a plan of action is out of the question. The easiest way to figure out what happens next is by giving your character some volition. The hero’s journey only begins by answering the call to action, not by hitting the snooze button.

Raise the Stakes
Now that your characters have a plan, ask yourself what happens if they fail.  If there are no stakes—personal and public—then there’s no reason for your character to keep going.  Until your characters have a real reason to pursue their goals, your writing is going to feel like rolling a boulder up a mountain.

Set Incremental Goals
The end game may be clear to you, but how is your character going to get there? Consider the smaller steps that need to be taken before the story’s climax can occur.  Frodo and Sam don’t just go waltzing to Mount Doom with the Ring; first they need to escape from Orcs, traitors, spiders and other dark creatures and trek through some terrible terrain with a sketchy guide.

Arm the Opposition
If your characters are not thwarted at every turn, if their incremental goals are attained without much effort and everybody in your story world is getting along swimmingly, then you don’t have a novel, you have a really long, typed daydream.  Examine your scenes to see if they are conflict-free or conflict-riddled.  Is your main character only fighting internal demons, or is there some external opposition, a worthwhile antagonist?  Once your characters have someone messing with them, the story will pick up steam. In the Sookie Stackhouse world created by Charlaine Harris, even lovers aren’t a girl’s best friend and bosom buddies can be out for blood.

Get Your Characters Out of the House
If your character is the literary equivalent of a shut-in, get him or her out and about in the world. Or, bring the world busting into the house.  The Harry Potter series would have fell flat had our young wizard sequestered himself in his closet under the stairs.

Give Your Characters a Project
If your conflict is all about the internal world, give your characters a project to externalize the problem. If you are writing in certain genres, you might call this project a quest. Either way, giving your characters something larger to do, something to obsess over, makes the writing less episodic. In The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Pankhurst, the main character is a linguist who spends the book trying to teach his dog–the only witness to his wife’s death–to talk.

Stop While You Still Have Steam
Your writing sessions should end while you still have some steam, not when you are stalled out. That way, getting back to work will seem like less of a chore. As Ernest Hemingway said:  “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

What other strategies do those seasoned authors among use to push through the middle passages of their novel?

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Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

After the Critique: Sorting the Good Advice from the Bad

by Lori DeBoer

You’ve done the drafts and decided to test the publishing waters by sharing your writing with your inner circle.  Or maybe you’ve signed up for a slot with a local or online critique group.  While your manuscript is out and you are waiting for feedback, it’s a good time to calm your Beta reader jitters by developing an action plan.

To wit: How are you going sift through all that feedback?

A plan will help you keep your post-critique bearings. You want to emerge with a good dose of confidence and clarity about how you’ll tackle your revisions.

Here are some strategies for sorting the good advice from the bad:

Consider the Source
This advice comes straight from my mom, who doled it out when I took an unkind comment to heart from folks I shouldn’t have been listening to, anyway. Granted, her advice didn’t make much sense when I was a kid, but I’ve grown to appreciate her message.  So, does your oldest arch rival find your most recent short story “trite”?  Does your mom think your memoir shouldn’t go on and on about Great Aunt Vivian? Does your boyfriend cringe at the sex scenes in your romance novel? Does your boss’s nephew who recently graduated from college really know if zombie novels are passé?  Consider the source.  Bonus tip:  Don’t give your memoir-in-progress to anybody in your family, or even tell them you are writing about the family. . . for at least a year. Trust me on this.

Be Realistic
If you are a total beginner, it’s likely you have a lot to learn. Even seasoned professionals work hard at their craft. Nobody expects to play a professional sport or become a professional musician or actor without years of study, practice and paying those proverbial dues.  If you have just started out and are getting consistent suggestions that you might want to dump your prologue or that your characters are flat, you might want to entertain that feedback.  Remember to say “thank you.”

Set Some Benchmarks
Writers who are successful read like writers. That is, first they read in their genre for pleasure. That out of the way, they reread their favorite and least favorite books in said genre with a (metaphorical) scalpel. They break those books down into what works and what doesn’t and dissect their disparate parts until they can put them back together. Once you do that, you can figure out who critiques your stuff with an insider’s knowledge, who recognizes what you are trying to do and can help you get there.

Avoid Extremes
Did the comments you received make you feel like you were walking on sunshine, on top of the world or in seventh heaven? Or did the comments make you feel like crawling into a hole, under the covers or back into the hell that you were spawned from?  Either extreme should give you a tip-off that this is not the critique partner/group/forum for you.  Even if the folks giving you comments are wildly published, you should find the nearest exit and run.

Get a Second Opinion (Or More)
When I was pregnant with my son, I was diagnosed with a fatal disease and thought I would die in childbirth. Turns out I should have gotten a second opinion.  I was tired and didn’t, but that’s another story.  Unless you are in the throes of a high-risk writing pregnancy or some other sort of extreme author illness, buck up and get a second or third opinion. And while you are at it, check that person’s credentials. Some opinions are more informed than others.

Ask for Specifics
If a reader claims that your writing sucks, is insipid, flat, filled with cliches or, God forbid, “sentimental,” ask for specific examples.  Ask politely. Even if the critique is spot on, it’s difficult to get a feel for what’s not working in a piece when you are handed vague and pointless remarks like “it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Likewise, if a reader professes to “love” a piece, resist the urge to leave it at that. Ask him or her to point out moments or passages in your writing that evoke these feelings of “love.” The most recent research on motivation shows that we learn more from specific feedback about what’s working more than barbed remarks about what we are doing wrong. That said, gratuitous praise helps no one.  In fact, no one really believes overinflated, vague praise. Not even kindergartners.

Challenge Your Resistance
If some feedback or suggestions really makes you angry or upset, you may want to take a look at why you threw a tizzy fit in response, even if you threw it quietly. The feedback could be truly terrible. Or it could be that the advice you received is spot on and you subconsciously (or consciously) just don’t want to deal with the ramifications  Because revising is a lot of hard work, like hauling rock, only with your bare-naked brain instead of your bloody hands, and who wants to do that?  So, feel like pushing back?  Try pushing on in your revisions.

Know Thyself
What are the secret, dark and dishonorable impulses that might be motivating you to write? Is your memoir a thinly veiled attempt to tell the world about how your mom/father/ex/teacher/fill-in-the-blank treated you? Are you seeking revenge for all your past hurts in the form of a novel about time-traveling werewolves? Are you writing schlock because it seems like easy money and you have allowed yourself to become a bitter person? Do you dream of instant author popularity at your 20th class reunion?  If any of this resonates with you, it could be that your personal baggage is getting in the way of you reaching your personal writing best. Figure out a better way to schlep that stuff around, or dump some if it altogether, and chances are your writing issues will also resolve.

Be Willing to Experiment
Not sure what to do with a piece of advice?  Try it out! At the advice of others, I’ve overcome my tendency toward being stubborn (I am the youngest child) and overhauled my stories. In one case, I changed the age of a character, in another, I changed the setting and point in time, in a few other stories, I’ve changed the point of view.  Sure, these revisions have taken time and I’ve groused about them, but I’ve always learned something from these experiments. If you feel petulant about undertaking revisions, remember that you aren’t working on a typewriter for Pete’s sake, so no hardships there, and this is what writers do. So just get it over with and see what cool scenes you come up with.

Let it Simmer
Take enough notes so that the feedback you receive makes sense, and then stick that writing in a drawer and let it simmer for a couple of weeks. After you are no longer in the thick of producing that story, you’ll be able to look at your work and the advice you received with a more impartial eye.

Ultimately, what you do with the feedback you receive on your writing is up to you. At some point, you’ll find a reader or two who really understand what you are trying to do with your work and can help you bring it to a level that will earn you legions of fans. My advice?  Those kinds of readers are keepers. Feed them chocolate and and gratitude.

When it comes to revising your writing, how do you sort out good advice from bad?  Please weigh in!

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Getting Physical: Ways to Make Your Characters Come Alive

By Lori DeBoer

Whether you write genre or literary fiction, you must be able to bring your characters to life. When characters are first conceived, they invariably seem a little wooden, too recognizable as constructs of the author’s imagination. The people that populate your stories need room to grow; they do so by going out into the material world and inhabiting it.

Here’s some strategies:

Ditch the Headtrip
Interiority—revealing the inner life and thoughts of a character—is what sets novels apart from screenplays, but don’t overdo it. If you spend too many pages inside a character’s head, you’ll give your writing a case of claustrophobia. You want your readers to fall into the dream of your story, not want to claw their way out of it. Do so by giving readers recognizable physical anchors: bake some literary brownies and readers will buy into the fictional house.

Buddy Up
Scenes that feature a character going it alone—driving, drinking, lounging, brooding—quickly go flat. Introduce another character into the mix. Having two actors on a story’s stage provides a physical and emotional interplay that increases drama, conflict and unpredictability.

Do or Die
The most memorable scenes occur when the task at hand is active and unusual; even better if it’s uncomfortable for at least one of the story’s players. In the short story “Emergency” by Denis Johnson, the action opens with one of the characters mopping up blood in a hospital operating room, while the point-of-view character rifles through his pockets for drugs. In the short story “The Faery Handbag” by Kelly Link, the main character peruses thrift stories, hoping to find her grandmother’s (metaphorical?) magical purse and, in it, her missing friend.

Make Meaningful Gestures
Are your characters all talk and no action? Break up blocks of dialogue with expressive body language and movement. Since 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, every shrug, twitch, nod, wave, grimace and clenched fist adds depth. Summer Knight by Jim Butcher opens with the wizard Harry investigating a rain of toads. While he is collecting specimens, he is confronted by a friend for isolating himself after his girlfriend was harmed. Though his words are terse, Harry reveals his grief: “I closed my eyes and tried to remember not to crush the toad in my hand to death. ‘Drop the subject.’“

Set the Stage
One of the first things theater directors learn is stage blocking—the choreography of the character. This applies to fiction as well. Where do your characters enter and exit your scenes? How close are they are to each other at any given time? Determine how large a space your scene occupies and write accordingly. If you have one character rapidly approaching another, but you draw this action over several paragraphs, that person better not be crossing a tiny room. Author Elizabeth Strout moves characters deftly, as you can see from this excerpt from The Burgess Boys. “Turning his head, Bob saw through the grated windows his brother walking up the sidewalk, and a small rush of anxiety came to him at the sight of this: his older brother’s quick gait, his long coat, the thick leather briefcase. There was the sound of the key in the door.”

Use Your Props
Author Anton Chekhov famously wrote: “If a gun is on the mantle in the first act, it must fire in the last.” Actually, there are various versions of this quotation floating around, but they all advise writers to use their props. Let’s extend this to mean that fictional characters have a relationship with the physical objects around them. If you have a prop in your scene, how do your characters respond to it? In Flannery O’ Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” guns are central to the tale of family with children that encounters criminals. All three men have guns, which the young boy notices and asks about. A few paragraphs later, one of the criminals “drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.” Spoiler: O’ Connor follows Chekhov’s advice.

Simulate the Senses
If you want to ground your characters in the scene, have them respond viscerally, emotionally and intellectually to the sensory information around them. In “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, the main character wants to avoid facing his father one night: “Meanwhile, he was wet and cold. He went around to the back of the house and tried one of the basement windows, found it open, raised it cautiously, and scrambled down the cellar wall to the floor. There he stood, holding his breath, terrified by the noise he had made, but the floor above him was silent, and there was no creak on the stairs. He found a soapbox, and carried it over to the soft ring of light that streamed from the furnace door, and sat down. He was horribly afraid of rats, so he did not try to sleep, but sat looking distrustfully at the dark, still terrified lest he might have awakened his father.”

I’d love to hear more ideas on how to get physical with your characters.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.