writing, writing tips

How to Draft Short Stories

bible-biblia-book-1112048

Short stories are my stock-in-trade. While I’ve written (and am writing) novels, short form fiction is really what I’ve had the most success with. I also get the most feedback and questions about them when speaking with other writers. It’s always interesting to me when people think they are “too difficult”, since for me, writing a novel is the greater challenge!

If you’re thinking about writing a short story, I’d encourage you to do so. I’m a big proponent of literary magazines and anthologies, and building a body of publication through them. While it’s good to hunker down for months-years and knock out a novel, a great short story can potentially earn its keep in a week’s worth of work.

Here’s a few tips on my personal system for short story writing:

Story Beats

I’m a plotter.

It seems a bit crazy to outline a short story, but I do it anyway.

It’s not a traditional outline though. It’s just “story beats”. It’s a simple bulleted list in my notebook that I use to “pre-write” the story before I actually grind out the first draft. Will it change? YUP. Does it keep me on track and help write the story faster? YUP.

One of the main criticisms I see in short fiction is “the story goes nowhere”, or “it feels like a vignette”. It can be tough to pack an arc and character transformation into a 5-10K word story. Having those story beats laid down ahead of time let’s you look at the skeleton from a zoomed out perspective to see if you’re accomplishing that goal, before you get into the details of laying “meat on the bones” so to speak.

Self-Editing

Please, PLEASE. For the love of God, do NOT hire an editor to go over your short story. Shorts are a perfect way to accomplish two things.

  1. Brush up on your editing & proofreading skills – Give each pass a day in-between. You’ll find the problems. Fix them. Let the Editor at the lit mag or the anthology point out the rest. It’s what they are paid to do.
  2. Build a stable of Beta Readers – Quality beta readers are indispensable to an author. You need to treat the ones who give great feedback like gold. Short stories are a low-commitment way to find beta readers. It should take a few hours at most to read a short story and critique it. And once you’ve identified the beta readers who give great feedback, you know who to ask first when you need a larger project (ie: novel) read and reviewed.

I personally do three editing passes on my short stories (waiting 1-2 days in between each pass to keep my eyes fresh) before I show them around to people. Those folks will inevitably catch new things, and I fix those before I begin to submit around.

Learn When to Quit and Submit

I debated including this, but I think it’s really important.

Saying “this story is done” is one of the single toughest things for a writer to do. Knowing “when to say when” is tough because an endless draft protects us from the dreaded rejection letter.

Short stories generally carry less blood, sweat, and tears in them than novels. So sending them off for submission (and rejection!) can help you learn about what I like to call my personal “quality threshold”. While thickening your skin, rejections and acceptances will help you know whether you sent out a story that was up-to-snuff, or needs another revision. While we’ll never be the best judges of our own work, it can at least help us to know when it’s time to not do another revision. Unlike a novel, if you’re on your tenth re-write of a short, it’s probably best to scrap the whole thing and just write another story.

Conclusion

I hope these tips are helpful, and if you’re thinking about writing some short stories, do it! There are many benefits to them, and they really help you to find your voice as a writer, while also giving room to experiment with different styles that you may not want to commit to for a book-length project.

 

 

announcement, creative writing, publishing, short story

“O Unholy Night in Deathlehem” Now Available

deathlehem

Hey everyone,

Hope you had a great holiday of your choosing.

A quick note that O Unholy Night in Deathlehem is now available from Grinning Skull Press. You can purchase the ebook here for Kindle on Amazon. Print editions will be available soon as well.

This is an excellent Christmas horror anthology and features my short story “Manufacturer’s Defect” among a bunch of tales by some great writers.

Plus, all proceeds go to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation so these seasonal scares are for a good cause.

So grab yourself a copy, support a good cause, and keep those holiday feelings going before you take down the decorations and pop open the champagne to ring in 2019!

book review

Book Review: “Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe” by Thomas Ligotti

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It isn’t often I finish a book and list it as a “favorite”, but Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti are now amongst my favorite collections of short stories.

I received the combined volume, released as part of the “Penguin Classics” series, as a gift. I’ve been working my way through it over the past few months and I can finally sit down to pen a review. Now if only I can figure out where to start…

Everything about these books is dense. Dense prose, dense concepts, even a dense foreward by Jeff VanderMeer. His description of Ligotti’s work is both praise, and a warning to the reader. I only came to understand it after finishing the books.

At a fundamental level, Ligotti’s writing is weird horror. By “weird” I mean the style of horror that invokes nihilistic cosmic dread, in the Lovecraftian vein. Light on gore and overt scares, it leaves you with a disturbed sense of uneasiness and disillusion. Recurring themes of puppets, dreams, clowns, and inescapable fate are threaded through both books, as are images of strange worlds that exist just behind the facade of our own reality.

Ligotti’s prose is exquisite and intimidating. He’s not afraid to use fifteen words when he only needs three. Between this and the themes of raw existential horror that permeate his work , I call this “literature”.download (2)

I’d put up this collection as proof the horror genre can transcend pulp stories, and be considered actual literature. Tales like “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “The Shadow at The Bottom of The World” are masterwork short stories. These aren’t monsters and aliens like Stephen King or Dean Koontz provide to you. There is something fundamentally unnerving about Ligotti’s tales that gets to the core of human existence, in all of its absurd horror. Decayed urban landscapes, inevitable death, and bizarre untrustworthy narrators abound.

Of the two books, Grimscribe is the stronger and more even-handed. I enjoyed a number of the stories in Songs… but they were of varying quality. Grimscribe feels much more confident and uniform. His use of dark, ironic humor is also better honed in this second collection.

downloadI would recommend Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe to readers who normally don’t like horror, but enjoy traditional literature. However, I would NOT recommend it to horror fans who enjoy a more straightforward, tangible, “pulpy” genre style. These stories are literally tiring. Every new page greets you with a wall of words, and very little white space. They demand full attention, and the thought provoking concepts they present take time to mull over and unpack. It’s no wonder it took me almost three months to get through roughly 450 pages.

That said, these stories are worth the investment for anyone who enjoys tales of dread and existential horror. They’re the kind that stick with you and rattle around in your head for days after you read them.

What I Liked

  • Beautifully crafted, poetic prose
  • Thoughtful explorations of high-concept horror
  • Really creepy puppets and clowns

What I Didn’t Like

  • Uneven quality of stories in the first collection
  • Stories were almost exclusively written in 1st person POV, which got repetitive at times
  • Reading it was such a mental exercise, it took a long time to finish
writing

My Favorite Short Story

image of "nada" graphic novel comic

Short stories are my preferred medium.

Something about their brevity and clarity of message draws me to them. They are challenging to write and (often) to read. Short stories tend to allow authors to experiment far more than full length novels. An excellent short story can deliver the kind of gut-punch you just don’t get from a book, because of their focus and economy.

Every word matters.

That said, I wanted to post about my favorite short story; “Eight O’clock in The Morning” by Ray Faraday Nelson. Ray published this story in 1963. It was later re-published as a comic called “Nada” in 1986, and then provided inspiration for the 1988 John Carpenter masterpiece They Live.

Continue reading “My Favorite Short Story”