HELP. Short Stories...

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by DragonOfTheAerie, Jul 11, 2018.

  1. DragonOfTheAerie

    DragonOfTheAerie Valar Lord

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    So i need to scrape up some extra scholarship money to be able to go to college.

    Most of the writing scholarships out there include short stories. Almost all of them in fact. I am absolute garbage at short stories. I cannot plot them at all. I don't know how to handle characters or scenes on a small scale. All my attempts have turned out unfinished, mangled parts, plotless meanders, or weird, patched-together things with liberal overuse of flashbacks and time skips.

    But with deadlines looming, I have to figure out how to write one. I am in despair. I have to write a short story that is good enough to win a scholarship, and at present i haven't been able to write one that really qualifies as a story.
     
  2. Ban

    Ban Staff Article Team

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    Read short stories and practice writing them. Like all writing, there are no real shortcuts, but wth a solid writing foundation you may quickly pick up the art of short story telling.

    As it so happens, I hope to get some short stories written in the coming weeks as well. If you're interested, I propose we work together. If you read mine, I'll read yours. Some second eyes may solve whatever issue you believe you have.
     
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2018
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  3. Tom

    Tom Istari

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    Oh man, writing for scholarships is tough. I've been there, so I know how you feel.

    Short stories weren't really my forte at first, but writing them has actually helped me a lot in how I deal with long-form projects as well. The difference between a short story and say, a novel, is that a novel is a collection of little ideas all tying into one theme, while a short story is one big idea. There's less space to meander, so every part of it needs to work toward the central driving purpose. You need a strong vision.

    When I'm writing long projects, I don't start out with a plot in mind, just a vague idea of the characters and the initiating action. Before writing a short story, I develop every element until it's airtight before I get it on the page, because it takes a lot more planning to make all the pieces fit together. The "plot ruthlessly" method probably won't work for everyone, but I've put it to good use.
     
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  4. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    If you're looking at scholarship money, you want to think about theme.

    Start with something called an "Idea Statement." A short simple truth about life. As the story goes on the idea statement should get a little longer, more nuanced, more complex, based on how the ideas of the story affect it. Assume that you have, say, five versions of your idea statement. Now hide these statements inside your story so it doesn't look like an essay.
     
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  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hey Dragon, I'm decent at short stories and would love to help.

    My tips for writing shorts is: Pay attention to small, intimate, emotional moments in YOUR OWN LIFE. Or in the life of people who are close to you. Try to stay away from the big stuff, like divorce or cheating, or death, or suicide etc. That stuff is all gimmicky and over used. For scholarship stories they are looking for true, intimate moments that feel authentic. The only way to create this stuff if by using stuff you know really well. Stuff from your own life. Try to think of a moment where you learned something in a short period of time. Maybe your opinion changed about something you were adamant about... Maybe you changed in some way, or grew in some way. Use that stuff. Fictionalize that moment. It helps to focus on a small time frame. A day or two, or even a few hours. If you find yourself relying on an idea that is “cool” than you are doing it wrong. Pick an emotion that is true, or real, and write about that.

    Look at Pixar's shorts as an example. Notice how they pack a ton of emotional impact into only a short snap shot? There are limited characters, and a limited time frame. One person learns one lesson. End of story.

    Read short stories! Tons of them! Not just fantasy! My favourite magazine is Crazy Horse for high quality shorts.
     
    Last edited: Jul 11, 2018
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  6. kennyc

    kennyc Grandmaster

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    I don't have any particularly advice with respect to college admissions essays/stories/ but thanks Heliotrope for the Crazy Horse Recommendation I need to read more there. And as far as reading short stories I swear by the annual anthologies (though they can be a bit uneven depending the guest editor etc) but the Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Winner anthologies are wonderful. Also anything by Anthony Doerr (my current favorite writer!)
     
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  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    Mary Robinette Kowal offered a metaphor on an old Writing Excuses podcast comparing how readers experience short stories v. how they experience novels.

    A novel is like watching the Olympics on television. You want to see the backstory of the gymnast (or whatever type of athlete.) You want to see the sporting history of the gymnast—wins, losses, accolades, spectacular failures. You want to learn about the rivalries that have existed. If this is a team competition, you want a recap of the efforts of others on the team and to know the standing of the team as a whole to this point; if it's not a team competition, you'll still want to see that gymnast's previous efforts in this same competition at the balance beam and uneven bars. You want to see the gymnast warm up, facing down the vault. And so forth. You'll probably want to see the after-effects: the celebration, and perhaps an interview with the gymnast afterward.

    A short story is like the single vault. It starts up as the gymnast is staring down that line at the vault 10, 20, 30 seconds before sprinting toward it, and it ends just as the gymnast sticks the landing.

    TomTom and DevorDevor mentioned sticking with a single idea, and I think that relates. A short story has this singular focus—like the gymnast staring down at that vault and then...doing the vault and sticking the landing.

    I don't think that you need a story to be a Big Idea Story, per se, but only that it requires a tighter focus on some event, endeavor, discovery, whatever. I do however think that it will at least feel like it's "about" a singular thing, for readers. In other words, it will inspire thought about a singular thing. Maybe many thoughts.

    P.S. Source of that metaphor: Writing Excuses 10.12: Story structure Q&A, with Special Guest Wesley Chu. I may have fleshed it out a bit more.
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Edgar Allen Poe has a famous essay on the topic of short stories. The key point, which I've always remembered, was that a short story should be about a single emotion. I like that better than making it about an event or an idea. The story seeks to evoke a single emotion in its reader, and every word is crafted toward that end.

    It's a difficult and demanding art form.
     
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Also, I see from the Similar Threads section that you asked much the same question several months ago. Awkward question: have you read many short stories since then? No need to answer. <g>

    There are so very many good ones, especially in science fiction, but you cannot start any better place than with Ray Bradbury. Read fifty of them. Don't neglect The Martian Chronicles, which is marketed as a novel but which really is a series of short stories on a theme.
     
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  10. kennyc

    kennyc Grandmaster

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    Yes. Read. Read. Read. But also practice! Practice! Practice!!! And objectively compare your work to published work!
     
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  11. DragonOfTheAerie

    DragonOfTheAerie Valar Lord

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    First of all, i've been struggling hard to read at all. Don't kill me :( I did manage to finish a few books over the past two weeks so maybe I am finally escaping. Fingers crossed.

    Secondly it's a horror short and all my brain was giving me when i was trying to think of things was grocery stores. It must be due to Creepy Kroger. (Reference to when i was touring my college destination we went shopping at a Kroger for food to take back to the crappy motel and it was a really creepy kroger that i swear to never return to. It was too dark, and too empty.) So now I have a sort of outline for a short story taking place in a grocery store. I hope it isn't too surreal.

    I guess this is good though since the short stories I have read have been surreal horror for the most part.

    Grocery stores are deeply unsettling! There are no visual indicators of time and they are violent, shouting appendages of consumer culture and corporate overlordship. I hope to play with those things in a skillful way in the story.
     
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  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    Dragon,

    I think that's a great starting idea.
     
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  13. DragonOfTheAerie

    DragonOfTheAerie Valar Lord

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    The main character shall be a harried young woman unable to find the last item on her shopping list. I don't figure she needs to be too complex...
     
  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    I find that knowing the beginning and the ending of a short story is important, probably more important than knowing the middle. [I mean, as a first step when deciding to write it.]

    The beginning will include the beginning state of the MC. Personality, attitudes, motivations—and how these relate to the theme of the story and what will presumably be the path of the plot.

    The ending: How do you want it to end? What is her changed state? How are the events supremely responsible for that changed state? (Where are you going with it, heh—What's your purpose in putting this particular character in that particular situation?)
     
  15. DragonOfTheAerie

    DragonOfTheAerie Valar Lord

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    Oh! Well I do know the ending by now, probably better than the rest of the story. I won't say much other than that the plot is more a path of decay and distortion, ending with a realization.

    I think this short story business is so unnatural to me because i'm a discovery writer by nature, and i'm used to starting out with a very undeveloped idea of what a story is going to be and letting it grow and develop on its own as thousand after thousand words moves past. The first draft is prewriting that slowly shoulders the semblance of a story. In a short story, it doesn't work that way. You don't have an open playground of tens of thousands of worlds in which the story can find itself. Hence my trouble with this particular size of story.

    But who am I kidding, the difference between short stories and novels isn't just in size, it's in kind too.
     
  16. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Actually, yes you can. This is how I write short stories. If the limit is 1000 words, I still free write the whole thing.... putting in everything and anything. My first draft can easily be five thousand words.

    But that is when the fun part starts. In draft two I start asking questions. Are all these characters absolutely necessary? Can I combine some of them to make one character that serves the same purpose? What about erroneous phrasing or doubling up on descriptions? Can anything be deleted without impacting the meaning? Can I find one, more concise example or metaphor that could eliminate a few hundred words of description?

    You get the idea. After a while I can almost always whittle it down to the necessary word count, without losing anything at all (and in fact, gaining a lot of clarity).
     
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  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    Here's an upvote on Heliotrope. Writing to a length is a wonderful exercise. First just write the story, then re-work it to a particular length. My exercise was to go to various magazines and read their length requirements, then aim for that. It was painful and difficult, and I learned tons about how to cut, and even how to add. One learns much about making words do their work. No free rides.

    I wouldn't write short stories for a living. But it was satisfying to write and have a story accepted. I have one cooking on the stove in the other room. It keeps wanting to turn into a novelette or longer, but I'm keeping it on simmer until it's reduced properly.
     
  18. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yep. It is challenging, and that is exactly why they ask you to do them for scholarships. It isn't free money. You have to really know what you are doing to win that stuff. I'm doing a certificate in creative writing right now from the University of Toronto, and the entire first course had assignments less than 1000 words. We had to do a story a week, based on different criteria, for ten weeks, all between 400-1000 words. Oh man, was it work! But so valuable.
     
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  19. kennyc

    kennyc Grandmaster

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  20. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Valar Lord

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    I'm half convinced this thread is an attempt to get me to restart 'Top Scribe.'
     
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