Creating the Right Time and Place to Write

Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected —Sophocles

pitted-rockDuring a time when I had a demanding job as an scientist, wife and mother and community volunteer, I wrote and successfully marketed five books, over a dozen short stories and many articles and reviews. Some people, including my publishers, thought I never slept (true) or cloned myself (possibly). They couldn’t believe my productivity when I was so busy with life.

But I did what I did, because I’d worked out a system. One that I could live by. One that fit my lifestyle. One created out of respect for my art as part of my “busy” life of commitments.

The truth of it is that we all lead busy lives. If you are going to finish that novel you’ve been working on over the years or book of poems sitting in the bottom dresser drawer, you need to make a commitment. Aside from giving your art the respect it deserves, it comes down to creating a time and place to write.

It starts with being realistic about your daily schedules and routines and inclinations and picking a time and place accordingly. Try to be consistent. It’s actually best to create a routine related to both time and place; the key is to be realistic about it. Don’t fight your inclinations or habits; instead, build your writing into your lifestyle. This will ensure success.

Choose a Sacred Time

Finding the time to write is critical to succeeding. If you don’t dedicate time to write you won’t. Believe me, you won’t. Make it sacred.

Writer Louise DeSalvo shared a common story about her experience: “Many people I know who want to write but don’t (my husband, Ernie, for example) or who want to write more than they have but say they can’t find the time (my friend Marla) have told me that taking the time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even. And that finding the time to write—even a diary, much less fiction or memoir or poetry—in their busy schedules is impossible. I’ll write when I have the time, they say.”

It doesn’t work that way. You don’t find time; you must create it.

Writing of any kind is a commitment you make to yourself. So, choose a time that’s right for you. If you’re a morning person, don’t pick the end of the day when you don’t function as well. Instead, pick the early morning to write, a time before everyone else gets up and the day’s distractions pile up.

It’s actually best to create a routine related to time of the day (e.g., fixed time such as every morning or right after supper) or based on some other constant in your life, say the school calendar or your daily activities. The key is to be realistic about the time(s) you’ve chosen. In other words, your goals should be realistic and realizable.

The second part of the commitment is sharing it with your family and friends so that they will respect your sacred writing time. By sharing how important it is to you, you also give them the gift of sharing the experience with you and they are more likely to respect your time alone to write. This is also why choosing a routine makes more sense; it is something your family and friends will better remember and abide by. Making it easy for others is part of making it easy for you.

Find Your Own Rhythm

There’s no rule for when and how often you write. Because frequency and schedule of writing depends on the kind of writing you do (e.g., novel, short stories, articles, research) and on your own rhythms, you must decide what works best.

Most writers recommend that you commit to a regular writing schedule that is realistic to your overall routine and biorhythms. Some recommend you write in the morning, after a refreshing sleep; others suggest you write at night, at the end of the day when your memories are more fresh with the day’s activities and stimulations. Yet others suggest you take time out during the day to jot down relevant experiences as close to the time as the muse hits you, then spend some time at the end of the day compiling it into your work.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose what works for you and your own rhythms. When is the best time for you to write? And for how long or how many pages? Once you decide, stick to that schedule.

Choose a Sacred Place

Writing is a reflective activity that requires the right environment. The best environment is a quiet one with no interruptions and where you are alone. A reflective environment will let you find a connection with your muse. You need a place where you can relax and not worry about someone barging in or other things distracting you from your reflections. You should also feel physically comfortable and the place should meet your time requirements.

Because the suitability of a place can change with the time of day, learn the rhythms that affect the place you wish to write in. For example, the kitchen may be the centre of activity during the day but an oasis of quietude during the evening. Similarly, learn what kind of environment stimulates and nurtures your writing. Does music help or do you need complete quiet? Do you respond to nature’s soft breezes and sounds or do you prefer to surround yourself with the anonymous murmur of a crowded café for company?

Places that work for me include the local coffee shop, a park near my house, a library or other quiet place where I can enjoy uninterrupted anonymity. Where you write may reflect what you’re writing and vice versa. To some extent, you are environment and environment is you. You might try a few places first and see what happens to your muse. What you write while sitting under an apple tree in the breeze hearing the birds singing may differ from what you write while sitting in your living room by the crackling fireplace with music playing or sitting at your desk in your bedroom in total silence or in a crowded café surrounded by cheerful bustle.

Again, as with your choice of time, tell your family and friends about your sacred place. Provide rules, if you have to. Let’s say it’s a desk in the study. You may, for instance, let others know that your “mess” is part of a work in progress, perhaps even explain a little about it so they understand the nature of what you’re doing and why it should not be touched or moved or used, even while you are away from it. This will ensure that they respect your things and what you’re doing.misty-forest-path

In the end it comes to finding the right integration and balance of time and place. Letting others know of your choices is equally important; this will ensure that they can help you, not hinder you in your writing. While writing is to a large extent an activity done in solitude, the journey is far from secluded. Ensure that you have a good support network.

This article is an excerpt from my fiction writing guidebook “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” (Starfire, 2009).

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Make Your Opening Count

moss-closeWhen I began marketing my short stories and novels, I was often puzzled by the request to just see the first page of my work. “I only need to see the first page to know whether your book is good or ready to publish,” they would say. I was aghast. How presumptuous! Surely, that wasn’t enough! Surely they were just putting me off and not really interested in the first place! That couldn’t be enough…

I was wrong. It often is.

Years later—and currently a seasoned writer of over a dozen published books, short stories, and a writing teacher & coach—I can tell you that it is generally true. The opening page is usually enough for me to know whether the author is professional, knows their ending, writes a compelling and directed story, and whether the story is ready to be published. Does that sound pompous of me?

If you think so, then read no further. If you’re not sure, read on and I hope to convince you that your opening is more than likely the most important part of your novel or short story. That doesn’t mean that you should inordinately concentrate on polishing it over and over and over at the expense of the rest of your work. That won’t work either; this is because a good opening relies on a good story. Think of it as the introduction to the core issue of your story. Think of it as a long title. If you don’t know where your story is going or what it is about, then your opening will undeniably reflect this.

A good opening resonates with the theme of your story; a great opening creatively illuminates that theme with intrigue.

My post entitled “How to Hook Your Reader and Deliver” discusses the three-step model of hooking the reader in an opening and how to maintain their interest throughout the length of your story. You can read it there, so I won’t go into it here (e.g., the steps are 1) arouse; 2) delay; and 3) reward). What I wanted to talk about here is more about what goes into a first page of any piece of writing to make it a great opening.

“A novel is like a car,” says Sol Stein (Sol Stein on Writing). “It won’t go anywhere until you start the engine.” Take a look at the opening of your WIP and see if its engine is running.

Openings should:

  • Begin with something happening to a major character
  • Arouse the Reader’s interest (with intrigue)
    • Introduce conflict
    • Threaten a likeable character
    • Reveal an unusual character or situation
  • Begin with a “scene” (action; “showing”) not a “sequel” (reflection; “telling”)

“Start your book with a scene where something is happening, and action takes place; show the drama not the reaction to it,” says Elizabeth Lyon (The Sell Your Novel Toolkit). Start in the middle, not the beginning of your story. Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) tells us that scenes and their corresponding sequels form an integral part of a story’s larger plot movement. And to apply sound story-building, this dynamic relationship must be first understood. You “show” in a scene, which plays out the goal, conflict and inevitable disaster of the protagonist; sequels, in turn, often “tell” of the protagonist’s reaction, dilemma, and decision (which propels the character on to the next scene). Yet, time and again, I read openings that are actually sequels (leading to action; but not action themselves). They may languish and even entertain with clever intellectual description, but they do not scintillate with intrigue or direction. It is a little like reading the review of a movie before watching it for yourself (one of the reasons why I never consult a review before I watch a movie—because I want to live it with the characters first hand, or at least give myself the chance to).

Another way of thinking of the scene / sequel dynamic is to see them as cause and effect or action and reaction. An opening in action is more likely to grip the reader in its visceral intrigue and promise of the story’s direction than an intellectualization of an event that happened off stage.

The table below provides a few suggestions on what to include and what not to in an opening page.

Good Openings Don’t… Instead They…
Contain lots of back story Integrate back story in with scene as needed in the appropriate place
Contain lots of exposition, setting, character description, etc. Reveal place and character detail with action as needed
Start with reflection, explanations – particularly about something “off-stage” in time or space Start with action / conflict / turmoil / discovery – start mid-stride with intrigue, then reveal after…
Start with a dream or waking up or other ordinary / mundane scenario heading towards the action or conflict Start with something HAPPENING … Start with a SCENE in “the NOW” as it is happening
TELL SHOW

 

misty-forest-path-slovakiaThere are many ways to manage the fine balance of exposition, telling and showing and
other challenges in grabbing and keeping the reader’s interest; all very pertinent to your opening page. But that’s another article.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua)

la natura dell'acquaShe imagines its coolness gliding down her throat. Wet with a lingering aftertaste of fish and mud. She imagines its deep voice resonating through her in primal notes; echoes from when the dinosaurs quenched their throats in the Triassic swamps.

Water is a shape shifter.

It changes yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted.

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap.

 

“La immagina scenderle fresca giù per la gola, con un persistente retrogusto umido di pesce e fango. La immagina risuonarle dentro con voce cupa, una voce primordiale; gli echi del tempo in cui i dinosauri placavano la sete nelle paludi del Triassico.

L’acqua è un mutaforma.

Cambia pur restando la stessa, muta il proprio volto insieme al clima. Vaga per il pianeta come una nomade, rubando da dove è necessaria e dandosi per capriccio dove non serve.

Frastornata e tremante nel caldo afoso, Hilda si trascina a fatica dietro al serpente di persone sul piazzale polveroso di fronte al college universitario in cui insegnava sua madre. Il sole picchia e le striscia sulla pelle come un insetto. È in fila da un’ora davanti al distributore pubblico di acqua.

 

“The Way of Water” is a near-future vision that explores the nuances of corporate and government corruption and deceit together with resource warfare. An ecologist and technologist, Nina Munteanu uses both fiction and non-fiction to examine our humanity in the face of climate change and our changing relationship with technology and Nature.

The bilingual print book by Mincione Edizioni showcases this short story in Italian and English along with a recounting of what inspired it: “The Story of Water” (“La storia dell’acqua”).

See reviews for “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua”) below:

Simone Casevecchia of SoloLibri.net

Net Massimo (English)

Net Massimo (Italian)

laNaturaDell'Acqua-coverAfter the release of the print book, Future Fiction released “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua”) in ebook format. The ebook contains the “Way of Water” story and another story, “Virtually Yours” (“Virtualmente tua”) alongside “The Story of Water” (non-fiction), which can be purchased in either Italian or Engish versions.

“Virtually Yours” was first published in Issue #4 of Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine (Canada); it was reprinted in several languages in other countries including USA, Poland, Romania, Greece, and now Italy. It also appears as one of nine stories on human evolution in Natural Selection, a Canadian collection of short stories (Pixl Press) that examine the evolution of humanity with Nature and technology.

Nina’s short stories have received praise for their world building, depth of character, compelling plot and use of evocative metaphor:NaturalSelection-front-FB

“.a stunning example of good storytelling with an excellent setting and cast of characters.”–Tangent Online

“…Written with flare and a conscience…Munteanu shines a light on human evolution and how the choices we do or don’t make today, may impact our planet and future generations. The science is fascinating and so are these nine short stories.”—J.P. McLean, author of The Gift Legacy

“…Fascinating dramas set in a world too close to our own…the science was so interesting, combining visionary metaphysical speculation with AI corporate tech in scenarios that often seemed chillingly possible.”—Amazon review

“…Jealousy, lust, loneliness, grief and love are all drivers of these taut and fascinating narratives.”—Amazon review

“…a fantastic collection of stories by a deeply-involved writer, based in Canada.”—Amazon review

“…a well written, thought provoking collection of stories that will leave you hoping the future that Nina Munteanu projects never happens…Nina Munteanu is a gifted writer. Each story surprises and delights.”—Allan Stanleigh, author of USNA

“Actually brought to mind Niven’s Tales of Known Space…Nina’s stories tease you.”—D. Merchant, Louisianna Tech University College

 

The Way of Water can be purchased as:

WayofWater copy 2Ebook (Italian OR English) with additional short story “Virtually Yours” through Future Fiction (Mincione Edizioni) for €1,99  at:

Print book (Italian AND English) through Mincione Edizioni for €7,00 at:

 water bubbling

Translated into Italian by Fiorella Moscatello. Print book cover by Laura Cionci. Ebook cover by Brad Sharp.

On the Successful Anatomy of a Short Story

2015-novel-short-story-market-WDSome time ago, I was invited by writer and editor Jennifer D. Foster to participate in an interview on how to create a successful short story. Jennifer knew my work as a short story writer and had heard me speak at the Editors Association of Canada. She also knew that I teach the short story form as part of my science fiction course at George Brown College.

Writer’s Digest had asked Jennifer to write two “writing tips” chapters in its highly popular “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” (34th Annual Edition, 2015). Years ago I got my start as an author using this helpful market guidebook. Not only did the guide provide hundreds of listings with submission guidelines and current contact information; the guide’s writing tips section was also very helpful. So, I was both pleased and thrilled to be inside the 2015 edition!

As with previous editions, the 2015 edition contained—in addition to current market listings—articles on “Craft and Technique”, “Getting Published”, and “Marketing and Promotion”.

Below, I provide some excerpts of the 8-page chapter in the Craft & Technique Section, entitled “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story.” You can read the whole thing if you get your own copy of the guide, which is very decently priced. While it’s a year old, the advice remains as germane now as it was then. And many of the markets remain relevant too. You can also find the guide in most libraries, which tend to carry the entire Writer’s Digest series of market guides for writers.

Defining the Short Story

“Short stories are perhaps one of the best places for novice writers to start their careers,” wrote Foster in the opening to her article. “They’re not too long and complicated, and they offer the writer a chance to intimately explore a plot, a character, and a theme. Short stories also offer writers the opportunity to hone their craft and actually finish a piece of fiction—a great confidence booster!” Foster was quick to add that you shouldn’t be fooled by their short length compared with a novel—or their assumed simplicity: “Short stories are not necessarily any easier to write than novels or novellas.” I talk more about the significance of short story length  in a previous article on this blog: “Know What You’re Writing: Short Story or Long Story?”

Madison Davis at the University of Oklahoma suggested that short stories are “more concentrated … and notable for what they leave out.”

I mentioned that the short story is “a metaphoric event, a moment in time. It’s a single place—a crossroad—compared with the landscape of a novel. Short stories are more about awareness … and have the potential to be far more memorable and disturbing, with the power to enlighten.” Best-selling Canadian author Andrew Pyper suggested that, “a novel is the result of lengthy mulling, while a short story is the rising of an event out of the subconscious.”

Starting the short story in the middle of things “is crucial,” said Davis. “The reader must be thrown into the water immediately. There simply isn’t time or space to wind up.” Steve Woodward, associate editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, Minnesota argued that good first lines are vital: “they can tell you everything you need to know in an instant. Find that right first line, even if it means cutting several pages to get to it, and build outward from there.”

Theme

The message—or theme—of the short story is its raison d’être. In How to Write Short Stories, 4th Edition, Sharon Sorenson wrote that, “if you have no message, you have no story.”

I concurred: “Every good story explores a theme. In a short story, it is a single theme told as a ‘statement’ rather than a novel’s ‘argument.’ It’s a ‘close-up’ rather than a novel’s landscape. All story elements reflect the theme.” Susan Hesemeier, instructor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, added that the theme must be “limited to one subject or overall message rather than [the] multiple, interconnected themes [found] in a novel.” Margot Livesey, fiction editor of Emerson College’s Ploughshares magazine in Boston, Massachusetts summed it up eloquently: “theme is probably the hardest element to define, but we recognize its absence when we call something an anecdote.”

Conflict

According to author Louise Boggess, conflict “is the heartbeat of a story.” Conflict expresses internally or externally. Hesemeier wrote that in a short story, “there are fewer conflicts that lead to one climax; in a novel, a series of smaller conflicts and climaxes lead to or connect with a larger overall conflict and climax.”

Plot

Publisher Kevin Watson suggested that a great short story, much like a novel, “is presented to the reader in layers, delivered using setting, character, conflict, and dialogue.” At the center of those layers, said Watson, lay the plot, the theme, and the heart of everything that was presented.

Award-winning author Kevin Barry cited William Trevor: “a short story doesn’t need a plot, it just needs a point.” Toronto-based editor and author Andrew J. Borkaowski agreed: “it’s usually a matter of a single word, gesture, or incident and a handful of actions leading up to it.”

Character

Sorenson wrote that, “Believable, motivated characters make or break a story. If readers cannot understand or accept them, nothing else you do matters.” This is because the actions of your characters convey theme.

Novelist and writing instructor at Western University, Terence M. Green concurred. “Character is most important. Make the long chord of understanding and involvement with a character the goal. This is the emotional resonance, the epiphany that is the goal of the best long-lasting fiction.”

Setting

Characters and action should interact with the setting,” said Borkowski. She suggested that, “Setting is important as a conveyor of mood or atmosphere, and … has to be rendered succinctly, poetically almost.” Hesemeier added that, “Setting is usually limited to essentials that are necessary to describe the particular moment or that have symbolic significance for the reader’s understanding of the story.”

I further clarified: “A short story’s plot, setting, and character are often portrayed through strong metaphor, the short story writer’s major tool. Metaphor conveys so much more than the surface narrative might suggest; this is because metaphor by its very nature resonates with deeper truths, interpreted individually by members of a culture.”

Point of View

Foster wrote that for Borkowski, it was all about picking a side and sticking with it: “Once you start wanting to explore the inner lives of multiple characters, you’re on your way to something bigger than a short story.” Be mindful how many characters you provide agency and viewpoints to!

Woodward believed that once voice was established, everything else followed. Woodward preferred a solo voice in short story. “Stories are wonderful when concise and focused, often confined to a single narrative voice and to a single moment in time.”winter walk

Andrew J. Borkowski suggested that an exceptional short story arose from the intensity of emotion that resonated with the reader: “A great short story leaves you feeling you’ve experienced ten times more than what’s actually described on the page.” I shared a similar view: “The best short story is an elegant thing. It draws you into a singular experience that resonates at a visceral level, like an arrow through the heart; no time to think—just feel. A bad short story misses the heart … and this is why writers who master the short story form are some of the very best authors in the world.”

Excerpted from “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story” by Jennifer D. Foster. In: “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” Writer’s Digest Books; 34th Edition (Rachel Randall, editor), 2015. 569 pp.

Available at: Amazon.comAmazon.ca, and Writer’s Digest Shop.

Douglas Smith’s “Playing the Short Game” is also valuable with great advice for those wishing to market their short stories.

Natural Selection, my short story collection published by Pixl Press in 2013 is available at several bookstores.NaturalSelection-frontHR

Written with flare and a conscience…Munteanu shines a light on human evolution and how the choices we do or don’t make today, may impact our planet and future generations.”—J.P. McLean, author of The Gift Legacy

“Nina Munteanu is a gifted writer. Each story surprises and delights.”—Allan Stanleigh, co-author of USNA and The Caretakers

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina Teaching SF Writing Course at George Brown College FALL 2015

 nina-workshop 2

I’m back at George Brown College in Toronto, teaching my 12-week long writing course on how to write science fiction. “Creating Science Fiction” is now part of George Brown’s Creative Writing Certificate.

The 12-week course starts SEPTEMBER 22 (TUESDAY)  and runs until DECEMBER 8th. See the description below:

The course “Creating Science Fiction” runs TUESDAY nights from 6:15 to 9:15 starting September 22nd through to December 8th and costs $285.
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Meant for both beginning writers and those already published, the 12-week course is run like a workshop with student input and feedback on student’s WIPs.
.spaceship02
Munteanu explores with students the essential tools used in the SF genre (including world building, research and plot approaches). “Students will work toward a publishable original piece by learning to generate and follow through with premise, idea and theme,” says Munteanu.
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You can register for the course here: 
George Brown College is located on 200 King Street, Toronto, Canada.
nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Playing the Short Game & Other Short Stories

berriesThe seventh class of my 12-week Creating Science Fiction course that I teach at George Brown College is all about short story writing. I’m by nature a progressive—and an itinerant explorer; so, I am updating materials for my students and sharing them with you. Embedded in this “sharing” I promise a very cool deal too; just keep reading

One resource I’m eager to introduce to my students is Canadian SF short story writer Douglas Smith’s recent guidebook, Playing the Short Game: How to Market & Sell Short Fiction. Smith’s guidebook is a Tardis-style smallish yet comprehensive guide on what it takes to be a successful short story writer from starting & finishing to marketing & publishing to leveraging & promotion.

Smith is an accomplished short story writer and marketer, who has alwaysPlayingtheShortGame openly shared his treasures of acquired wisdom with others. His stories have appeared in thirty countries and 25 languages. He’s won three awards and has three acclaimed collections—so far. For years, his Foreign Market List has helped writers—including me—sell their work all over the world. To date, I have sold short stories (mostly reprints) to markets in Greece, Poland, Romania, Israel, and Italy—thanks to his list.

Why Short Fiction?

Smith gives seven excellent reasons for writing short fiction, even if you are ultimately a novel writer, like me. Writing short stories:

  1. Helps you learn your craft in easy, short-term, bite-sized amounts and over a reasonable time for you to learn, apply, and relearn
  2. Helps you test the waters of literature, to discover what excites you, provokes you and what ultimately you NEED to express
  3. Builds your resume, again more easily and quickly than a novel, toward that ultimate novel; publishers of magazines and publishing houses are more likely to take your work seriously if you have a publishing history
  4. Helps you explore ideas for your novel, by “pinging” certain premises you may wish to explore in further detail or take elsewhere in a novel
  5. Helps you build a backlist of published stories, which you own, once rights have reverted back to you
  6. Helps you build a network in your writing community of publishing houses, editors, other writers and so forth as you submit and exchange through your works and letters (including all those rejections!). Eventually, a pleased editor/publisher may invite you to submit to a “Best of” anthology or provide a collection. This has happened to me several times.
  7. Helps you learn the publishing business (well, sort of, says Smith…). Through exposure to the business side of publishing, you will gain an appreciation of how the publishing world works.

Know What You’re Writing

A short story only has 7,000 or less words to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books.

She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

Renowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham, emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response. Even Alice Munro, who is known for cramming long timeframes into her short stories, focuses framing time through a single event: a meal, family gathering, wedding or funeral, for instance.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Understanding the Short Story Format

Here are seven tips toward writing a compelling and memorable short story:

  1. Open in the middle of something happening (e.g., action/in a “scene”)
  2. Make your opening provocative (raise the stakes as high as you can)
  3. Write scenes and write sparingly (avoid describing the obvious—use description to show something odd, memorable, exotic)
  4. Have characters define themselves and their goals through what they do and observe (e.g., show more than tell)
  5. Define characters with dialogue (a great way to reveal while keeping a high pace)
  6. Withhold vital information for as long as possible
  7. Don’t explain the ending (cut down on the denouement; let the reader make those conclusions—a key in the short story format)

Selling Your Short Story

Smith’s guidebook provides several chapters of excellent advice in logical steps toward a successful career.

Here are just a few gems that I will be sharing with my students.

First of all, remember that you are not selling your story; you’re licensing a particular set of rights for someone to do something with that story. Before you do anything else, do your homework: know the rights you’re selling; and which ones to keep. Smith describes five major types of rights: media; language; geography (less and less relevant); occurrence; and time.

Media rights include print rights, electronic rights and audio rights. Markets include magazines, anthologies and collections for short stories. Language and geography rights are pretty self-explanatory. Occurrence rights relate to whether the publisher is buying first or second and onward rights (otherwise known as reprints). Most publishers prefer to pay for the right to publish your work for the first time in that particular format (e.g., in print and in English, for instance). Having said that, I’ve had a lucrative history of selling reprints to some of my more popular short stories. I’ve furthered gone on to selling other rights, such as foreign language rights and audiobook and e-book rights. I’ve also sold two short story collections, one to an Italian publisher (coming out this year) and shorts in several anthologies. No movies yet… But I did have a serious discussion with a writer/producer on one of my shorts. Recall how many Philip K. Dick short stories have been adapted to movies (e.g., Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Minority Report, and Blade Runner).

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing

Smith invokes SF writer Robert J Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing to succeed as a short story writer (as any kind of writer, actually). These are:

  1. You must write
  2. You must finish what you write
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put the work on the market
  5. You must keep the work on the market until sold

I know… Number 3 sounds pretty suspicious, or arrogant at the very least. As Robert J. Sawyer concludes on his site in reference to the five rules, number 3 is open to reasonable interpretation. Of course, it must mean AFTER you’ve finished and edited the story with some level of confidence that you’re happy with it—never mind what other people think of it.

Nina’s Bus-Terminal Model

In my writing guide The Fiction Writer, Chapter L (for “Long or Short?”), I talk about how I launched my own successful short story writing career. I’d been writing short stories for a few years without much success (I was getting interesting rejection letters, so I knew I was getting close); then I settled into a kind of model/routine. I call it The Bus Terminal Approach. As Smith attests—several times—it’s a numbers game. That’s how I played it. It starts with one story and relies on you not waiting until you write the next, and the next and the next. Here’s how it works:

  1. You list at least 3 markets that you’ve researched for Story A and send it to the first of the three
  2. You start right away writing Story B, send it to the first of 3 markets you’ve researched and listed for it
  3. When Story A rejection arrives, you do not revise but send it right away to the second market
  4. Same thing for Story B
  5. Write Story C and treat similarly

Remember to keep track of what you send where and when and what happens to it. It can become a very confusing bus terminal otherwise, with someone ending up in Seattle when they are headed to Toronto! What happens with this approach is several things: you begin to treat the whole marketing/publishing process as a business (which it is) and because you have so many “buses” out there coming and going, the rejections don’t hurt quite as much and instead become part of the learning process, which they should be. You adopt a more business-like approach, which translates into your relationship with editors and publishers. A win-win situation results. Believe me; this works. Once I fell into this method, my sales increased by over 70%.

I mentioned a cool deal in the beginning. Here it is: you can purchase Smith’s e-guidebook, along with several other excellent writing guides on the Write Stuff StoryBundle as a promotional bundle. Here’s the Write Stuff StoryBundle Site. The offer runs until June 4th 2015.

My own guidebook, The Fiction Writer, can be purchased in various online and onsite bookstores, including Amazon, Kobo, Chapters Online, Barnes & Noble, and several others even I don’t know about.

Natural Selection, my short story collection published by Pixl Press in 2013 is also available at several bookstores.NaturalSelection-frontHR

Written with flare and a conscience…Munteanu shines a light on human evolution and how the choices we do or don’t make today, may impact our planet and future generations.”—J.P. McLean, author of The Gift Legacy

“Nina Munteanu is a gifted writer. Each story surprises and delights.”—Allan Stanleigh, co-author of USNA and The Caretakers

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Know What You’re Writing: Short Story or Long Story?

winter boatsHow to Decide on the Length of Your Story 

Figuring out what you are writing isn’t always as easy as you think. Many writers, when they begin, may think they are writing a short story when they are actually writing a novel; or vice versa. When I first started, in fact this is what occurred.

Some time ago, when I was a budding novelist working on my second unpublished novel, I decided to write short stories. I’d been told time and again that it was easier to publish short stories (the market is far more diverse) and they provided excellent qualifications for when it came time to market my novel. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. I kept getting rejections with comments that my short story ought to be a novel! It took some time to master the art of short story telling. But when I did, I realized that I’d learned a lot about storytelling that I could apply to my novel. And by the time I was ready to publish my novel, I had several short story publications behind me to prove the salability of my work.

So, what are you really writing? Or, more to the point, what should you be writing?

A short story only has 7,500 words or less to get your tale across while a novel has over ten times that many words to do the same. It follows then that the short story format is a simpler one. This does not necessarily mean easier.

Short Vs. Long—What’s Your Focus?

Novels provide a sense of change, growth and solutions to problems and conflicts. Short stories must be more succinct, contain fewer characters and subplots, have less complicated story arcs and a single theme. You could say that a short story is a poem to a novel’s prose. “The short story doesn’t have the luxury of depicting change; the closest it can come is awareness,” writes Shelley Lowenkopf in her 2007 article “Telling Tales” in The Portable Writer’s Conference: Your Guide to Getting Published by Quill Driver Books. She goes on to describe the short story as a close-up to a novel’s landscape. The short story is, therefore, often more intense and powerful. A short story, more than a novel, has the power to transport, disturb and enlighten.

Renowned short story authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Somerset Maugham emphasize the importance of striving for one effect when writing a short story: the single effect you wish to leave with the reader at the end. This is accomplished by selecting events or situations that build quickly into a combustible response.

Jack Bickham, in his book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Writer’s Digest Books (1993) writes that, “story length, author intention, traditional expectations of the audience, and all sorts of things may affect the form a story may take.” Choosing the appropriate length to tell your story relies on the complexity of your premise and theme.

Pick Your Length Checklist

The following short checklist will help you determine whether you should be writing a short story or something longer like a novel:

  • does your story have several main characters and minor characters?
  • is your story full of subplots?
  • does your story contain multilayered themes and story arcs?
  • do your characters learn and change notably?
  • is there significant change in your story?
  • does your story contain several settings and sub-stories?
  • does your story explore several ideas as opposed to one main idea?
  • does your story investigate several issues rather than making a single point?

If you answered “yes” to most of the above, then you should be writing a novel.

Defining Story Length

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America defined story length forms in the table below. Definitions vary among other sources but remain close to these.

Table 1: Terminology of Story Lengths
Name Description
Drabble (Flash Fiction) Exactly 100 words
Flash Fiction Less than 500 words
Short short Fiction 500-1,000 words
Short Story Less than 7,500 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
Novel More than 40,000 words

 

Creative Options & Market Tips

During my early “salad” writing years as a short story writer, I discovered a system that helped me send out material and publish with more ease and efficiency. It helped that I was rather prolific with short story telling and that I was simultaneously working on a few novels. Here are some creative things you can do with both your short stories and novels (in the works or already published) to increase your productivity and publishing opportunities:

  • Use Novel Excerpts: Here’s something I did to save time, hone my craft, and receive early recognition: I took “aha” excerpts from my ongoing novel and adapted them into stand alone short stories—altering at least 20% of the content and other elements like setting, names, etc. In each case, I ensured a powerful story by focusing on the single thematic element. I sold at least five short stories to good magazines this way. The short stories went on to receive recognition, awards and a place in some “Best of” anthologies, long before my novels received similar recognition. In each case, the short story became an equally—if not more—powerful version of its sister work in my novel, much like a poem is to a piece of prose. Try it; you might really like it.
  • Adapt A Short Story into a Novel or Novella: you may find that a powerful thought expressed in your short story engenders interest in a larger plot with more depth, such as a novel. Nancy Kress and Ray Bradbury are two short story/Novella writers who adapted some of their works into longer forms to create something both new and compelling.
  • Run Your Novel and Short Story Submissions Like a Bus Depot: When I was writing a lot of short stories, I kept a list of what and where I submitted, along with the most important item: where to submit NEXT. At any given time, I made sure that I had at least x-number of submissions out there and each story had a designated place to go if it returned. As soon as a story came back from magazine A, I simply re-packaged it and sent it to magazine B. The critical part of the list was to have a contingency for each story: the next place where I would send the story once it returned. I was planning on the story being rejected with the hope that it would be accepted; that way, a rejection became part of a story’s journey rather than a final comment. I ran my submissions like a bus terminal. A story was in and out so fast it never had a chance to cool off. And, since I had five other pieces out there, I could do this with little emotion. I was running a fast-paced “story depot”, after all. All my stories had to be out there as soon as possible; if they were sitting in the terminal, they were doing nothing for me.
  • Reprint Your Published Short Stories: You can only do this if you ensure that you initially only sell First Rights with your story’s first publication. My short story “Virtually Yours” has been reprinted five times and is continuing its journey still. It has appeared in “Best of” anthologies, several collections (e.g., Natural Selection); it has been translated into several languages and published all over the planet. Don’t let your story languish on its first success. See where else it can go. Foreign markets are a largely untapped area.
  • Do Foreign Translations and Reprints: Thankfully, Douglas Smith, a colleague of mine and celebrated short story writer has compiled a list for short story foreign markets. He also recently put out a book on marketing your short story, called “Playing the Short Game”.

 

References:

Smith, Douglas. 2014. “Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction”. Lucky Bat Books. 230pp

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! winter boatsStarfire World Syndicate. 266pp.

NaturalSelection-frontHRMunteanu, Nina. 2013. “Virtually Yours” in Natural Selection: a Collection of Short Stories. Pixl Press. 120pp.

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter R of The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire, 2009).

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.