Archive for October, 2012

Writing Short Stories

October 25, 2012

After Rain author Wendy Lesser, in a New York Times Review, said, “. . . the great short stories, in my experience, keep you balanced in midair, suspended somewhere between the world you normally inhabit and the world briefly illuminated by the author.  You see them both at once, and you feel them both at once:  the emotions generated in you by the story carry over instantly and applicably to the life outside the book.” 

As you develop your short story, ask yourself these questions:  What is the hidden element of my short story?  Why am I writing it? 

To discover a theme, play around with ideas of how events in your life have changed you.

What pushes your hot buttons?  Feel an emotionally charged way about a relationship?  A matter of ethics?

In a novel, a theme can be broad, but in a short story, the theme must be specific. Your character must meet a conflict head on and resolve it within a tight amount of words.  Hook the reader in the beginning, establish the tone of your story and start the conflict immediately. Leave questions in your reader’s mind to propel them through the story. By the time your reader has reached the end, your protagonist needs to change in a small but meaningful way.

 Most short stories are between 1500-3500 words, although each magazine, literary journal, or contest will have their own word length.  Gaining in popularity these days are short-short stories, from 500 words down to 100! 

Do you want to write them?  Then read them.  Good classic short story writers include Shirley Jackson, Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.  Read and write for literary journals such as Glimmer Train, glimmertrain.com ,  Zoetrope: All-Story, all-story.com/  Boulevard, boulevardmagazine.org, Epoch, arts.cornell.edu/English/publications/epoch.  For markets for younger students, see pages at the right side of this blog. 

 Writing Prompts:

  1. Take an idea or novel you have and craft it into a short story.  Once you have a rough draft, write it several more times until you have it polished where every word counts.  How few words are absolutely necessary to convey your character, setting, and plot? 
  2. Enter a short story contest.  Workshop your story with a writing partner or group to make sure you are creating your best work possible.   
  3. Take your short story from #1 and write it within 100 words! 
  4. Can you write a short story in a paragraph?  A sentence? 
  5.  Check your stories.  Is there enough reason for the reader to read beyond the first paragraph? 

Read Like a Writer

October 18, 2012

As writers, we read differently than most people.  It’s hard not to read just for the pleasure of the story and the characters without appreciating exactly how the author is excelling in his craft. 

Recently, I read The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson.  The book’s publicity says it “intertwines the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and the cunning serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims to their death.” 

I found the book on a library sale table and read it for its nonfiction narrative, and probably would have not bought it had I paid attention to the serial killer description, as it isn’t to my own personal tastes.  However, I will say it was a powerful, well-researched story that read like a novel. 

Here are two examples of setting I marked as examples of writing that stood out for me:

“The light in the room was sallow, the sun already well into its descent.  Wind thumped the windows.  In the hearth at the north wall a large fire cracked and lisped, flushing the room with a dry sirocco that caused frozen skin to tingle.”  

“Leaves hung in the stillness like hands of the newly dead.”    

Writing Prompt: 

  1. Look at the project you are working on at the moment.  What is happening with the light in your current scene?  The weather?  Sounds?  How does your character physically react?
  2. Using a theme of your book, create a simile like Larson did with leaves. 
  3. As you read, keep post-it notes handy and place them next to portions of writing which you admire.  Later, discover how the author crafted those pieces.  How can you model these within your own writing? 

Writing Workshops for Kids! Lafayette, CA

October 15, 2012
Wordplay Fall Fiction Writing Workshop

English teacher, writing coach, and founder of our popular Summer Writing Workshops LISA PIAZZA presents a workshop series for aspiring writers of fiction! 

 Saturday afternoons    4:30-6:00      Ages 9-up

Nov 3:              A Convergence of Quirky Characters

Nov 10:            Plotlines, Places, + Perspective

Nov 17:            Sounds + Scenes: using dialogue and imagery to create mood

 $25/each or $65/series

Notebooks + light snack included

 Register at The Storyteller Bookstore or via email wordplayworkshop@hotmail.com

Writing Realistic Dialogue

October 5, 2012

“So, like you know Nick’s mom?” the teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.

“Yeah, like she’s blonde  right?” said the girl in the middle of the three, her short-shorts hiking up oh, so far.

I huffed and puffed behind them on the walking trail and made sure I kept up so I wouldn’t miss a word. 

The girl on the right chimed in with awe in her voice.  “She’s really good-looking.”

“No kidding,” said Ms. Pony Tail.  “She looks exactly like Carrie on Sex in the City. Her body, anyways.” 

All three murmured their agreements. 

Just a tidbit of conversation, but a goldmine for a writer.  Why?  Because if you’re not around teenagers, you don’t know how they sound any more.  Whether they’re in your  young adult novel or in another work of fiction, their dialogue needs to sound real.  Nothing worse than phony characters!

Ever read a book for adults with a child who doesn’t  sound kid-like?  The talking doesn’t match the character, where they live, or time period?   Fake.     Or lines of useless talk without a purpose?   

So what makes dialogue good?

Dialogue should show character and move the story forward.  Talk should be action.  Can you get your characters’ words to heighten conflict?  Sometimes great dialogue has subtext, or a secondary meaning when  words that mean one thing on the surface, but underneath they have a deeper emotional meaning.    And occasionally dialogue is important because of what isn’t being said.   The elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

It reminds me of an incident once years ago when my husband, young son and I traveled to see his parents, brother and sister-in-law.  We talked in the living room for a couple of hours and then took separate cars to meet at a restaurant.  In our car I mentioned to Bob that his mother was upset with his father and my sister-in-law knew, but I hadn’t figured out the reason yet.  And my sister-in-law was irritated about my mother-in-law over an issue too, but we’d learn why at the restaurant.

Bob’s mouth dropped open.  “You are nuts.  We talked about the weather, everyone’s health and what the kids were doing in school.  How did you get all of that out of mindless conversation?”

“You weren’t paying attention!” I said.  “Watch the body language, the eyes, listen to the voices.” 

My husband shook his head in disgust.  “You are wrong, Liz.  Totally wrong.”

Of course, we discovered the source of my mother-in-law’s irritation with her husband, and my sister-in-law’s problem with my mother-in-law.  Later, he grew to appreciate my “women’s intuition.”  But I don’t think it’s limited to women.  All writers have this when they are working. 

And when aren’t we? 

Writing Tips: 

1. Don’t use substitute words for “said.”  I just unearthed a beginning writing piece of mine from a trillion years ago and I’m embarrassed to say each time someone talked I used gasped, murmured, whispered, indicated, questioned, etc. so often it was embarrassing.  Occasionally it’s appropriate but generally, use SAID.  it will make your writing flow more smoothly.  

Or, skip the tags and employ an action.   (See above.  Bob’s mouth dropped open.  The teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.)

2.  Don’t use dialogue to tell information a character would already know.   Example: 
“Mary, you are my very best friend.  I’ve known you all my life and your mother is our horse’s vet.  She saved his life two times.”  

Writing Prompts

1.  Listen to real dialogue wherever you go.  Keep a journal.  Jot it down after you hear it so you won’t forget.  (But try not to write it down as you walk, or you’ll be caught like Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.)  Choose a piece of real dialogue and create a story with it.

2.  Write a story with special buzzwords.  These are words that each and every hobby or occupation has.  Does your character love horses?  Research horses.  Interview a horse lover.  Read horse books.  How does a horse lover talk about them?  What are the “horse words” that would go with this character?  

My husband was an engineer and he wrote a recommendation for one of his secretaries and said she had good “phone presence.” This time I thought HE was nuts.  But sure enough, in that industry, it was exactly what they called good phone etiquette.

3.  Write a story about you with real dialogue.   Read your dialogue out loud.  (In fact, read ALL dialogue you EVER write out loud!) 

4. Check a recent project of yours.  Do you have long narration that needs to be broken up with dialogue?  Make sure your piece is balanced.  Dialogue helps provide a balance and is good for pacing.  Need faster pacing?  Write short dialogue and skip tags.   But don’t have huge blocks of dialogue, either.  Make sure you have a balanced story that flows well.  Read it aloud to make sure it feels just right.