This month, I’m the featured author in the Author’s Roundtable, an online quarterly magazine of short stories for the Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG). Based on a theme that changes with every issue, this quarter is ‘Written in the Stars’.
A shell of its former glory, NASA in the near future discovers what Planet Nine really is, and has to convince a skeptical director who doesn’t understand the basics of our solar system.
“What’s this all about,” Trevor Stanhope asked his Associate Administrator.
The click of Helen Martinez’s low-heeled shoes kept cadence to Stanhope’s brisk stride as they hurried along on the polished floors of NASA’s subterranean levels. “The note mentioned recent information that needs your immediate attention,” she said.
Six months since Stanhope’s appointment as NASA’s Administrator, President Barbara Preston specifically asked him to shake things up by reining-in expensive projects and the Brainiacs who were too busy looking for ET. “Bring in some solid space science we can use while getting the Mars mission off the ground, like updated satellite reconnaissance and better asteroid killers,” she’d told him.
“Did they send a synopsis, so I can understand what they’re saying when they start throwing those pseudo-scientific terms and acronyms around?” he asked.
“All I got was something to do with all the increased meteorite activity, asteroid close calls, and TNO’s . . . Trans Neptunian Objects.”
“Trans-nep-toonia objects . . .” Stanhope chuckled. “Sounds like that Christmas rock orchestra that pops up every holiday.” A lawyer by education, and six-term, conservative US Congressman before President Preston handed him this job, Stanhope’s grasp of science was limited to high school chemistry. Where did they come up with these names?
Which leads me to confessing how I got into little big stories in the first place.
Short Stories hadn’t been much of a forte for me in the past. I prefer writing lengthier tomes in the 100K range. I found it hard to write what I wanted to say about the story’s journey in fewer words. How do you really get to know who the character is, and how he/she must navigate the perilous river of the story premise?
That changed a couple years ago when I dipped my toes in the short story waters with an anthology. Give us something light – middle grade, paranormal if you can manage it, and keep it to 2500 words. After some head-scratching, I tore into my file of ideas, looking for clues, and located notes about a boy moving to a rural New England town. Entering as a freshman, he discovers there’s more to the newly constructed high school than construction debris.
It was paperback printed with other stories, made the Amazon circuit for a year, then quietly died a lonely death by drowning in the murky seas of literary content. So much for a valiant effort.
Last year, the BWG asked if I’d like a slot in their author spotlight. It had to be under 3K, and in accordance to a theme for the winter quarter, ‘Snowbound’. Back to the archive of un-hatched ideas, I came up empty. Then a friend suggested an excerpt from a book I’d written, preferably something unpublished.
I have a lot of those.
Chose a dystopian tale I couldn’t market some years back, and selected a “pinpoint of time” where a young man on the run from a near future autocratic government takes shelter in a remote, snowbound cabin. Seemingly safe hundreds of miles from any living soul, someone is attacked by wolves a stone’s throw from his cabin.
The editors that publish the online magazine were well-schooled in the art of short story writing, and helped me fine tune the final draft. At first, I thought I’d made a mistake by ending it with a question – a dangling chad, so to speak. However, it generated interest in the larger tome. Without realizing it, I’d opened a door to a book I didn’t think would ever see the light of day. I’m currently in a rewrite of the novel. Fingers crossed.
Click the title below if you’re interested in reading the PDF version of it.
What was the process I used? It helps to read a few to see how it’s done, and I blew the dust off my small library of anthologies and short stories. FYI, Stephen King is a master of it. Just saying.
I’m a meticulous researcher, and I went at it with my usual study-before-do methodology. No shortage of ‘How To’ blogs, books, and you-too-can-be-a-writer articles. Just type in “writer short story” on Pinterest and prepare for a flood that will choke your server. I have digital reams in the archive on how to become a better writer, but after a while, it gets repetitive, some of which is less how-to, more ‘buy my stuff’ or ‘follow my stuff’. One tipster gave a multi-point process that looked an awful lot like the structure for a novel. Somewhere in the endless sinkhole of suggestions, a few bubbles of usable knowledge floated to the top.
I first offer the sage advice of Carol Wright, editor of the BWG Roundtable.
‘Short stories are a big part of what we do within the Bethlehem Writers Group. As Neil Gaiman says, “A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” It’s not an easy trick to master, though. Truman Capote said, “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.” And Annie Proulx agrees. She said, “I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story.” So, we writers labor on, working and reworking our stories, tweaking the dialogue, checking the pacing, trimming any expendable words until all we have left are the precious few that say so much.’
If I was to sift through the myriad of opinions I read, the tips I found most useful are:
- Write the beginning and end before anything else, (though it may change as I tie the two strings together). Some suggested writing a synopsis first. I’m a hard-core pantser and susceptible to spending more time on a synopsis than just writing the damned thing, but if it works for you, power on.
- Pacing: You know the drill – character, conflict, journey, resolution – but instead of 70K words to do it, you only have maybe 5K or less. No traipsing down unmarked paths that don’t get you home.
- Focus on one character if you can, and keep the supporting cast to a minimum. By the time you describe a dozen or more characters in a short story, the word count ‘tank is full light’ winks on.
- Succinct details: Use only what’s needed to paint the moment, that ‘trimming expendable words’. I’m susceptible to diarrhea of the word-processor, not a good thing with short stories. Literary embellishment that meanders into a lengthy paragraph may sound nice in a full novel, but it eats word count like a starving bear.
- Keeping it in the here and now (some call this a pinpoint of time), helped tremendously. Anything with “ten years later”, or other significant time gap, makes a reader wonder “gee, what happened in between?”
- Don’t work in a vacuum: Much of my learning process came from writers who specialize in short stories. A tip of the old fedora to authors Christopher D. Ochs, Charles Kiernan, and Jerry McFadden, who have written dozens between them.
What’s next? After swearing off anthologies before, I’m now into little big stories, and contributed to an upcoming short story anthology coming out October 2018.