Recently, says Kitt, I attended a seminar about writing short stories, and we were given many interesting tips about putting them together, and knowing what truly constitutes a short story. This is the first in a continuing series on writing short Law & Order fanfic, but certainly has value for anyone who wants to put together a short story of any kind.
How to Write Short Law & Order Fan Fiction
A short story, as has been noted by writers far more experienced and talented than any of us, is an intensely personal experience. The best short stories out there can usually be found catalogued and bound in special "best of" volumes, and if they can teach us one thing, it is that there is no one magic formula for writing a short. However, to truly know what makes up a good short story -- you must read them. Some of the most accessible can be found in the vast volumes of O. Henry's works; some of the more literary may be hunted down in the yearly "best of" series that bears O. Henry's name. But no matter how much published short fiction you read, you may still wonder: How does this translate into short fan fiction that will be accepted by apocrypha?
For the past several years, Kor and I have been reading through fan fiction that has been truly great or truly awful, but most of which falls somewhere in the middle. But we still have developed no magical formula; all we can do is read each story and let each tale be chosen, rejected or offered for revision on its own merits. We cannot give you an "if you do this, we'll take it" formula. We can offer you this: Read the magazine. Avoid sending us what we've published a million times already (i.e., Jack loses Claire; Mike Was Abused; Mike Gets Fired; Jack Is An Admirable SOB) -- unless you have some really new and interesting take on the same topic. If you see it in print more than two times, be guaranteed we've seen it in submission ten times as often. Obviously, know your characters -- and how to spell their names. Make us believe that these people would say these things, and do these things. Cut down on the melodrama -- Mike doesn't cry at the drop of a hat, and Jack really doesn't turn into jelly at the thought of dear, departed Claire. Or maybe they do ... but we have to be convinced of it. That's up to the writer.
The rest, I'm hoping to outline for you in the next several issues. Writing is one of those things that nearly everyone can do, and not many can do well, but nearly everyone can improve upon. Take each of these tips (culled from a list of "50 Tips for Fiction Writers" by Jim Heynen) and see how it applies to your own work. Then, see if your story needs some rewriting. If you find yourself violating these "rules," you can pretty well guess -- we're going to notice, and we're going to have issues with your story. Remember: If you can't convince us that you love this story and these characters, why should we bother reading, critiquing, or publishing it? We need to read the love, first.
Tip Number 1
If you want someone to criticize your work, ask for criticism. If you want someone to praise it, ask for praise.
By sending your work to apocrypha, you are going to get a critical evaluation. Exceptions: That we like it so much it needs no touching, or that we find it so beyond repair that we just won't spend the time telling you how to fix it. In between, if you want it, you're going to get criticism. You may not like it. But understand: It is never personal, and you always have the right to appeal. If you're worried about criticism before submitting, find a beta reader -- posting a message on the apocrypha Yahoo! message board should help you locate one -- and see what they say. But if you're looking for praise, take it to your friends and colleagues, and say "tell me how much you like it." Otherwise, you're bound to be disappointed.
Tip Number 2
Write the first draft in a good mood. Revise in a bad mood.
It sounds quaint, but think again: If you write when you're feeling great, you'll probably get all of the scene out at once -- every drip, every nuance. When you're less charitable, go back and hack away at what doesn't propel the scene or story, and what just bogs things down. And for those out there thinking, "revise?" Yes, you do need to revise. We can tell when someone hasn't read her own story -- lately, or ever.
Tips Number 3 and 4
If you're a likeable person, don't tell autobiographical stories from your own point of view. If you're not a likable person, tell as many autobiographical stories from your own point of view as you can.
A story in which the writer is knowledgable about his topic shows. You don't need to wave this knowledge around like a blunt object, but if Ben meets a bookbinder, a few interesting details about bookbinding can't possibly hurt. Jack's a motorcyclist, yet we get little detail about how to maintain a motorcycle (Zen and the art of Jack's Motorcycle Maintenance?). So where does the autobiography come from? You, naturally. Write what you know, and let the characters wander around in it. If you're a teacher, why not have the policemen come in to discuss police work in a class? As for that "unlikeable" stuff -- we all have things we don't like that we've done, or that we were highly emotional about. Those are the places and events and things about which you should be writing. Your connection to the place or event or thing will make your writing sparkle.
Tip Number 5
Don't stop when you get to the hard part. (Hemingway said something to this effect)
If you come to an impasse in your work, or a place where you're writing about something so painful that it's hard to go on -- get up, walk around, and force yourself to come back to the story right away. Whatever blockage you're having is worth working through right there -- because it'll still be there when you next need to write the section. On the other hand, if the section is causing an impasse because it doesn't work, go back to where it last did work, and start from there.
Tip Number 6
If you compose on a word processor, revise in pencil. (That is, somewhere in the process, make it slow.)
We get a lot of maximum word stories that do not need to be 10,000 words plus. Figure out where you want your story to end. Back up a hair or two. Then begin. Although there are many shorts that work which are like mini-novels, most do not. Until you're totally comfortable with writing small novels (which a 10,000 word story is), don't tackle the universe. Figure out your story, find the crux of it, and tell the story around that point. Don't feel you have to knot it all in a bow with a big "The End" at the end for it to be a good story.
Tip Number 7
If you have more than one adjective before a noun, cut them both. Replace one only with (great) reluctance.
I'm guilty of this, too -- but be ruthless. If you need multiple adjectives, you're either not trusting the sentence to stand as a true description, or you've tripped somewhere along the way. You don't need to give each detail to the reader. That's what their imaginations are for. (And watch for repetitiveness with multiple adjectives -- a sky is not azure blue. It's just azure, or it's just blue.)
Tip Number 8
At any point in a story, anything can happen.
It can! It's your world, it's your story. However, if your audience is not also convinced that suddenly Claire could have a lesbian relationship, or that Mike wants to shave off all his hair, or that Ben wants to join the police force, people are going to stop reading. Take the readers on the journey with you -- convince them (and your editors) that this really could happen.
Tip Number 9
If you think you need more willpower to be a great writer, then think of willpower as the ability to let go of obstacles to your desire to write. If you can write one page a day while going to the bathroom, in one year you will have written a novel while sitting on the can.
Most successful writers are not sporadic about it. They do it regularly -- that is, every single day. Since few if any of us are getting paid for writing fiction, that means we have real lives that often impede regular writing. But it is crucial to have some time set aside every day for fiction writing. What's stopping you? Make writing your priority for an hour a day, and decide that anything that's keeping you from doing it is an obstacle you have to overcome. (Besides which, non-writers are a little awed by writers. If you use that awe to keep them out of the study for an hour at a time, they'll probably listen to you.)
Tip Number 10
Focus on one character.
Hear that? Strange, isn't it. But a short story doesn't have time for a Dickensanian outlaying of multiple characters. You have one great advantage with fanfic that other writers don't -- your readers already know your characters, to an extent. That means you can be brief about introducing them -- at the same time, don't just plop them in the middle of a story -- but you don't need to fully dimensionalize every character. That said, pick the character your story is focusing on. That is the point of view you want to take, that is the head from which you want to be peering out of. Anything else will likely be too much. In the case of longer shorts, perhaps two people may be acceptable. More than that, though, and you're going to confuse people. There's nothing wrong with setting limits.
Ten tips for now; ten more next time. However, before we close out on this issue's "How To" section, I'll leave you with a writing exercise. You don't have to send it in, but I recommend that you at least give it a shot. Exercise is a pain, but everyone knows you can't run a marathon until you've done some sprints first. If you want to send in your sample 'graph to me, I'll be happy to take a look at it and let you know what I think. We may have a writing seminar soon in the future, and we'll discuss some of these exercises then. If you're interested in participating in a seminar, also, please let me know. You may write me at email@example.com.
Here is the exercise: Write about walking into a fairground. BUT -- everything that happens in it must be done through the eyes of the person walking into it, every action, every sense must be their interpretation. You are inside this character. And when you're finished, the rest of us (the readers) should know something you haven't explicitly stated about the character and his or her story or state of mind. To do this, you must:
1) Choose your character and spend a little while thinking about them. Who are they, how are they feeling at this moment, and why are they going into this fairground? That's the crux. And don't write any of this down -- this is where you're starting from.
2) Now, make the character enter the fairground. You can just say: X entered the fairground -- and/or simply start your description, or action, from inside. Don't forget that different people notice different things, and this is how you enrich their character. From your description of the fairground, we want to learn about the character. A man will notice different things than a woman. A boy looking for a fight will notice different things than a fortuneteller turning up for her evening session.
3) Remember all the senses: Hearing, touch, smell, sight. A fairground is a rich source.
4) Think visually. See the scene. Roll it like a film in your head. Is it daytime? Nighttime? Crowded? Quiet? You don't have to explain what is happening, just show us in words.
Here is an example, to get you going. It's not necessarily brilliantly written, because this is not an exercise about beautiful writing:
She padded slowly, cautiously, testing the wind for scents. Off in the distance, pealing bells and disjointed voices blended into one cacophonous sound. She wasn't yet certain she wanted to enter the main thoroughfare, and clung closely to the barns where the prize animals were sheltered for the night. This was comfort: The soft murmuring of hooded sheep, stamping cows, blustering horses, their straw and dung and feed. Out there were people, total strangers who would reach out their hands to touch, to carry, to scratch. Still ... she felt drawn towards the light, so she departed the silent dark barns, padding towards the entrance. Slowly, the cries of delighted children pricked up her ears, and her heart began to race, every instinct attuned to what she only now began to realize what she was seeking. People meant danger, objects falling carelessly from on high, gigantic feet not caring where they landed. She kept close to the corners, slinking against the wooden food stalls, accidentally stepping into a puddle of cold, acrid beer, sniffing the air, searching, searching. A flash – her eyes glinted yellow, reflective -- another flash and every muscle tensed. Her tail bristled, twitching, alert. There it was, gnawing on a last bit of sausage. She crept one paw over the other, through the shadows of passerby, never seeming to notice them, intent on her goal. Suddenly, the mouse paused in his eating, glanced up. Their eyes locked. He dashed off. With a thin trilling hiss, she bounded after. The chase was on!
So what do you know now about this character you didn't know when you first started reading? How do you know it? How can you apply this to your own writing? Is this more or less satisfying than being told exactly what is going on?
See you next time.