Louise’s Short Story Lessons

After finishing my most recent edit of Magic and Mayhem, I decided it was time to stretch my writing comfort zone a little, and try my hand at some short stories. You know, because I’m such a terse writer, so good at brevity and clarity, using a minimum of words to convey a maximum of ideas.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

It’s been a learning experience, to say the least. One short story has turned into a novelette. One just managed to squeak in under 7,000 words, but I did have a stroke of brilliance the other day about some editing I can do in order to pare it down by a thousand words or so. One has had two or three incarnations, and is currently mocking me in its still-unfinished state. One seems promising right now, but I have to keep going back and deleting half of it, because my characters go and get all wordy and rambly and off-track.

However! Along with this frustration (I was estimating how long most of Agatha Christie’s short stories were the other evening, and tossed aside the book with a wail of despair. HOW did she pack so much into so few words?), I’m actually learning some useful tips for writing short stories, and thought I’d share them here. So,

  1. Outline. Letting your characters and plot meander about while you figure out what’s happening one step ahead of them may work well enough in a novel, but short stories need outlines. detailed outlines. Outlines that are practically a story in and of themselves.
  2. Eliminate irrelevancies. This one is both hard and painful for me. I adore irrelevancies! Just look at how many parenthesis I use in any given blog post! Irrelevancies are my life’s blood! Only not in a short story.
  3. Pare down the cast. Casts of thousands might work well in fantasy epics; not so much in short stories.
  4. Have a point, and stick to it. See #2.
  5. Be ruthless. I know this is a general rule for writing novels, as well, but even more so with short stories. I don’t care how brilliantly written the heroine’s walk through the woods is, it is taking up 1,000 words to advance her somewhere that could be achieved with 10. Cut it. If you love it that much, save it to use in a novel someday.
  6. Keep scrap paper nearby for jotting down issues and problems as they arise, or interesting potential plot bunnies, or anything that is going to interfere with the tight flow of the story. You might need them later, or find you can use them in something else (see #5), but visually, you don’t want them with the story itself.
  7. Study how the greats do short stories. Chances are, you might see a pattern. Besides, it will give you something worthwhile to read while your own stories are dancing circles around you.
  8. Keep the words and sentences themselves brief. It will help your brevity overall. Hard to stick with 7,000 words when you use 500 of those words in the very first sentence.
  9. When you get too frustrated, take a break. Write poetry. Draw something. Sew. Cook. Clean. Write long, rambling blog posts to get the need for MANY WORDS out of your system. If you get too, too frustrated, go back to novels. It’s ok if short stories never become your thing.
  10. I don’t really have a tenth point. I just didn’t want to end this with nine.
Obviously, some of these points only apply to me (#6, especially, is just personal preference), but I hope anyone can glean some wisdom from them. What about you? Do you have any tips for writing good short stories?

Influences: Agatha Christie

As a kid, I had pretty bad problems with nightmares. The tabloid pictures of the infamous “Bat-Boy” scared me so badly I couldn’t walk through the checkout line at the grocery store for years. Years.

So it may come as a surprise that I adore mysteries. However, I don’t read the really gruesome stuff. I mostly love the mystery writers from the Golden Age – Dorothy L Sayers (LORD PETER FTW!!!!!); Anthony Berkeley; Margery Allingham (Campion may start out as a pale imitation of Lord Peter, but quickly develops into his own charming self); Josephine Tey; Ngaio Marsh; and I’ve been trying to read Freeman Wills Croft for years but only just recently found ONE of his books free for Kindle so I’ll finally be able to give him a chance …

And of course, the queen of them all, Agatha Christie.

The first Agatha Christie I ever read was The A.B.C. Murders. I know, an odd pick for someone prone to nightmares! I should have started with Tommy and Tuppence. Still, it was better to start with that one than with And Then There Were None, which was my other choice at the time. And amazingly enough, though I didn’t dare put it down before finishing it (for fear the serial killer would come after me before I learned his/her identity, duh), I didn’t get any nightmares from it. Just extreme fascination.

David Suchet IS Hercule Poirot. No one else comes close.

I quickly fell in love with the fussy little Belgian detective Poirot, and with the masterful way Christie wove her stories and her characters so intricately with each other. It wasn’t long before I’d read every Christie book that my mother owned, and had moved on to the library, and then onto buying them for myself. At this point in my life, my Agatha Christie collection has spilled off my bookshelves, and I am now stacking the books on top of each other because I’ve run out of room for them anywhere else.

Some are less brilliant than others; some recycle the same plot under a different guise (as Dame Agatha herself slyly informs us in the person of Mrs Oliver, the most beautiful self-insert ever created); some are implausible; some frankly impossible; all of them are a delight to read. I started out a die-hard fan of Poirot, grew into a Tommy and Tuppence fangirl, and at this point in my life am firmly Team Marple. Murder at the Vicarage is one of my favorite stories of all time, and who can help but love the opening to The Body in the Library?

“But the worst is so often true.”

(While on the topic of Mrs Oliver, her indignation at the assumption she bases all of her characters on real people, as well as her description of how she does come up with her characters (in, I believe, Hallowe’en Party), is so exactly along the lines of how I feel and the way I work that it never ceases to astonish and gratify me, every time I read it. And whenever I read now about authors who DO blatantly base characters off of real people, I wonder how on earth they can do so and still feel that the character belongs to them.)
Much of Maia, the MC of my 1920s adventure fantasy, is inspired by Virginia Revel of The Secret of Chimneys, as well as Bundle Brent, Anne Beddingfeld, Frankie Derwent, Tuppence herself, and others of Christie’s “plucky girl sleuths.” I think I love Virginia especially because she is older and has already HAD adventures, and yet is eager for more (“Oh Anthony! How perfectly screaming!” she says upon revelation of the hero’s Dark Secret), and Anne for her impulsive yet essentially practical outlook on life (the way she cheeks Lord Nasby into giving her a job is priceless). “Let’s have an adventure” is pretty much what my outlook on life has always been, and it’s mostly thanks to Christie (well, CS Lewis shares some responsibility for that).
This image of Tommy and Tuppence is sheer delight
Agatha Christie truly is one of the greatest writers of all time, and while I’ve come a long way from that young girl delightfully shivering as she read about Poirot and Hastings tracking down an alphabetical maniac, I will never outgrow my pure enjoyment of her books. What better tribute can I give?

Television Heroines

As promised, the companion post to my piece on favorite tv heroes. This time, it’s all about the ladies! Without further ado, I present my top five favorite tv heroines.

Lorelai Gilmore, Gilmore Girls: Oddly enough, I never really liked Rory on this show. You’d think I would, right? Quiet, bookish, ambitions of writing … yet I always felt like she came across as this spoiled, pampered little princess who assumed everything would go her way and couldn’t handle it when life got a bit difficult. Lorelai, on the other hand, is the kind of mom I can only dream about being. She’s fun and loving and kind and savvy and present (not just physically, but wholly); she’s not perfect but she never quits trying; she has a life of her own but still always puts her kid first. And she has great hair and a razor-sharp wit. Yep, pretty awesome.

 
Zoe Washburne, Firefly: I love Zoe. I want to be Zoe when I grow up. She is a rarity in television, an action heroine who is also happily married. Her combination of deadly combat skills, fierce loyalty, dry wit, and loving fidelity is amazing. Plus she gets awesome one-liners. My mom likes River the best, and I know a lot of people really love Kaylee (and don’t get me wrong, I like both of them, too – I think Kaylee would make a terrific best friend), but for me, it’s all about Zoe. She’s strong and still human, and that’s hard to find in any kind of heroine these days, television or literary; most are either all strength and no human emotions, or all vulnerability and weakness with a side helping of unrealistic warrior skills. Not Zoe. I also really love the fact that she’s a sci-fi action heroine who does not spend the entirety of the show running around half-dressed. And she’s a really, really good shot.
 
Captain Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager: I know I complained in my heroes post about the fact that Voyager focused almost solely on Captain Janeway … but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she’s still a fantastic character. A female starship captain who never exhibits any signs of belligerence or insecurity toward the men under her command, or the other officers in Starfleet; a leader thrown with a totally unconventional crew across the galaxy, trying to get them home without ever going against her principles; a captain trying to maintain protocol with the crew while still providing them with the stability and comfort they need; an explorer faced with unprecedented challenges … as long as she had her coffee, Janeway took everything in her stride and faced it with humor and dignity.
 
 
Detective Kate Beckett, Castle: I only recently started watching Castle, and so far have only made it through Season 1. Season 2 should be coming to me through inter-library loan any day now. (edit: just picked it up from the library. can’t wait to start watching.) So I’m not sure how Beckett’s character developed in later seasons, but based on Season 1, I think she’s fabulous. She’s tough but compassionate, which I love in any character, male or female. She doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. I love watching her get the best of Castle in any of their exchanges, and the developing friendship (which I know from things I’ve read turns to romance later, but is really great as a friendship, too) between them is so much fun to watch.
 
 
Donna Noble, Doctor Who: This one is kind of cheating. Donna’s not technically one of the stars of this show, more of a supporting character (and that only for one season, weep, weep) … but I love her so much that I don’t care. I really liked Rose; I would have liked Martha if she hadn’t let her inferiority complex turn her into such a drip; I loved Sarah Jane in the one episode of the new series (no, I haven’t watched any of the classic series, and Netflix doesn’t have The Sarah Jane Adventures, so I need to start borrowing those from the library too before I can know more about her); but Donna has turned out to be my favorite so far (I’m in the middle of Series 4). She’s the perfect foil for the Doctor, in her humor and compassion and strength. She’s not in love with him (thank goodness!) but their friendship is so, so strong, and they both grow and gain so much from the other. I even love her abrasiveness, the fact that she doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Her relationship with her grandfather is just icing on the cake. I know how her story arc ends (yes, I read spoilers, especially when I’m watching old seasons of a show), and I’m finding myself really reluctant to finish watching Series 4, because I don’t want to leave her behind. Well, I don’t really want to say goodbye to the Tenth Doctor, either, if I’m being perfectly honest.
 
donna2.jpg

 
It seems that my favorite female characters share the same traits I admire most in male characters – strength blended with compassion, the ability to stand up for themselves and for others, loyalty, a ready wit, and a thorough love for adventure. Being ready and willing to take out the bad guy doesn’t hurt, either.