My Summer of Short Stories!

I went to ConCarolinas two weeks ago and was simultaneously reinvigorated and sobered. On the plus side, I met an awesome author named Josh Strnad. Josh was actually a guest at my convention, AtomaCon, last November – but I barely got to meet him then! I was too busy helping run the con. But his book Pantheon – about Greek Gods in the weird Wild West – captured me from the get-go and I remembered that I wanted to buy a copy.

So I chatted with him a bit, and he gave me great advice about building a publishing portfolio via short stories. This is stuff I somewhat knew, but I’ve been so focused on Paradisa that I’ve neglected any other writing. Now that I’ve reached one of the most major roadblocks yet with Paradisa, I’m setting it aside for a bit and focusing on my short works. Plus, Josh put it in a way that made it seem accessible – just write about 5-6 different things, and send them out to anthologies/mags that might like them. It doesn’t need to be a constant battle of writing a different story for every different publication out there.

And to my surprise, I actually have a lot of stuff in my archives. Some of it, especially the poetry, isn’t bad (poetry isn’t something I normally lean towards, but when I *do* write poetry, it’s quite fun. I love crossword puzzles, and rhyme schemes/poetic forms are somewhat similar. I love metaphor and wordplay. Maybe I should be doing more poetry!) There are also a few drabbles and shorts I’m going to send out into the universe too.

Then, there are anthology calls and contests. Some of these require me to write something new, be it Catholic fiction, personal essays, horror shorts, or fairy tale reboots. So, I have a lot of ideas on the pipeline for this summer. Hopefully I’ll have a few paid writing credits on my resume by the end of the year, and that’ll better equip me to pitch a novel when the time comes.

And now, the sobering note: I participated in a live action slush fest with the opening page (or, one of them) of Paradisa. For reference – and your benefit, should you want to learn something about what not to do –  I’ve excerpted it below:

Death is familiar to Connor Bishara, but he’s not sure when it became so. Perhaps it comes from a few years of stepping over mangled bodies on a battlefield, or from seeing the love of his life spread across the satin lining of a coffin. Regardless of when his heart hardened, plenty of others have left his life since – grandparents, old friends, coworkers. Connor is used to watching these losses as if through glass, accepting this grim world without a twitch.

His father’s death is different. 

As he watches Malik Bishara’s coffin descend into the Tunisian earth, blood boils beneath Connor’s skin. Not quite sorrow, or vengeance, or even fury – just chaos.

The panel stopped around this point, citing that they didn’t like present tense and that the POV felt too distant. Too “over the character’s shoulder” rather than inside his head. They did not get a sense of voice, character, or conflict.

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, as I think what they said is factual  – I’m just a bit disheartened that these things were apparently dealbreakers. I already knew that present tense was controversial, but I didn’t think setting a scene from outside the character was a killer, especially in the third person. I consider Paradisa to be third-person limited anyway, so yeah…it was surprising to hear that it isn’t limited enough. Although, upon skimming Paradisa later, I’ve noticed this is a constant problem, so I guess I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. And maybe consider changing it to past tense too. Just a little disheartening overall, because they’re basically saying that my style is a dealbreaker, and that’s pretty much the worst – it’s not just an error or a technique I can cut or tweak or really fix.

But hey, adapt or perish. On the plus side, I didn’t make any amateur mistakes like starting too early or opening on the weather, or waxing on about the landscape for two paragraphs before getting to the character. I also think one of the major takeaways from the workshop is that novels should offer a clear image of “This is the type of book this is going to be.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens with the night of James and Lily’s death. It does NOT open with a chapter full of Harry being abused and not doing much of circumstance. That initial dip into the magical world with Hagrid and Dumbledore, even though it does not follow the main protagonist, is a key opening that sets up the entire book.

So I’m considering opening on a supernatural character and jumping to Connor in Chapter Two. Or if it’s written in past tense, I can open with a  broad statement about the adventures Connor will go on before flashing back to ~before~. With my current opening, NO reader would expect a mythological fantasy about saving the world! Even if all the style stuff was fixed, that would still be a major problem.

Alas. No rest for the wicked. I’ll keep you posted on my short submissions and I’ll let you know where you can pick up my writing should it actually get published anywhere ;)

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16 thoughts on “My Summer of Short Stories!

  1. Sorry the slush fest response wasn’t what you hoped for, but by sharing it here, you’re helping others, so that’s good!

    Knowing where to start a novel or story can be tricky. I initially started my second novel with my killer in the act of his first murder. I thought it was a better hook than starting with my main character’s story line. But after having a few readers, including an agent, suggest I start with the main character instead, I flipped the chapters around. They reminded me a beginning doesn’t have to be all out action, it just has to draw the reader in and make them identify with the character (preferably the hero and not the villain!) I still like the other opening better, but I went with what readers suggested, because deep down I know they’re right.

    Good luck with the short story work!

    • See, I would have done the same thing – open with something exciting! That’s what we’re always told. But I would feel strange opening a story without the main character, which is why I’m hesitant to open away from him. I think changing it to past tense and having him reflect on it, perhaps opening with some kind of line about how no one knows what’s out there and you wouldn’t believe him if he told you, can set the stage while still establishing character.

      Also, I read the first few opening paragraphs of Eating Bull yesterday. I thought they were pretty masterful and intriguing. So your readers had a point!

  2. I’ve been focusing on shorter work too, but mostly because the gratification of being done comes around a lot quicker: it takes me a minimum of two years to get a novel ready for publication whereas some short stories can be ready in a little less than a month. I’ve already submitted one to an anthology, and I have a second that I want to revise to submit around as well. Short stories for the win!

    • True! After 18 months working on the same novel, it’s getting kind of daunting. The gratification feels far off. I’d like to actually say to someone that I’ve been published!

  3. We will be having Live Action Slush at AtomaCon this year with Misty Massey, Gail Z Martin and a couple of our other author guest. I may see if Robert J Sawyer or Janny Wurts would like to participate.

    On the positive side Faith Hunter did say she liked the conflict you had created with Connor and she wanted to know more about it.

  4. I didn’t get the sense that the excerpt was too outside of the character’s head at all. Third person limited is basically what you just shared. A lot of the comments, while obviously coming from the experts, should be taken with a grain of salt. If that’s your style, I say you should keep at it. I haven’t read too many stories written in present tense third person limited, so it could even be your point of differentiation.

    Good luck with the short stories!

    • Thanks, hon. I think they seemed to prefer a more….direct way of being inside characters, a la “He paced, his heart gripping tight inside his chest. His mind raced with thoughts…” and I’m not uber fond of that writing style, personally. It seems a bit too play-by-play and while it’s still preferable to “He felt terrified,” it still seems too “tell-y.” And I’m almost afraid to write that simplistically because it has to be done REALLY well in order to seem purposeful rather than mediocre.

      But I do think that style is favored in the SFF publishing community, as it’s more accessible (when you’re dealing with new worlds and jargon, the writing shouldn’t be confusing in itself). I can see how they found it distant, I know I’ve written better, and I still suffer from the “getting Ingredient X on Page 1” thing we’ve talked about, but perhaps you have a point. Style is subjective. Perhaps my style just didn’t align with the particular market these writers/editors represent.

  5. See, I would have a problem with what they said! I write only in the first person and lean towards only writing in the present tense. That is also what I tend to choose to read. It is my favorite! I want to have everything happening “to me”! Also, remember that is only that particular group of authors take. The beautiful thing about sci/fi and fantasy is that its readers are usually very willing to read anything in the genre and they like unique voices! The only wrong way to write a story is to not write it and the only correct way is writing the story the way you need to tell it!
    Don’t ever change your personal style to fit what other authors tell you! Your style is what is going to make your story stand out and be unique!

  6. I enjoyed that excerpt! I don’t necessarily agree with them. I think it’s your style and voice and I always hate when other people change it. I mean, their feedback is always something to consider but it’s your character, your story. You know what feels right.

    Good luck with the short stories! Brilliant Idea.

    • Thanks bb. Yeah, I think that’s something I have to take with a grain of salt. I probably should tweak my style a little, just to make getting myself published marginally easier. What I’ve often heard is, “present tense isn’t the kiss of death, but don’t make things any harder on yoursel if you’re new.” I do think the POV thing is SUPER subjective though. I would never put down a book because the psychic distance was too far or not far enough – only if it was inconsistent. My dad thought my psychic distance in Paradisa was too close to Connor, even, so that goes to show how different people see different things. I am making more of effort now to really gut punch the reader with how the characters feel, think, etc……but I’m not going to editorialize the entire narrative as if they were telling it. If I wanted it that close, the book would have been written in 1st person.

      Plus, there are definitely just as many publishers wanting something odd as publishers wanting something safe. It’s like dating – there’s someone out there for everyone, ha.

  7. Pingback: A promising year for Paradisa? | Aether House

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