Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What I Learned From Writing Shorts

Every now and then it’s good to go back to your roots, and I did with my Decadent Edge stories. For me, my roots are with the short story. The first story I published in 2009 was less than five thousand words, and this was only months after I declared I couldn’t write less than a ninety thousand word novel.
A friend, knowing I needed to change my evil ways, challenged me, saying I had to learn to tighten. After reading my current manuscript, she’d declared it wordy, full of inactive and unnecessary words that did nothing to move the story forward. And full of my personality, which if you knew my friend, this wasn’t a compliment. You see, I have all the attention span of a two-year old and my manuscripts ran all over the place like a snot-nosed toddler, finding trouble wherever they could.
I will admit, she was right and it took some hard lessons and nose to the grindstone efforts to whip my stories into publishable shape. Now I’m proud to say, in almost every review I’ve received, my quick pace and engaging characters are often mentioned. This pace is the result of my friend’s challenge, one I’ll be eternally grateful for.

The challenge went something like this. Tell a story in seven-hundred words.
I can’t begin to tell you how anxious that made me. How does anyone tell a story in that short of word count? I dug my heels in and shook my head. No way could I do that.

Of course, being a good critter and friend, she didn’t let me get away with it. What I discovered during that little exercise in patience and frustration, is that writing a short story isn’t any easier than writing a long one, actually, for me, it was harder. Every single word had to have a purpose. I had no wiggle room. Hell, I couldn’t describe my hero with so little words. Who could? So, determined to prove how wrong she was, I penned a story about a cattle rustler and was amazed when I managed to keep it fewer than seven hundred words. Actually, it ended with five hundred.
After that, I began to write shorts with a passion, challenging myself to make every word count. In one story, about a spy, I’ve been told the hero is hot by several readers. Now, I’m not going to lie, this bloats my ego a bit. When you go back and read the story, nowhere in the five thousand words is an actual description of the hero. Booyah! Nothing. Not one word of race, eye color, height, weight or hair color. It is his personality that readers are seeing and I can’t begin to tell you how much that thrills me.

Taking the techniques of short stories into your novels will do several things. One, it will make it extremely difficult to pen those one-hundred thousand word beasts you used to write. You will struggle to hit sixty. You’ve trained yourself to cut the junk and you will see this when you write your novels. It’s a habit that will stick with you.
Two, you will find your wordiness is under control. No, characters glancing back over their shoulders, or licking their lovers with their tongues. (Don’t shake your head; you know you’ve done it.  If you haven’t, ever, I bow before you.)

Three, action will become limited to powerful, focused scenes. There will be less unnecessary movement, speech tags and eye gazing. And in this process, your characters will become three dimensional. Don’t worry so much about getting the description out in one or two paragraphs. You will learn to let your characters reveal themselves.
One. You do not have the word count to describe scenery. No strolling through fields of lavender holding hands and contemplating the meaning of life. Sorry, unless that lavender plays a pivotal role in your story, you just don’t have a place for it. This brings me to my next point. Sometimes you don’t have enough word count to describe the characters in detail. OMG, how do I let the reader know he’s totally hot? I mean he’s got dark hair, blue eyes and washboard abs. They have to know. I can’t leave that out. You can and in some cases, you will. And when you do, those characters will have to be believable. The reader needs to be able to relate to them on some level, or the other, or the story will not be engaging. It is this challenge about the shorts I love so much. And the shorts that belong to the Edge series are intense. They are snapshots, hot scenes that hit hard and fast. They may not be epics, but they do tell a story, and they tell it powerfully.

It took me a while to figure this out, which brings me to number four. You will become a better writer by putting into practice the skills you learned from penning short stories.
So, all that being said, I hope you check out my Carnality shorts in the Decadent Edge Series. I promise there’s no strolling through fields of lavender, but you will get memorable scenes and a sense of place and character.

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