by Tasha Seegmiller
The other day, I had a writerly existential crisis.
One of the greatest benefits of being an MFA candidate is the opportunity I have to work closely with incredible professionals who help me hone my craft. While there are agents who advise on stories a bit, and editors who help writers make their stories better, possibly even critique partners and beta readers, the chance to have someone who is literally paid to help me make my writing better is not something that is likely to appear again.
The reality of spending time, I mean really spending time looking at writing, thinking about writing, analyzing books, sitting in a room where other people are talking about craft and life and inspiration and story is that the writer realizes they have A LOT of work to do.
So much work to do.
I only get to work with each advisor once, for a single short semester. For those short months, I get to rely on them and their insight and their suggestions for my writing.
And so, in true neurotic fashion, I had a bit of a freak out about it.
If you are laughing about that right now, that probably means you know what I’m talking about.
I'm no stranger to these kinds of crises. They've shown up before, usually when I am on the cusp of something significant. A revise and resubmit request from an agent or an editor, a conflicting set of comments from beta readers you admire, or perhaps an editorial letter that appears to go against everything you have thought about for your story.
In the midst of my little freak out, I sent an email to my agent, who replied, “I see a writerly existential crisis as a great opportunity for creative breakthrough.”
That’s why we keep people like this around. And, after a new Diet Coke and a chocolate-covered cinnamon bear, I realized that she might be on to something.
There can be so many situations, as writers, when we are certain this is our ONE CHANCE and if we don’t get everything exactly right RIGHT NOW, it’ll never happen, we’ll be a hack forever, the ship will sail and our writing will drift into oblivion.
Spoiler alert: that kind of thinking isn’t healthy. And it’s not realistic. I’m not going to take the time here to give you examples of people who were not overnight successes but I recommend you go out and google your favorite actor, band, writer, artist – especially the ones who made it big, and see what work they had out before they made it big.
People who have been creating and on the internet for any amount of time have probably heard or read Ira Glass talking about “The Gap” (I personally love the video here).
Cate Kennedy, an advisor in my program said, “Be grateful for the gap because without it, you are creatively tone deaf.” We need to feel a little bit overwhelmed by the work that we are trying to do. We need to understand that seeing something that is amazing and not quite being able to also do the thing that is amazing is where growth happens.
I know. Blech. Growth hurts and it’s slow and it involves a bunch of readjustments. And worse of all, it takes time.
So what’s a writer on the verge of an existential crisis to do?
Keep a place where you can play with your ideas.
When I have a new story idea, I refuse the audacity to tell that idea I can’t pay attention to it right now. But sometimes I can’t play with it right now.
So I build it a sandbox, whether that is a folder on my computer, a single document, a note on my phone. In my conversation with my agent, I shared several ideas that I have. Two of them are only ideas – I’m talking concept and maybe a paragraph. But that lets me see what I’ve got going on, and sometimes, jotting down a sentence or two in the “fun” story is just what I need to shift my brain into drive.
Recognize that ground and pound might not be the best way.
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of ground and pound, you probably haven’t seen an MMA fight. The method there is to get the opponent on the ground until they tap out. If you have put yourself in a position where you view your writing as an opponent who needs to be conquered, guess what the reader is going to experience?
I’m not saying writing is easy. Besides parenting, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. And I know there are deadlines and such in the real world, but there are ways to meet those deadlines without beating yourself to death. I think we need to be engaged in writing all the time, maybe even every day, but sometimes writing looks like "ideas while folding clothes" or sorting out a character in a process notebook or doing research on a region or idea.
Nurture instead of beat. Think about it.
Remember: Finished is better than perfect.
There are a gazillion suggestions out there about how writers should write, and I’m never going to be the one to tell anyone what their process should be. However, if you have been working on the same poem, the same short story, the same chapter, the same scene for a LONG time, if you are not sharing your work with someone because it’s not good enough yet, and especially if you don’t have the blasted thing done...
My friend, you are caught in a dangerous loop.
Listen closely: you will never make it perfect on your own. No, seriously. You need others to look, to listen, to suggest. You need someone to say what they experienced when reading your story, to point out where they got confused, to reveal where the sentence structure or the exposition or the dialogue didn’t resonate as true.
You will never catch everything alone. Declare it finished for now and see how it sits in the world.
Finally, I have one more suggestion.
Write down when you have a little bit of a freak-out, whether that is in a running document or a journal or whatever. It is nice to be able to look back, to see how you thought that was the hard thing and then realized it wasn’t – not yet.
Too often, creatives are so caught up in the process of creating that we forget to check in on how the creation is going. A journal like this allows us to see where we had gaps, to remember that we figured out how to narrow them before, and gives us confidence that we can narrow them again.
What writerly existential crises have you survived? Any tips for how to stay grounded when the creative winds threaten to uproot you?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
Deep point of view really isn't difficult, but it requires a shift in your mindset in how you craft your fiction. Choosing setting and description details becomes very crucial to making a story come alive for readers. All things being equal (assuming you don't have a broken story, flat characters, lack tension, or poor writing), the details you choose for your story can do so much more than create a setting in your reader's minds. They can put your reader IN the story with your character.
Your Character Is Telling The Story - You Aren't!
Whatever your character walks into - a new setting, a new conflict, a new emotional trauma, really try to pull yourself out of the story. You have a whole setting in your mind - that's actually important for you to have, but what's not important is that your reader pictures everything precisely as you do. The reader isn't picking up this book to make you feel better or pat you on the back, they're looking for an emotional journey and an escape from real life. This isn't about you.
Avoid the temptation to tell the reader what YOU’RE seeing or the urge to impress readers with how much thought you’ve put into the setting or backstory for a character. Focus on what’s important to your character in that moment – not what’s going to be important, not what was important. In deep pov, we want to write with as much immediacy as possible.
Filter Everything Through Your POV Character's Priorities
Instead, see the new setting, trauma, conflict, or another character as your POV character sees it. What's important to them RIGHT NOW? When my son comes home from school, he's always hungry (he's 16). He heads immediately to the cupboard where I keep the Mr. Noodles (his go-to after school snack) or searches the fridge like he's catalogued everything that was there in the morning and zeros in on what might be newly purchased or still available.
He notices first what's important to him IN THAT MOMENT. Everything he takes in is filtered through that priority - I'm hungry. Do you like the new paint color in the front hall? You painted? How the house looks doesn’t even register on his priority list. When your character is focused, they will miss or over look a lot of things except what's important in that moment.
Your character should have a goal for each scene - what are they trying to accomplish? That priority, need, whatever -- that will create a unique-to-that-moment filter through which they take in information – and this is how show how your character feels.
Avoid Cataloguing Details And Use Setting To Show Emotion And Desire
Your character visits the hospital. What do they notice? If they walk in and note every aspect of the setting objectively - like they're starting at point A and moving in a circle 360 degrees and capturing everything they see, the reader has no idea what’s important or stands out to your character, or how they feel about what they see. You've put the reader in the theatre seats watching the story (and in deep pov we want the reader to feel like they're IN the story). Instead, drill into why your character is there, what do they want/need/aim to accomplish. Let them focus on details that bring out emotion/desire/goal for readers.
Let the character feel their way through the setting or scene (instead of describe). When they interact with the setting in some way, that’s a more natural reason to think about what’s in the room. Don’t catalogue the broad coffee table, have them bump their shin on it or have to walk around it to get to the sofa.
Here are two different ways to describe the very same setting. Notice how the priorities or needs of the POV character dictate what they notice and how they describe it. Exactly the same setting.
Woman with bad past experience:
The searing antiseptic in the air stung her nose. She sucked in a breath through her mouth and held it. She clutched the new teddy to her chest and raced for the open elevator. She punched the up button and kept tapping until the door shut out the smell and the indifference of the white walls.
Woman with positive/neutral past experience:
She strolled in the front entrance of the hospital, new teddy under her arm. She squinted against the bright light. The new wall of tinted windows looked modern and a little cold from the outside. She tipped up her face to the warm sun. But all of this sunshine must be very healing.
Do you see how they’re feeling their way through the setting? Now you know how they feel, instead of simply what pieces of furniture are present.
Use Setting And Description To Show Familiarity
We notice different things when walking into our own home that someone who's never been there before doesn't see. Or sees differently. How we feel about our home, our vulnerabilities, or pride, show through the cracks of any facade (especially in internal dialogue).
A person concerned about first impressions, who is a perfectionist, or wants to impress, might zero in on the scuff marks on the wall by the door. The person who is frustrated with her kids might apologize for the mass of tangled shoes in the front hall. The person who feels vulnerable, less than, or self-conscious might apologize for imagined dirt or mess.
The person who's new to the home may not notice those same things at all, or see them in a different way. A friend, someone who's gracious or an empath might try to put the other at ease - it's lived in. Don't worry about it. Someone who's a perfectionist might smile and put a host at ease, but in internal dialogue critique everything they see or find fault with.
By overlooking the obvious big items and zoning in on small details, you cast an impression for readers. Using verbs and descriptors that are either negative or positive help the character feel their way through the setting. Instead of walk (which is neutral – doesn’t connote any emotion), let them stomp, march, skip or stroll. Any of those verbs give more of a hint of how a person feels than “walk.” Used sparingly, like spice in a casserole.
Keep writing and dive deep!
How do you infuse more emotion into setting and description when writing in deep point of view? Do you have any deep POV questions you wish to ask?
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Lisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.
Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.
Join Lisa’s deep point of view challenge group. Three to four times a year, participate in free training on writing effectively in deep point of view – https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/
We’ve probably all read these sentences about silence, or variations.
- The room went silent.
- We all quit talking.
- Everyone was silent for a couple of minutes.
And we’ve read these types of sentences about staying silent too.
- He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
- She opened her mouth to talk then shut it again.
- He started to talk, then decided not to.
They’re all overused. Clichéd.
When you read sentences you’ve read before, your mind can take a mini-vacation. It only takes a second to get pulled out of a story.
The more overused phrases and sentences per page, the more often you lose the reader.
You can use silence to:
- share emotion
- share backstory
- share relationship dynamics
- share how it impacts the POV character
- elicit a visceral response
- add tension or relieve tension
- show a character acting in expected or unexpected ways
- add power to any paragraph or passage or scene
Don’t go on autopilot and throw overused phrases and sentences in your WIP.
Dig deep and write fresh.
Agents, editors, reviewers, and readers will thank you. Sometimes they thank me.
Now we get to dive in and enjoy examples from Immersion Grads. They’ve all taken at least one of my 5-day intensive Immersion Master Classes.
I’ll deep edit analyze the first example from each author.
Please read all the examples OUT LOUD. You’ll train your cadence ear.
We’ll start with a moment of silence. The silence that happens when a parent enters the room.
Silence—the sort of silence that sucked movement, breath, life, out of a room—descended. A presence behind her sent out a chill. It wriggled down her spine and she shivered. Mum stilled three teenage boys, a man, and a girl, just by entering a room. Her brothers were named after superheroes, but her mother owned the power.
Wow. Stellar writing.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: Silence, silence, sucked, breath, life, presence, chill, wriggled, shivered, stilled, entering a room, superheroes, owned, power
- Rhetorical Devices
- Amplification – amplified silence, big-time
- Alliteration – silence, sort, silence, sucked, sent, spine, she, shivered, stilled
- Asyndeton (No And) – movement, breath, life
- Structural Parallelism -- Last sentence
- Visceral Responses -- Three Visceral Hits: chill, wriggling down spine, shiver
- Power Internalizations: Last two sentences
- Humor Hits: Last two sentences
- Compelling Cadence: Throughout
- Deepened Characterization for All Characters
Two more examples from Amazing Grace by Elaine Fraser:
2. Whispers and giggles wafted around her, interspersed with eerie silence and weighty stares.
3. Grace clutched the phone as if she could squeeze it into silence. The battery would go flat soon. Then no one would bother her. She wanted to stay in bed and never speak to anyone ever again.
A glacial silence fills the kitchen, dampening sound like a heavy snow.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: glacial, silence, dampening, heavy
- Compelling Cadence
1. Silence stretches, long and leaden, and I feel the need to defend myself.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: silence, long, leaden, need, defend self
- Double Alliteration: s, s. and l, l
- Deepens Characterization: Shares impact of silence on POV character
- Compelling Cadence
2. For the longest moment, Corban is speechless, a lapse of silence that amplifies the coffee shop sounds all around us.
3. He passes me one of the bottles, ice cold and sweating, and we set off for the alley that leads to the trail in painful, stomach-churning silence.
Dear Wife (Advanced Reader Copy), Kimberly Belle, 5-time Immersion Grad, International Bestseller
Dear Wife will be released June 25
- The silence that fills the hallway tightens the skin of my stomach.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: silence, tightens, skin, stomach
- Stimulus-Response: Silence is stimulus for a Visceral Response
- Compelling Cadence
2. The words bounce around the house, then fall into a silence so absolute it rings in my ears.
3. He doesn’t share my joviality, not even a little bit. The silence stretches, long and painful.
- We stare at each other in a silence rich with things I shouldn’t say.
Wow. It grabbed you too. Right?
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: stare, silence, rich, shouldn’t say
- Amplification: Amplified silence in a personal way.
2. We’re separated by miles and an ocean’s worth of silence floating between us.
3. There’s a thick silence once they leave. Their mingled scents still linger. Their presence was so strong, I can practically see an impression of them left in the air.
Being Alpha, Aileen Erin, 2-time Immersion Grad, USA Today Bestseller
- “He’s here,” I said too quiet, but those two words silenced the room.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: He’s here, quiet, silenced, room
- Emphasizes the power of that he
- Implies fear
- Compelling Cadence
2. My ears were still ringing from my own screams in the silence that followed.
3. The tiny gap of silence between the sounds meant that the demon was saying two words.
1. It didn’t faze him that she didn’t speak out loud. He wasn’t like the annoying social worker at prison who’d kept trying to convince her to talk. Or the COs who’d assumed she was either deaf or stupid because she didn’t speak. Or the Sisters who’d taunted her ten times worse because she never taunted them back. He understood and accepted her silence in a way no one else ever had.
Deep Edit Analysis:
- Power Words: out loud, annoying, social worker, prison, convince, talk, COs, deaf, stupid, didn’t speak, Sisters, taunted, worse, taunted, understood, accepted, silence, no one else
- Shares four big hits of backstory for POV character
- Shares relationship dynamic
- Compelling Cadence
2. The gunshot was loud and obscene in the quiet of the night. The sound of the shot didn’t echo. Instead, it stretched out like a rubber band, getting thinner and thinner by the second until only silence stood between them.
3. Lanning nodded as if he understood, but silence ticked by slow and suspicious.
Look at the alliteration (s, s, s) and the powerful and surprising backload, suspicious.
4. And the sweet, sweet silence felt like a miracle. A deep sense of peace subdued the bad memories that played on repeat in the back of her mind.
I hope this blog motivates you to avoid clichéd writing, dig deeper, and write fresh.
Make silence, or facial expressions, or dialogue cues, or setting, or visceral responses, or any scene element more interesting. More powerful.
Want to learn how to write as well as these authors?
Drop by my website. Check out my online courses and lecture packets. W
You get a taste of my deep editing techniques from my blogs. But my online courses and lecture packets are each a couple of hundred pages long. And they’re loaded with teaching points and analyzed examples.
Learn how to make your writing bestseller-strong!
I’m so impressed with all the examples from Immersion Grads Elaine Fraser, Kimberly Belle, Laura Drake, Aileen Erin, Abbie Roads, and Kennedy Ryan.
If these examples impressed you, please check out their books.
You can also thank them in a comment.
Thank you so much for dropping by the blog today.
Please post a comment or share a "Hi Margie!” and you’ll have two chances to be a winner.
You could win a Lecture Packet from me or an online class from Lawson Writer’s Academy valued up to $100.
Drop by my website. Check out my online courses and lecture packets.
Lawson Writer’s Academy– July Classes
1. Ta Da, How to Put Funny on the Page, Instructor: Lisa Wells
2. Editing Magic: Work with a Professional Editor, Instructor: Lori Patrick
3. Battling the Basics, Instructor: Sarah Hamer
4. Two-Week Intensive on Show, Not Tell, Instructor: Shirley Jump
5. Publishing Gold: Self-Publishing and Self-Marketing for Do-It-Yourselfers
I’ll draw names for the TWO WINNERS on Sunday night, at 8PM, Mountain Time and post them in the comments section.
Like this blog? Share with your friends. Give it a social media boost. Thank you soooo much!
I love blogging on Writers in the Storm. Thanks so much for inviting me to be your guest.
* * * * * *
Margie Lawson—editor and international presenter—loves to have fun. And teaching writers how to use her deep editing techniques to create page-turners is her kind of fun.
She’s presented over 120 full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and France, as well as taught multi-day intensives on cruises in the Caribbean.
To learn about Margie’s 5-day Immersion Master Classes (in 2019, in Palm Springs, Denver, Dallas, Cleveland, Columbus, Atlanta, and in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, Australia), Cruising Writers cruises, full day and weekend workshops, keynote speeches, online courses, lecture packets, and newsletter, please visit: www.margielawson.com
Interested in Margie presenting a full day workshop for your writing organization? Contact Margie through her website or Facebook Message her.
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When I was 37 years old, I had a near-death experience that could have been prevented with a few simple changes to my daily routine. When Julie Glover asked, What would your TED talk be?, this was my first thought. What my brush with death taught me, and the easy habits that can keep writers alive.
Back in 2005, I discovered gratitude. Like oh-my-stars-I-am-lucky-to-be-here gratitude.
I developed blood clots in both legs and the one in my right leg shattered, sending about fifty blood clots to my lungs. My doctors call me their "One-Percenter" and, yowza, I am so very lucky to be alive.
With so many Americans living sedentary lives, blood clots are on the rise. More than 900,000 cases occur each year in the United States. On average, one person in the U.S. dies every six minutes from a blood clot.
Why am I talking about this on a writing blog? Because writers, by the nature of their profession, often stay lost in their imagination and ignore some of the risk associated with our normal daily routines.
I'm not exaggerating with the title of this post, y'all.
Blood clots don't discriminate. They don't care about age or disorder, gender or race. I was a normal thirty-something, minding my own beeswax and doing kickboxing three times a week.
Did I find out I have a blood clotting disorder? Yes. But I was also engaging in some risky blood clot behavior:
- Sitting long hours at a desk.
- Drinking lots of coffee and not enough water.
- Taking birth control pills.
- Stressing out about a crazy work project.
- I’d just put on a 5-10 pounds from the Pill and the aforementioned project.
- I sat most of those long hours in a cold room with air conditioning blowing on me.
- As a result, I was dehydrated.
Sound familiar? The list above could describe most writers.
Below, I describe the most risky everyday behaviors that we all do so you can be aware of them, and maybe even change some of them over time.
#1 – If you sit, drive or fly for long periods wear compression stockings!
I warn you, most of these are seriously unattractive, but they are getting better (especially for men). Compression socks/hose can be purchased in any medical supply store but now they’re also available on Amazon if you want them to come right to your door.
Any of you who see me at conferences or work? I always have “toes to bellybutton” compression hose on. It’s too painful for me to sit or drive for more than 20 minutes without them. It’s like someone is pouring hot acid down the inside of the veins in my legs.
(You see why you want to prevent blood clots?? They freaking hurt.)
Important note: If you’re traveling or having surgery, you need to increase your water intake before you do so.
In fact, if you are a clotter like me, flying works like this:
The day before I fly, I drink a gallon of water. No exceptions. I hate it. But I do it so I can be safe. I also:
- Walk for 30 mins in the airport before I get on the plane.
- Take a 20 ounce bottle of water onto the plane.
- Drink only water and no alcohol on the flight.
- Get up and walk the aisle every 30-40 minutes.
- Bounce on my toes in the back of the plane while I wait for the restroom.
- Do these exercises in transit to prevent blood clots from forming.
Oh yeah…I just adore flying nowadays. It’s not the TSA grope I dread, it’s the DVT prevention.
#2 – Keep your feet up as much as you can.
I have an 80 pound box of paper under my desk at work. Not because I need so much paper, but so I can put my legs up while I'm in the office.
Why is it vital to keep the back of your legs from pressing against hard edges? If factors like smoking, being on the Pill or sitting for long periods are part of your daily living, you are more likely to get a blood clot, even before you add any of the other risk factors like obesity, cancer, or a prior history of blood clots.
#3 – Exercise regularly.
I don’t care what you do, as long as you make the blood in your legs flow vigorously multiple times every day. Most people recommend taking a quick stroll every hour. Other ideas: Jump rope for a few minutes a couple times a day, walk for 15 minutes in the morning, bounce on a trampoline.
Your life is at stake here. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones.
#4 – A glass of wine, particularly red, a few times a week is a good thing.
I’m not saying “booze it up,” especially if you have a problem with alcohol. But a periodic glass of red wine has been shown in studies to lower your cholesterol and inflammation and to prevent the development of blood clots.
Alcohol thins your blood, so I try to make sure I have a glass if I’m eating a lot of foods that are high in Vitamin K.
#5 – Lower the levels of inflammation in your body.
This one’s a doozy and no one talks about it.
Chronic, low-level inflammation is one of the top ten causes of death in America and leads to the development of at least 7 of the other top 10 causes of death. Chronic inflammation can be triggered by cellular stress and dysfunction, such as excessive calorie consumption and elevated blood sugar levels.
Lowering your intake of processed food and refined sugars will decrease your inflammation, as will discovering and treating any food allergies you might have.
Speaking of food allergies, click here to read about what gluten did to my body. (I found out I’m extremely gluten-intolerant at age 42.) The #1 thing gluten did was inflame me. It also swelled me up, stiffened my joints, raised my cholesterol and knocked out my thyroid.
You don't have to go crazy and give up a whole food group to lower your body's inflammation.
I use many dietary methods, such as using lime in my water (rather than lemon) and drinking apple cider vinegar, to lower my body’s inflammation levels.
The most ironic thing is that leafy green vegetables, although they thicken your blood, also lower the inflammation in your body. Here are 6 additional lifestyle changes that will lower your body’s inflammation.
Last of all, here’s a bonus easy behavior change for the ladies:
Stop crossing your legs!!
I know, I know. It’s habit…it makes your thighs look skinnier…it’s more lady-like.
Who cares about those things if they give you a blood clot?? Maybe back in the day when people walked everywhere, women could cross their legs and dangle a high-heel from their toe, looking like a sexy dame from a black and white movie.
Nowadays? Not so much. Most of us have very sedentary jobs where we sit down a lot. Must you cross your legs too? (In other words, must you squeeze the large veins in your thighs and behind the knees, and cut off your blood flow?)
Note: if you wait tables or guide nature tours for a living, you’re welcome to ignore this suggestion and swing that high-heel from your toe any time you want.
That’s the highlights of what I know about how to prevent blood clots with everyday simple changes. I"m hoping this saves some lives and some angst for even one person here at WITS.
Note on Factor V Leiden: This is the blood clotting disorder I have (pronounced "Factor Five"). According to my doctors, Factor V is approximately 15% prevalent in people of Norwegian descent, 5-8% in Caucasians, 3-5% in people of Latin origin, less than 3% in African-Americans and almost non-existent in people of Asian descent.
Extra reading: Here is a story about a college-age girl who got a blood clot because she was born with her shoulder bone and rib too close together.
Do you have questions? Are there other behavior changes you know for clot prevention that you’d like to share? What are your tricks for lowering inflammation in the body?
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About Jenny Hansen
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
by Anthea Lawson Sharp
Over the years I’ve made enough from selling short fiction on the side to help put my daughter through college, (though novel-writing is still my main income source). I’ve found that shorter works are enjoying a resurgence, and busy readers like having the option to read a smaller morsel before bedtime, or while waiting for an appointment. Think of writing short as providing a fine chocolate truffle as opposed to a full meal.
5 Reasons To Write Short in Today’s Publishing Market
Creative Freedom: Length is no longer a barrier to publishing your work – no need to fit into proscribed boxes about word count. The story can be as long as it needs to be, plus the short format gives the author a chance to explore new ideas or work with spinoff characters without the pressure of completing a full novel.
Loss-leader: By having a less-expensive or free work available, authors can reach a larger reader base. For many authors, running a loss-leader on a shorter work feels more comfortable than deeply discounting or giving away a whole book.
Visibility: For most authors, writing short takes less time, thus providing more titles released during the year. Courtney Milan releases 2 novels a year, and fills in with 2 novellas, for a new release every 3 months.
A Chance to Indie Experiment: Some traditionally published authors are able to start indie-publishing shorter work that’s not controlled by a non-compete clause. Going short can be a great way to test the indie waters. A smaller project is easier to manage during that initial learning curve of self-publishing.
Hybrid Possibilities: In addition to self-publishing, there is a good market for short stories, especially in magazine markets for SF and Fantasy, Mystery, and Literary. Also, keep an eye on calls for submissions for anthologies in various genres.
A Bit about Short Story Word Counts
Counts vary, as do reader expectations. In SF/F, the following are the word counts used to determine categories for the Hugo and Nebula awards:
- Short Story: less than 7,500 words
- Novelette: between 7,501 – 17,499 words
- Novella: 17,500- 39,900 words
It’s important to remember that SF/F has a very strong short story heritage. Most magazines - Asimov’s, Analog, SF&F - want word counts between 4-6k. Readers of those publications expect that kind of length.
- Novella: Between 20,000-40,000 words
- Novel: Over 40,000
- There is no short story category.
Super-short lengths can be fun, and there is a magazine market for flash and micro fiction, but readers will be reluctant to pay for a super-short unless you bundle several together into a collection.
More word counts:
- Micro-fiction: up to 300 words (the novel in 6 words or a sentence.)
- Flash Fiction: 300-1,000 words (there are a number of flash fiction publications online.)
Romance readers and publishers, however, are not as comfortable with fiction that falls on the shorter side. The Mammoth Book anthologies require stories from 7,500-12k words, (although the RWA anthology asked for 5-7k word counts). Partially, this is because it’s more challenging to complete a Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy for Now (HFN) in so few words. Still, it can be done.
How to Write Short
What myths are you carrying around about short stories?
- They are harder to write.
- They are easier to write.
- A writer can’t make any money with short fiction.
- The ideas are harder.
- The ideas are easier.
- They are literature.
Take a second to think about your own perception of what short stories are and aren’t, and how you might be setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
What is short fiction?
Simply, it is fiction that is short. Short fiction gives the author a number of opportunities. Not only can a writer complete a project more quickly, you can:
- Explore the kernel of an idea (O. Henry is classic for this – Gift of the Magi).
- Write a vignette.
- Play with spin-off or secondary characters from longer works.
- Experiment and practice.
- Use an unreliable or unlikeable narrator (villain’s point of view).
- Set up a joke or emotional payoff (the shiver of a ghost story, the aww of a happy ending).
Short stories have patterns like novels do – just shorter. The narrative structure remains the same, but often in a condensed or simpler form. Algis Budrys, in his seminal craft book Write to the Point, lays out the 7 POINT PLOT OUTLINE.
(This is basically the structure of all Western narrative fiction.)
1. A Character
2. In a Setting
3. With a Problem
4. Tries to Solve
5. Fails, and Things Get Worse (4 and 5 repeat multiple times)
6. Climax – at last Succeeds
7. Validation (essential closure)
There are a few exceptions, such as the “story of revelation” or “punchline” model, but, especially in romance, the reader expects the above narrative form.
Quick Short Fiction Tips
- Learn to CONDENSE.
- Enter late, leave early.
- Use jump cuts (quick scene breaks without a lot of exposition) wisely and well.
- Limit POVs.
- Don’t leave out the validation at the end, even if it’s just a sentence or two.
Drawbacks of Writing Short
Some authors find that figuring out characters and starting a story is the hardest part of their process. If you are a writer who needs a lot of time at the beginning and tends to do multiple drafts of your first few chapters, writing shorter may be difficult, and nearly as time-consuming as writing a full novel.
Writing short fiction can be so much fun it takes up all your writing time, and your novel languishes. 😉
What To Do With Your Short Fiction
A large number of magazines are built around short fiction – many of them in the SF/F field, but in mystery and literary as well. If you have fantasy or SF elements, noir/suspense, or even straight contemporary with a bit of a literary twist, submit to these markets! Just don’t tell them you wrote a romance story.
Anthologies like the Mammoth Books publish short romances (generally invite only, although if you had an in, you could probably write something that fit the theme and submit it) or other stand-alone compilations. Watch for calls for anthologies and check out places that list such things. I’ve seen a number of calls for erotic romance anthologies in the last 6 months.
Two fine resources that list open anthologies are http://angiesdesk.blogspot.com/ and The Submission Grinder. There are also the Open Call groups on Facebook that are full of good information. These anthology calls can provide inspiration for the seed of a story, and can be a fun challenge to write for.
Advantages include a lump-sum payment either on acceptance or publication, excellent visibility and wider reach for your writing, and fairly quick reversion (2 months – 2 years).
Disadvantages are long waits on submissions, with the strong likelihood of rejection at the end. Decide how long you want to try and keep a story in circulation before pulling it to self-publish.
When selling to magazines and anthologies, don’t accept less than pro rates. I recommend .06 cents a word or better, unless it’s a charity project, you get the rights back almost immediately, or there’s incredible visibility for you in doing the project. Remember that miniscule payment often means miniscule distribution/readership.
An increasing number of markets are acquiring limited audio rights on short stories for podcasts. Though the majority is still SF/F, they generally are not looking for first rights, which means you can submit already-published stories.
The Indie Route
Self-publishing a short work is a great way to “try out” indie publishing with a more manageable project. Although there’s a steep learning curve if you’ve never gone indie before, there are an increasing number of resources available.
Holiday-themed shorts are BIG. Christmas is the most popular, but other holidays like Valentine’s Day and even Halloween can give your story an extra boost, since readers are actively looking for themed stories around those times.
Advantages include much quicker time to market, ability to plan timing of your releases (filling in between novels to keep up visibility), and ability to bundle your stories into anthologies, which is another great way to increase your inventory of titles. And, of course, having a title you can set to free or .99 cents in order to draw more readers.
Pricing Short Stories
Check out your genre (erotic romance prices are generally higher than regular romance, for example), think about word count, and then experiment. Find what works for you – there’s no one right way. That’s the beauty of going indie.
However you want to approach writing short fiction, I encourage you to take the plunge! You never know what new opportunities await.
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About Anthea Lawson
A USA Today bestseller with both her pen names, Anthea writes RITA-nominated historical romance as Anthea Lawson, and award-winning YA Fantasy as Anthea Sharp. She sold her first short story in 2009, and has never looked back. Since then, dozens of her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including collections from DAW Books, the groundbreaking Future Chronicles, Fiction River, and numerous other publications. Discover more at www.antheasharp.com and www.anthealawson.com