Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cut the Last Line, and Other Lessons in the Short Story

Over the past few months, I've embarked on a self-taught exploration of the short story, as I battle to improve my skills in this form and to build a presence and platform through it.  I've been reading a wide range of short stories, in literary magazines and in collections of all sorts.  Here's some of what I've learned to make my own short stories better. Maybe it will be helpful to you, too.
  • Cut the last line.  The ending of the short story, particularly in what's termed "literary fiction," is nearly mystical in its finesse.  It's so easy to go too far, to finish it too completely.  The best short stories have a sense of near-completion that leaves the final touch, the last step or conclusion, to the reader, asking them to sit with the story for a few moments more after they finish.  Some stories don't seem to end at all, and I think that can go too far.  However, I have a bad tendency to want to put the cherry on the sundae myself, instead of letting my reader have that satisfaction.  I've discovered that nearly all my short stories work better if I cut the last line.  It's a little like the advice to novel writers to cut the first 30 pages.
  • In your language and word choice, less is more.  You've no doubt heard the maxim that, in short stories, every word counts.  But what does that mean as you edit?  For me, it means constantly asking myself, "Do I need that word?  Do I need that sentence?"  Just like the endings, the body of the short story needs to let the reader draw inferences from the strength of your images and word choice.  In short stories, you have to take "show don't tell" an extra step.  Show one strong resonant, inexplicable image that carries weight.  Let the reader seek meaning as the image  dissolves on their tongue.
  • Unpack the small moments.  The best short stories take time to explore the meaning in small moments, to notice the details of both the inner and outer life of that moment and let the details vibrate the strings of the reader's own experiences.
  • Images are all.  They are the language of the short story.  They make it sing.  This is where short story and poetry share DNA.  
  • Set a context of tension.  The subtle short stories don't use an obvious "hook," but they do establish a mood of tension at the start that is tight enough to carry the kind of unpacking and reflective exploration that makes the short story work.
  • The journey is in the character.  The inner world of the character is the essence of the short story plot arc.
These are the conclusions I've drawn from my exploration into the short story world.  Now, I throw open the doors to all of you to share your insights.  (Hmm ... maybe I should cut those last two lines.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

New Perspectives and Reaching Up

When I am working with struggling readers in my classroom, I often have to decide when to move them to a lower level of reading material and when to push them to a level a little harder than where they are reading.  I have to decide if the other kids in their reading group are the best fit for where that student is as a reader and where they need to go.  When I pick just the right moment to push a student up to a level a little bit harder, the results can be wildly dramatic.  Sometimes, they take off.  And when it's not the right time, they flounder.  I was thinking about this yesterday after my first meeting with a new critique group.

In this group, for the first time, all the other members are further along in their writing careers than I am.  Most have agents and have had their own work published, in book form.  This is a little intimidating, since I always carry that fear in my brain that I may never reach that point, or, alternately, that I will reach that point and be utterly unprepared for what that means. Not to mention the green-eyed monster that lurks in my depths whenever I am faced with another writer who has reached this level.  I wish I could say I was above such feelings, but I am not.

On the other hand, being in a group with greater experience than myself is very exciting.  I think it is exactly the right time for me as a writer to be in this situation.  I take my writing seriously.  I write regularly.  I attend conferences and workshops.  I submit my work.  I've had some awards.  I've had some nibbles.  I am ready to take things to another level.  If I can get out of my own way and not psyche myself out, this could be something that can really help me fly.  And, with any luck, I will manage to contribute a little something to the group as well.  Deep breaths.  Step in.  Learn.

Have you ever had a time where you reached up, where you put yourself a little further in the deep end?  How did it work out?

Popular Posts