[Write on Wednesday] Terrific Titles

Flash fiction writers often miss a fabulous opportunity by leaving a quick, ‘working’ title on their story.

That’s the equivalent of marketing a product by telling people how hard you worked on it, instead of selling them on what the product will Do For Them.

Here’s the thing:

  • Title are not usually part of the required word count, so you can go as long as you like!
  • Titles are the sizzle that sells the reader on the steak of your story.
  • Titles can add a whole new layer of meaning to the story, when the reader is finished.

    The Prompt

    Write a 300–500 word story,

    Then, spend an equal amount of time writing a title that is at least 3% as long as the story (that is, 9 words long for a 300 word story, 15 words for a 500 word story)

Tips

  • It is completely acceptable, for today, to use a flash story you’ve written in the past and just re-title it. (And yes, it can be a longer story, just remember I want you to make the title proportional to the story length, so this could get kind of crazy. Good crazy…)
  • If you’re stuck for ideas, write a story based on a (Story Spark)[http://storyaday.org/start-here/storyaday-essentials-series/story-sparks/] you’ve gathered, a character you’ve already created, or an issue that makes gets you excited (for good or ill).
  • Read through the story and pick out the theme.
  • Play with puns, double-meanings, and common proverbs.
  • Remember that your aim is to catch the eye of a potential reader and pull them in, intrigue them enough that they’ll want to read your story.
  • Write a title that is at least 3% as long as the story (word count divided by 100, multiplied by 3) 300 words=9 words, 400 words=12 words, 500 words=15 words, 1000 words= 30 word title! (For the rules-lawyers: you may round up or down as you feel appropriate. This is just an exercise!)
  • Try to make it have a deeper meaning, after the reader has read the story (or to add something to their understanding)
  • Bonus points: Post your title in the comments and see if we’d be intrigued to read it.
  • Extra bonus points: post on someone else’s title to say whether or not you’d read it.

Examples of Long Titles

Clearly Lettered in A Mostly Steady Hand by Fran Wilde, nominated for a Nebular Award for Short Story in 2018. Isn’t that an intriguing title. Why does ‘clearly lettered’ matter and why is the hand only ‘mostly steady’?

Sorry Dan, But It’s No Longer Necessary For A Human To Serve As CEO Of This Company by Eric Cofer

Further reading on Good Titling

Naming the Baby by Bruce Holland Rogers (Flash Fiction Online)

Choosing The Right Name For Your Story by Jason Floyd (Writing World)

 

Leave a comment, telling us your title. Bonus points: leave a comment on someone else’s title, saying whether you’d read on!

[Reading Room] The Breathtaking Power of Dracula – Rolli

Read it online here

This is a flash piece I stumbled across on Twitter.

It was an interesting format: a screenshot/image of a formatted short story, attached to a tweet.

And it’s really odd. Delightfully odd. It’s the kind of thing that makes me go: Yes! See this? THIS is why I love short stories.

Normally I try to provide some Lessons For Writers with this little reviews, but today I think I’m just going to say: go and read this. It’ll take you a minute.

I particularly like the way he promises one thing, delivers something else, but doesn’t forget his promise.

Sometimes writing (and reading) are just…fun.

What do you think of the story? Leave a comment

 

[Write On Wednesday] Specific to Universal

The best stories move from the specific to the universal (or vice versa).

Flash fiction is a wonderful venue for practicing the short-story skill of moving from the specific to the universal.

Stories relate a specific event happening to a specific individual and how it affects them. The best stories also contain ideas that apply to the wider world: to you, to me, to society.

The Prompt

Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] Specific to Universal”

[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal

It reads like a simple story, but is, in fact, a skillfully crafted tale that hides its author’s hard work well.

This is an excellent example of how to build a story world that feels real, while still telling a story about characters we care about.

(Read it online, here)

Uncanny Magazine screenshot featuring Mary Robinette Kowal's story The Worshipful Society of Glovers

It also comes with the fabulous gift of a blog post unpacking how the author went about writing it. Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal”

[Write On Wednesday] Make It Flash

This month at StoryADay we’re all about Flash Fiction!

Flash Fiction image

Flash fiction is loosely defined as being between 250 and 1200  words long, but it is so much more than that.

The best description of Flash Fiction I’ve ever seen goes like this: Continue reading “[Write On Wednesday] Make It Flash”

[Reading Room] Meteor by Josh McColough

This is literal flash fiction, with the flash of a meteor leaving an impression on the eye of the protagonist.

It also leaves the reader with a flash-bulb impression of the two characters he comes across on the beach.

Every line paints pictures of the scene, cramming vivid scenery into our brains in a very few words: Continue reading “[Reading Room] Meteor by Josh McColough”

[Write on Wednesday] Through The Keyhole

This month at StoryADay, I’m focusing on Flash Fiction. Be sure to check in  regularly and follow me on Twitter.

A novel invites the reader to explore an entire house, down to snooping in the closets; a short story requires that the reader stand outside of an open window to observe what’s going on in a single room; and a short short requires the reader to kneel outside of a locked room and peer in through the keyhole.

Bruce Holland Rogers
(2013-02-25). The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction

Let’s take Bruce at his word.

The Prompt

Imagine you’re looking through a big, old-fashioned keyhole, into a room. Write a story of fewer than 1000 words, about what you can see

Tips

  • Think of this as a way of reducing the events of whatever is going on in the room to the moment.
  • Use powerful imagery and strong verbs to narrate the story and make it ‘flash’.
  • In a story this short you probably only have room for one or two characters.
  • A story this short can only focus on one moment/event.
  • Use dialogue to convey information. Hint at backstory with tone and word choice.
  • When you have finished your first draft (and therefore know what the story is about) go back and work on your opening lines

Leave a comment below, letting us know how you got on with this prompt, or what ideas it sparked for you.

[Write On Wednesday] All Writing Is Rewriting

Write Me
Sticking with this month’s theme of Getting You Writing and Breaking Blocks, today’s prompt shares another technique for quieting your inner perfectionist: stealing a story from someone else.

Rewriting a classic story, reworking a story of your own, or just stealing the plot of a folk tale, means there’s one less thing to worry about: plot. Writing this way lets you concentrate on other aspects of your writing:

  • Playing with character
  • Concentrating on your voice
  • Messing with Point of View
  • Trying out unconventional/non-narrative forms of storytelling

The Prompt

Rewrite a story (yours or someone else’s)

Tips

  • Remember that if you’re rewriting a story for publication, you’ll need to be careful you’re not infringing anyone’s rights. Best to stick with classic folk tales, for this. Or, if you’re just writing for your own amusement, infringe away 😉
  • Think about rewriting a story from a secondary character’s point of view. Why do the events of the story matter to them? How do they interfere with this character’s life?
  • Remember that stories don’t need to be told in the right order. In a short story, you don’t even need the beginning, middle and end to all happen within the story. One of them can be implied.
  • In short fiction every word counts. Don’t worry about this too much on a first draft, by try to keep it in mind as you choose how you describe events and scenes. For example, instead of ‘he ate two cheeseburgers, hungrily’ try ‘he inhaled the first cheeseburger, put the second away with workmanlike efficiency’. Notice how ‘making every word count’ doesn’t mean writing fewer words. Don’t you feel you know more about how the scene looked, from the second example?
  • If you need a resource for folk tales to steal, try the University of Pittsburgh’s archive.

[Write on Wednesday] Story Starter

Starting can be the hardest part of writing a story, so this week I’m giving you an opening line, to break through that block.

I’ve written before about opening lines and how important they are to a story, so don’t think that this opening line has to be your story’s opening line forever. In fact, these Wednesday prompts are designed to get you writing and often result in throwaway tales, rather than works of art, but the point is: you’re writing.

Read more about opening lines here (listen to the podcast version, here).

The Prompt

She had never understood why anyone would want a tattoo.

Tips

  • You can change the gender pronouns to suit your preferences
  • You can change the POV and voice of the piece
  • Think about setting a timer and just seeing where the story takes you
  • Or think about a character and their wants/needs before you start writing
  • You might want to think about the climax/midpoint of a story about a character like this, and write towards it
  • Will you character end up getting a tattoo? Understanding why people want them? Being tattooed against her will?

Feel free too share here, in the comments.

[Write On Wednesday] Word Salad

Sometimes lowering the stakes for a story can be the best way to make your writing go well.

So let’s play. Let’s be silly. Let’s write a story that can’t possibly be a masterpiece and just, instead, have some fun.

How? I’m going to give you a list of words and you’re going to write a story using them. I’d love it if you’d post your story in the comments, so we can all compare notes.

(Sometimes it’s surprising how much non-terrible writing comes out of this exercise!)

The Prompt

Use these words in your short-short story: die, ago, seat, time, imagining, even, making, league, sacrifices, rose

(These words were all drawn at random from The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan, which just happened to be lying near my desk.)

Go!

[Writing Prompt] The Cruelest Month

Happy New Year!

Here’s your first writing prompt of the year.

The Prompt

Use the title The Cruelest Month and set your timer for 30 minutes. Write a story with a beginning, middle and an end

Tips

  • Spend five minutes brainstorming a character, a situation, a problem, and then start writing.
  • At the ten minute mark, make sure you’re moving into the meat of the story, complicating your character’s life.
  • At the twenty minute mark, start writing your way to the finale. Even if the story is sketchy, start planning your ending, and race towards it.
  • Spend a few minutes reading over the story, making notes on things you might like to change/add.
  • Revel in your ability to tell a story!

When The Student Is Ready…

2015 Battle of the Books @ Mt. Hebron HS

When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.

Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project:  DIY MFA.

This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.

But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.

I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!

Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?

Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as my old mate the Buddha apparently never said.

If you want to get in on the remaining webinars in Gabriela’s current series, here’s some info:

Perfect Your Plot, Structure Your Story – December 14

Rock Your Revisions – December 21

 

(Some links on this page—the webinars and the one to Scrivener—are affiliate links, but I never recommend anything I don’t believe in 100%.)

[Writing Prompt] Write A Seasonal Story

Maypole

Today I’m encouraging you to write a seasonal story, just not one for this season.

Of course, you can write a Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/New Year/Festivus story if you want, but if you’re thinking about building your portofolio of stories that you might submit to a market soon, your best best is to write 3-6 months ahead. Publications have reading deadlines, lead times and design concerns to wrestle with, so yes, it is time to start thinking about your Mother’s Day stories now!

The Prompt

Write a seasonal story for a publication you enjoy, for a holiday/event six months from now.

Tips

  • Lots of editors tell me that they are always looking for timely stories for the lesser holidays, like Father’s Day (sorry, Dads) or about people dancing around a Maypole.
  • Pick a holiday or anniversary that hasn’t been done to death. Make sure it is 3-6 months away.
  • Leave more time if you like to submit your work to critique partners before you submit.
  • Go beyond the obvious ideas for a story about that holiday: look for the underlying themes, and write about that. For example, rather than telling a story about a father and son doing something on Father’s day, your story could address expectations, generational issues, frustration, disappointment, joy and other issues that come up on every Hallmark holiday.
  • By all means, write a ChristmaKwanzukkahNewyear story if you like to send it out directly to your readers, family and friends. (That’s probably what I’ll be doing today!)

Come back and leave a comment to tell me what you wrote about.

Go!

 

[Reading Room] The Provincials by Daniel Alarcón

This story comes from the 2017 collection of Daniel Alarcón’s stories The King Is Always Above The People.

I picked up the collection because I saw it on a ‘recommended reading’, highlighting non-white/non-mainstream voices.

Short story collections are a funny thing. Sometimes the whole collection hangs together and I can’t wait to read the next story. Sometimes I hate most of the stories but find a couple of gems.

This collection is like that. It’s not that any of the stories are badly-written– they’re not–I didn’t much enjoy them, on a first read-through.

Having said that, I was really impressed by the long, roughly 14,000-word story in the middle of this collection, The Provincials. 

I also found that the collection, as a whole stayed with me.

More on that later, but for now, let’s look at The Provincials.

The Opening Line

The first line of this story does a great job of setting up what is to come in the story,

“I’d been out of the conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died.”

Think about everything we know, from that first line:

  • This is a story featuring a young adult protagonist.
  • They have graduated from a ‘conservatory’, not a technical college, not a university. This is an artistic person.
  • This is probably a middle or upper-class person (who else can go to a conservatory?).
  • They graduated a year ago, but still define themselves by the conservatory. This is not a person who has gone on to a great and immediately successful career in their art.
  • The relative who has died is a great-uncle, not a close relative, so this is not likely to be a story about grief, or about the great-uncle.  Instead, it indicates the story is going to involve family and perhaps tenuous connections to one’s roots. Maybe it’s going to be about obligation, or the ties that bind.
  • The great-uncle is called Raúl, so this story is not going to be set in WASP-y America.

That’s a fair amount that we can dig out of 16 words, only one of which is more than five letters long.

The Story

This story is about a father and his younger, adult son, Nelson, taking a trip back to the small south-American (?) town where the father grew up, to settle the estate of a distant relative. The father left the town as young man, and moved North, to the city. His elder son has since left the country, for San Francisco, and the younger son, the novel’s protagonist, is expected to join him some day. There are hints, relatively early on that this younger son will not make the big move that his father and brother did,

“Even then I had my doubts, but I would keep believing this for another year or so.”)

They travel south through the country, stopping once in a town that is not his father’s hometown but seems to offer some tastes of what small town life is like in this unnamed country: passion, connection, resentments, grief, love…

When they reach his father’s hometown, the slight awkwardness and disappointed expectations we felt between the young man and his father on their drive is amplified in the awkwardness and resentments between the father and the people of his hometown, and by extension between the son and the people of the town. As readers, we wonder if the father and son will bond, or stay distant and miscommunicative, desperate to escape from each other as well as the town, when their errand is finished.

The story becomes a fascinating reflection on what it means to be part of the more migratory generations, and what it means to stay behind.

At one point, Nelson is sharing information from his older brother’s letters from the USA, and he reflects,

“That statement was contained within one of Francisco’s early dispatches from Oakland, when he was still eagerly trying to understand the place for himself, and not quite able to process many things he saw.”

This was a great reminder to me, as a writer who lives in a place I did not grow up in, that it’s not always a bad thing to have the outsider’s view. That searching for meaning, for understanding, can be a great source of energy in a story.

This Is A Looooong Story. Does It Work?

I love the punchiness of short stories, the way they draw characters in deft sketches. I often get impatient with long short stories, but in this case, it is where this author’s best work is done (at least in this collection).

In this, the longest short story in the collection, we are given a chance to get to know the men in the story (we also get hints of his girlfriend’s personality. There had been few women in the preceding stories and none really qualified as a character. The protagonists had been young, inexperienced, or callous towards women).

In the shorter stories I found myself impatient with, and mostly disliking the protagonists. In The Provincials, I didn’t like start out liking Nelson or his father any more than I liked any of the other protagonists, but at least I got to know them better, which made me more sympathetic towards them.

Alcarón’s writing style  benefitted from the roominess of the larger word count. It allowed him to do things like pause in that first village, which provided a satisfying structure to the story when they pause there again, on the way home. It allows him to paint the scenery through the eyes of an outsider—but not an awed tourist. It even allows him to tell part of the story in the form of a mini-play—which makes sense, as the first-person narrator is an aspiring actor.

This story has a strong sense of place (unnamed though it is) that feeds into the character development. At the start of the story, as they leave the city, the narrator observes,

“A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometers, there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colors faded since the previous summer, its edges unglued and flapping in the wind.”

This sets up a lot of the tension between old and new, country and city, the past and the present, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.

The Structure

The story starts and ends outside the capital city, which is nevertheless the focus of a lot of the protagonist’s energy. They travel through a village on the way to the father’s home town and, after their visit. The structure of the story echoes the themes of migration and dislocation, and the ‘nesting’ of locales (everything that happens in one direction, is closed out in the other direction on the way home) feels very neat and satisfying, even as the plot leaves questions open.

This is a great lesson in how you can avoid tying all the character questions up in a too-neat bow, but instead use the structure of the story to create a sense that the story is complete.

Also, I think this story has a last line that works spectacularly well. Read it and see what you think!

 

Do We Need Diverse Books?

I didn’t like the young men who populated this collection. I didn’t enjoy many of their stories, well-written as they were.

But I don’t think that’s always the most important factor in choosing what I read.

People in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement often talk about the importance of readers being able to find characters like themselves in fiction. I absolutely agree and applaud that. But it’s also important for people like me, secure in the white, Euro-centric tradition, to read outside our own experience.

These characters come from a world that is utterly foreign to me. Their experiences, their lives, their values are different from mine. It wasn’t a laugh-riot, to read about their lives, even though there was humor in these stories.

What is important, however, is that the voices in this collection had something in common with each other. And by visiting their world, over and over, though the various  stories, I became aware of life beyond my own experience. I might not like the characters, or their lives, or some of their choices, but I understand them a little, now.

And if I were to meet a guy like this, out in the real world, I might recognize him, just a bit. I would certainly see him as more than whatever he projected on the surface.

And I can’t think of a better reason for people like me to read and promote  literature from voices that are different from our own.

Read the story here

Do you read diverse books? Do you read books that you don’t necessarily enjoy? Is it worth your time? Leave a comment:

[Writing Prompt] Don’t Fight With Strangers On Social Media

Fighting creativityA few days ago, I commented on a Twitter post about a hot-button issue. I don’t normally do that, but I thought I was making a neutral, expanding-the-argument kind of comment.

You can tell where this is going can’t you?

Yeah.

Someone read my comment and assumed I was saying something I wasn’t; pigeon-holed me as someone from the completely different end of the ideological spectrum; and proceeded to make snarky, personal comments every time I tried to defuse the situation.

I had that hot-and-sweaty, blood-pounding-in-my-face, pit-in-my-stomach sensation we all remember so well from the injustices of being a misunderstood 12-year-old.  I wasted hours constructing careful answers and psyching myself up to open up my Twitter feed, wondering if I would find an olive branch or a minefield.

It wasn’t fun.

It sucked all the creativity out of my day.

It was such a waste of time.

And the irony of it was, I had, that very morning, reposted Austin Kleon’s advice not to pick fights with strangers on social media!

The Prompt

Find an issue that you COULD have a fight with someone about on social media and instead, write a story.

Tips

  • Make it something you really, really care about.
  • Have a protagonist and an antagonist who feel strongly about either side of the argument.
  • Give the antagonist a legitimate reason to feel that way — don’t make them a cardboard cut-out/cartoon villain.  (This might be hard, but will result in a better story, and a better you!)
  • You don’t have to be sympathetic to the opposing point of view, but you do have to grant some humanity to the person who holds that view. Grace them with some nuance. It’ll make for a better story, and it’ll intrigue the reader.
  • It will make your story and its outcome surprising and  memorable.
  • Consider leaving the story slightly unresolved. Life usually is. Maybe there is a moment when one (or both) characters have a glimmer of understanding (or of seeing the other person as a real human), or maybe they miss that moment entirely.
  • When working with two sides of an issue, you can show how the ‘good’ character could easily become the ‘bad’ character if only they…{insert the line your character will not cross here] and vice versa.
  • Because this is a short story, focus on one angle of an issue, one comment, one moment in the character’s lives.
  • Maybe let the exchange play out on a simulated social media exchange.
  • Maybe have the characters in another time and place, debating face to face, or through some completely different medium.

 

I promise you that, if you write a story instead of picking a fight with a stranger on social media, you’ll have a better day than I did last week 😉