Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Love What You Write: The Challenge of Short Stories

I’ve decided to answer a call-for-submissions for a short story anthology.

The anthology in question is Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound. It’s being produced by Calgary publishing firm EDGE/Tesseracts Books, and, to quote the website:

“Submissions should focus on art, music, literature and cultural elements which are integral to the story. This anthology will reflect as broad a spectrum of stories as possible; highlighting unique styles and manners.”

Sounds like a cool opportunity to write a nifty fantasy short story, doesn’t it? I thought so, too. I never thought it was going to be so challenging, though.

My first task was to figure out the “trick” to writing short stories. As it turns out, it’s the same as writing any story – only shorter. Go figure.

I did come across a couple of tips, though:

Every word counts. Make sure that every sentence either furthers plot, action, character, or world building. Any sentence that doesn’t touch on one – or more – of the above points needs to be revisited. Or else, you’re hooped.

Story structure is key. You know: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, denoument/resolution. All that jazz. It can be 3-act, 5-point, or 7-point structure – whichever you prefer – but stick to a tried-and-true structure, and you’ll be fine.

But what I wasn’t expecting?

Being given limitations / restrictions as guidelines can complicate things.

This blew my mind. As an actor, I love restrictions. The more restrictions you give me, the more creative I get. For instance, if I tell you to get up and improvise a 15-minute monologue, chances are you’ll soil yourself and stammer and mumble aimlessly. It would be a traumatic experience for all involved.

However, if I tell you to improvise a 15-minute monologue as a young girl who goes looking for her run-away dog and comes across a mysterious triangular-shaped stone that transports her to a world of talking plants where she must go on an adventure to find the Paramion Seed, granting her the special elemental powers needed to return home…

Chances are you’ll succeed.

I thought the same thing would happen with this short story. It has very specific (although definitely not simplistic) limitations, and limitations are the key to creativity.

And limitations can be awesome.

But they can also be limiting.

I am working on building a specific, marketable product: the fantasy world I created. I plan on writing 30+ novels that take place in this world, because I know it so well. I’ve literally spent decades and tens of tens of housands of hours developing the world. I know it inside and out, and I love it. I love it to bits.

So naturally, I wanted to write a short story set in this world.

Correction: I wanted to write a short story – that would be selected for this anthology – set in this world.

But the requirements / theme of the anthology? Now there’s a fly in the mimosa.

I dove head first into the first idea that came to mind, and wrote 2500 words. I challenged myself and learned a lot about telling vs. showing, and I played with some narrative techniques I was looking to explore.  But ultimately, the required theme of the submission became a gimmick, rather than a central core value of the story. In that way, it was a fail.

So I did a little more research, and came across some essential advice:

Write what you love.

I think this is an important message that we all must take home. We should always write what we love. Sure, we sometimes have to write things we’re not too gung-ho about, but I think it is imperative that we find something to love. We need to force ourselves to find it. Growth will happen as a result, and isn’t that the saving grace of the “art” of writing? I think so.

I am happy to say that I’ve started a new short story and I’ve written 1,600 words. I still have a ways to go, but I’m digging it, and I am looking forward to continuing to work on it. Whether it’ll succeed and be published in this anthology, I do not know. But I do know that I’ll have loved every moment of that, and at the end of the day, that is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

How often do you write for specific competitions, anthologies, or markets? Do you find it challenging, or an awesome opportunity to push yourself and grow as an artist? What are some tips and tricks you’ve developed along the way when it comes to writing short stories? Please share your wisdom in the comments below – we’d love to hear your thoughts.

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