Wednesday, October 28, 2009

These Boots Are Made For Kicking



So you want to write short stories. Or you don’t. Couldn’t care less. It is my considered opinion – and as everyone here knows I am a moderate and ponderous sort of person, mild-mannered and calm – that all of you need to write a lot more short stories, so you can submit it and get over this namby pamby fear of submitting your work. Because I can’t be having with that and I don’t want to call y’all sissies. (Even if you are.)



What I most often hear is "But I don’t like writing short stories." Or perhaps "I’m a natural novelist." Or yet "I don’t have short story ideas!"



The fact I normally hear these pronounced in the tone my kids used for "but I want a cookie" normally means I roll my eyes and go hide somewhere with a book. But leaving aside my excellent parenting skills, my general answer to these is "cry me a river" for the first two and "You can learn" to the last. I too am a natural novelist, I don’t generally like writing short stories, and heaven knows I don’t even have SINGLE NOVEL ideas, but more like a six book series.


You see, there are reasons to learn short stories – beyond the fact that you need desensitizing. Once you’ve made it and you’re a big name (shut up. The alternative is I keep kicking you. ALL of you will become major names by default) people will ask you for short stories and short stories are your cheapest means of self promotion. Write short stories for as many anthos and mags as you can – chances are people will find them and then look for everything else you wrote. At least if you do a creditable job. So... about learning to do that job.


Ideas are the easy part. I have a friend who routinely tells me "I have this idea for a short story" – when in fact he doesn’t. What do I mean by that? His "idea" will be something like "What if squirrels discovered electricity?" That is not an idea. It is the rawest glimmering of what-if. And it’s certainly not a Short story idea. Maybe an essay.


Could it be a short story idea? Sure. Follow that life line. So, squirrels discover electricity. Do they discover how to create electricity or how to steal it from homeowners, with tiny wires so they can watch squirrel porn on their tiny laptops? Let’s say they steal it. We have Mary. She lives downtown and suddenly her energy bill skyrockets. The landlord/energy company doesn’t believe her. A quick investigation finds that squirrels have found some discarded computer parts, assembled them, and are stealing electricity to watch Nutkin does Norway. Mary solves the problem by teaching the squirrels to distribute their electricity theft. She perhaps furnishes them with bigger screens, or something. In return they do something else for her – perhaps fill one of the electricity company’s trucks full of nuts. Or take nude pictures of the landlord and paste them all over the neighborhood.


Now what you must resist is the impulse to figure out how this will affect university at large. Will Mary’s boyfriend who is a biologist want to study these newly sentient squirrels? Will the squirrels become partners with humans in space exploration? Will there eventually be a tiny twitch of the tail for squirreldom, a giant step for the species of Earth? No. Don’t go there. Drop it. I mean you, Chris. You don’t know where it’s been, and besides you’re borrowing trouble. Short stories by definition take a smaller slice of the pie, usually concentrated on one person’s problem and its more or less reasonable solution. Yes, there are a few short stories with a cast of thousands and dancing elephants, but they’re rare, far between and require consummate skill.
I will confess part of this is weighing "what is a short story idea" and part of it is habit and practice – like everything else.


So, grab a couple of short story anthos (the Greenberg themed anthos are actually pretty good for this) and read a couple of short stories, it might help.


In any case, shoot me a few ideas in the comments. I’ll weigh in, as will the bunch that hangs out here, and we’ll discuss whether they’re short story ideas or not. If it makes you feel better shoot ideas you never plan to use, just so we can argue if they’re short story ideas of not. Just post them, we’ll discuss them, and your understanding will improve. (Grasshopper!) Of course, you might also want to tell me how insane my squirrel idea is. ;) Or your alternate ideas for Squirrels Discover Electricity. (Ah, like any of you is as brilliant as I am. Whole cities are powered by my shining intellect. In fact squirrels would probably steal me... er... um... WHAT is in those cold meds?)


I know you have questions: So, you have this idea, but is it YOUR idea to write? What is a satisfying end for a a short story, versus a satisfying end for a novel? And where the heck do you find all these ideas, anyway? Will you give me the address in Kansas where they send you ideas if you send them a SASE?


All this and more will be answered when you tune in to the next episode of "Boots, Stories and tired writers!"

27 comments:

matapam said...

All right. I was replying to your non-recognition of "LHC" when I realized what I was writing. Herewith I transfer it to this discussion and keep going:

LHC - CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The scientists' new toy in Switzerland. They get all bright eyed about creating Higgs Boson particles, and maybe even micro black holes.

The critter is just begging to be the Main Cause Of Fictional Disaster. Any kind of disaster. Knock the Earth out of orbit and bring back Magic and elves. Heck, maybe exposure to Higgs Bosons is what causes Lycanthropy and Vampirism, and the scientist that . . . What was that you were saying about a short story idea? How Mrs. Scientist starts noticing her brainy husband is getting hairy, mentions it to a couple of friends, ditto wives of scientists? Humm. The Koffee Klatch sets out to sabotage the LHC before the conditions worsen, possibly become permanent and contageous?

Amanda Green said...

Gah, Matapam, NOT before I've had my coffee. Now I'm having visions of Stepford Wives Meet the Wolfman. Okay, I admit it, my brain works in strange ways before fully caffeinated. Sarah, I promise a cogent comment once I'm away.

C Kelsey said...

Short stories ideas...

Currently I have three shorts in the works. Two should actually be short, one is trying to become a novella.

Pants: Why do all those evil Gray Aliens not wear any pants? They're always naked. And what is the point of coming to Earth and probing us? And why do they probe us in *that* spot? Well, it turns out that the aliens are an engineering minded species. And you know how engineers get so engrossed in doing stuff that they forget other things around them? Well, spaceships and all that hi-tech stuff are pretty engrossing. The aliens may have simply forgotten to create clothing. It skipped their minds if you will... On and on with that story. :)

Then there's the problem with fantasy worlds all seeming to be about the size of a city block. And what's with a white tower fighting a black tower? Who exactly just gets up one day and decides they just want to be evil and build a black tower? And what if the owner of the white tower was the most gallant of knights, but not particularly bright? And his servant girl went missing? And he adventured out across the world to rescue her only to be stymied by the gate across the black towers entrance?

And then there's the raven story... I've talked enough about that one in other posts. Have I mentioned that the sequel is already writing itself in my head?

Ideas... I have tons of them. I even write some of them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

Oh. For some reason my mind was stuck on vampires. Hence my deciding LHC was Laurel Hamilton. :)

Yes, I think you got the idea for short story. Problem with it, though is that most current markets gets allergies to sf mixed with fantasy. OTOH I'm proposing this anthology that... Don't lose that idea. Maybe the antho will sell.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Amanda,

You're going to be commenting remotely????

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Okay, Chris -- that first is a "what if" not a short story idea. Care to email me the short story idea, if you don't want to post it here? As in: Who is the main character? Whom does it affect most? What does he/she/it do about it?
The second is a short story idea and I want to read it. Poor little gallant black knight.

The raven story sounds... difficult. As in, I wouldn't undertake it. But you know, you're only young once and "young" writers (young in craft, you're also young in years, of course, as well as of a subversive frame of mind.) routinely dance where angels fear to tread. Sometimes they even pull it off...

Now, about finishing stories and sending them out... Such shiny boots. So polished...

C Kelsey said...

Well, the second story is actually a complete first draft in need of editing. I was re-reading it the other night... somehow I keep attaching "d" to my "an" when I don't want to. O_o

The first story idea:

The alien is Socialist Xerog. Lead social scientist for his people. They have just discovered humanity and are trying studying them. Now, having never considered the idea of clothing before, Xerog comes across a fashion show and at first thinks that we humans all have different, funny skin. Then he realizes they're garments and gets excited about it.

When he explains it to the other scientists of his people they get very excited over the idea of "fashion" and order Xerog, along with Physicist AmerdaGrn, to create clothing for the aliens.

But the Aliens have never done this before. Xerog starts by copying clothing dimensions from out designs thinking that the measurements we use are similar to his (kind of like NASA and ESA with the inches/centimeters thing). Xerog is so engrossed in the fabric etc. that he doesn't realize he needs to convert. So the clothing all comes out human sized, not alien sized.

Eventually the problem drives him to anger and he comes to Earth to learn from us using probes. So on and so forth.

As for the raven story, it's getting a little harder to write, but I *think* it's going to turn out pretty well. ;)

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, it isn't nice to make fun of the uncaffeinated writer -- remember, I've seen you at RWA before you've had your caffeine. Do you really want me telling those tales? ;-p

C Kelsey said...

matapam,

On the LHC front I'm wondering what sort of short story could be written considering that wild news thread that went around several weeks ago saying that Higgs Bosons might be so abhorent to the natural world that they are transmitting backwards in time and preventing the LHC from running and forming them (which, of course, boggles the mind since the LHC must successfully run before the HB can stop it from running and--)
Ouch, I think my brain popped.

Anyhow, not a story idea yet. But certainly a mechanism.

matapam said...

Hey, they were even bringing in the weird ending of the Texas Super Collider. I mean, ending the project after the main construction is done???

Much more fun to have a human agency involved, but an impersonal spiral of increasingly unlikely accidents and political misfortunes, so that such an experiment is never run is a fascinating idea. A bit unsettling when it's scientists instead of SF writers coming up with it, mind you.

C Kelsey said...

Yeah. And the story could go all the way to the improbably mini-blackhole being so "massive" that it falls straight to the center of the planet and then destroys the world.

Nah, that's a novel, not a short story.

I just read a story on livescience on how spiders that eat bloodsucking insects are more attractive to other members of their species. Because I'm wired in a weird way I immediately envisioned a scientist studying vampires of the LKH variety (not LHc Sarah... :) to determine if women like vampires who drink normal human blood better, or the vamps that drink werewolf blood better.

Yeah, there's a short story in there somewhere. XD

Brendan said...

Yes mam, sorry mam, won't happen again mam.

Chris, when you said the aliens were naked, my first thought was that kidnappings are attempts at revenge for drawing aliens naked all the time. Don't we understand that skin tight grey is the "in" look this season.

Story idea: Why the secrecy about blueprints of early interstellar spaceship design? A girl in search of a PHD and a boy in search of a girl try to unlock the most closely guarded secret the ISC has.

Kate said...

Oh ye dogs. You want short story ideas?

I don't have short story ideas, I have ideas that aren't big enough for a novel and might be squeezable into something in the three to six thousand word range. They just sort of happen at random and then go away again, usually, since they're rarely as strong as the novel and series size ideas.

Since there aren't any hanging around right now, let's see what I can dredge up on the fly...

World #2 vampire slayer has to work with #1 to deal with a serious vampire infestation - and discovers during the process that #1 is a vamp.

Werewolf with mother-in-law from hell discovers mother-in-law really is from hell - and he signed his soul over at the wedding.

All the world's guardian angels go on strike, with... interesting results. When they get the time off they wanted, things get even worse - it seems guardian angels aren't interchangeable.

An unemployed accountant applies for Evil Overlordship - and gets it. A battle of evil magic against accurate bookkeeping ensues.

That will do for now.

C Kelsey said...

Guy travels to Colorado to meet with one of his favorite authors. Finds out said favorite author isn't telling stories, merely dictating reality. Asks one of her characters out on a date. Gets attacked by a dragon. Learns new meaning for "not dinner"?

Okay... enough of that Chris!

Mike said...

Just a couple quickies from the news...

http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/10/28/international.medical.corps.tragedy/index.html

Article on the International Medical Corps. One paragraph talked about the origin, doing a medical training center in Pakistan for Afghan medics. Story idea: what is it like to be a doctor who wants to diagnose and treat directly, but has to train civilians instead because of the enormity of the task. Or perhaps the stress of the students, who feel as if they should do something directly, but also know the aching need for treatment of injuries and illnesses? e.g. Hamish spent the day teaching, and then he donned his cape and hood and went out to treat his real patients. With his band of guerilla medics...he knew he was breaking the rules, but he had to do it.

http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1932803,00.html?CNN=yes

Facebook (and other online id) after death? Dealing with online identity after death has got to be worth at least one short story. How about Jane, who depended on Phil... who died. And she thought the worst part was the funeral? Except here's Phil's online identity, still trying to run her life... until she killfiles him and all his bits.

Chris McMahon said...

Got this idea - Hitler was really an android operated by time-travelling squirrels from an advanced squirrel civilization manipulating the timeline. The highly advanced (NAZI) squirrels must complete their time machine beneath Berlin before the allies crack through the bunker. Things are complicated by a romance between local double-agent squirrel LeFemme and the chief squirrel scientist from the future.

Chris McMahon said...

Chris, I think a good short would be one particular alien's fashion crisis. Perhaps the naked aliens have taken to fashion with a passion, and it has become life or death within their highly structured status-driven society. I can see great scenes with advanced weaponry unleashed in Earth fashion shows:)

Matapam: LHC - how about the thing teleports the whole of earth to vacant space - we have about 24hrs before we all freeze to death. The scientists must figure out how it happened and teleport Earth to another sun - I can see a cool ending with Earth orbiting another star. It was an accident - OR WAS IT!

matapam said...

Ah Ha! The OTHER Great Mcguffin! Obviously the Earth was quantum entagled with some other astronomical body.

In theory, since they still are entangled, another swap is possible. All they have to do is reproduce the results of the first experiment. How many times can you smash Protons together before you get that one in a million chance to form a micro black hole? For the second time in a week.

Now, what shall I swap them with? Planet X? Pluto? One of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

UM... the LHC could be one of the things the Magical legion stops... um... :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Brendan,
Unless taken in hand very carefully, that's a novel idea. A good one, mind. The short story idea would be for ex. finding there ARE secrets to unlock...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Kate,

Curse you. Write them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

How DID you find out?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Mike,

Those could work, and actually news are one of the ways of getting ideas. Why don't you give it a spin?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris M,

You are a sick, sick, sick man and I'm honored to know you. None of which will save you, if you don't start writing the d*mn shorts and submitting them!

Brendan said...

Sarah, That could be a problem. Since the only bits I have written-the opening and closing paras-to me seem very short story like. I hope the middle doesn't turn out novel sized, I would have a lot more to write than I was expecting.

C Kelsey said...

Sarah,

Finding out was pretty easy. After all, it's a very short step from "Barfly" to "I can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy." ;)

s2la said...

Uh, Matapam?

That story's been done.

Einstein's Bridge by John Cramer.

Takes place at the Superconducting supercollider in Texas. What? you say the SSC was never finished? Right. The SSC project was canceled when Cramer was mostly done with the book. He re-wrote the ending to accommodate the cancellation of the SSC project. Of course, those of us who have read the book know *why* the SSC was canceled under such mysterious circumstances.