I’ve been staring at my computer screen for close to an hour, trying to figure out what to write for this week’s post. Every idea I come up with seems to be something that one of my MW colleagues or I have written about recently. This is one of the problems with writing a weekly post for a focused blog site like MW. With my personal blogs, if I’m bored with writing about writing, I can write about baseball or my kids or politics. I can’t really do that here. So what to do.
Well, my solution for this week is to write about ALL the ideas I came up with as I tried to find a topic. Instead of writing 800 to 1,000 words on one subject, I’m going to write a couple of hundred on several. You’re free to respond to any or all of them.
1. First Lines — Yeah, we talk about first lines A LOT on MW. Don’t believe me? Use the site search engine and you’ll see a huge number of first line posts. But I’m thinking about first lines in a short story context, because I’ve been writing a lot of short stories recently. And because the short form differs from novel form, the first lines of each kind of fiction need to accomplish somewhat different things, even as they both do the most important thing: Hook the reader. A novel’s first line can introduce character, narrative, or setting. The key is to begin easing your reader into your story, immersing him/her in what is going to be a lengthy reading experience. A short story opening has to have more punch, and it has to give the reader an immediate and clear sense of where the narrative is headed. Here’s the opening for the Thieftaker universe short story I just completed :
Ethan Kaille first heard people speak of the Dedham witch early in the spring of 1764. By then, of course, it was too late for him to save her life.
Direct, to the point. It even telegraphs the ending of the story in a way. It doesn’t matter (though I think it really would matter if it was a novel opening). The point is, my reader knows exactly what the story is going to be about, because after two sentences we’re pretty much immersed in the story already. So, anyone out there have a short story opening (keep it to 50 words or so) to share? I will be happy to offer a flash critique.
2. Short Fiction — Like I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about short fiction in recent weeks, and having a great deal of fun writing Thieftaker stories (five to date with another underway — three have been or will soon be published). And I find myself revisiting past discussions we’ve had on this site about the differences between short fiction writing and novel writing. Looking again at the story I’ve just finished (titled “The Witch of Dedham”), I do something with the story that I would almost never do with a novel. There is a crucial event in the story of the witch referenced in the title of the piece, but in this short piece we only experience this event through the witch’s retelling of what happened. With a novel, I would find a way to show the event, even if doing so meant establishing a new point of view character. In this case, though, while the events described are central to the tale, they are not what the story is about. The story is about Ethan’s interaction with the woman, about how her experiences and their discussion of them impact his emotions, his thoughts about his own life.
We often hear that a story or book is “character driven,” and I’ve always thought that phrase a little odd since, in my opinion, all good fiction is character driven. But in this case the term fits. This short story is entirely about the characters; the events may be incredibly important and dramatic, but they are secondary to their aftermath, to the way in which they ramify through the lives effected. Again, this is not at all an approach I would take with a novel, but with a short story of about 6,000 words, it works perfectly. In fact, if I were to try to work a description of the actual events into the piece, I would wind up with a story of ten to twelve thousand words, which would make it a novella.
Last year I was on a panel at Dragon*Con that dealt with the differences between writing novels and writing short stories. My friend Mary Robinette Kowal, an award-winning short story writer whose novels are now garnering critical acclaim, said that she felt the two endeavors demanded entirely different skill sets. I disagreed. I am now rethinking my position. There are similarities, of course, but the more short pieces I write, the more I feel that I am engaged in a creative enterprise that is entirely different from novel writing. What do you think? How different do you find the two processes?
3. Dialogue — Okay, first of all, do you spell the word as I just did, or do you spell it “dialog”? According to my dictionary (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition), “dialogue” is the preferred form. But in our digital age of “dialog boxes” and such, the latter is gaining acceptance.
But more to the point . . . I’ve said before, at conventions and here on MW, that when you listen closely to the manner in which people speak, you quickly realize that we are remarkably inarticulate creatures. We fill in our speaking with “uhs” and “ers” and “likes” and “you knows,” we take forever to make a point, we wander from topic to topic. As writers, we want to make our characters’ conversations sound realistic and authentic, but that does not mean that we want our characters to sound the way real people sound. Rather, we want them to sound the way we wish real people sounded. We want dialogue to sound natural, but we don’t want it to have all the mannerisms and meanderings of the real thing, because that would be really annoying to read.
I still believe this is true. But (and you just knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) in recent weeks, and in particular with this story I’ve been talking about, I have tried something a little different. The dialogue in this story came out a bit more “realistic” that usual in that I allowed my characters to change directions in their conversations a bit more than usual. The dialogue is less linear, less precise, more authentic to my ear. I did it this way as an experiment, and really it’s a difference of degree, rather than type. It’s fairly subtle. Still, I don’t know if others will like it. I’m not sure that I care. I wrote this story as a possible freebie for the D.B. Jackson website, and so it may be that I’ll never actually try to sell it to anyone. And it may be that within another couple of weeks, you’ll be able to download it for free from the site and judge for yourself how you feel about this approach.
How about you? Are you experimenting with your current work in any particular way? Care to tell us about it?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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