My creative writing class mainly left me with embarrassment about how many times I use commas, capitalization, and italics. But it also left me with a serious love of short stories. I read some amazing stories in my class before we started workshopping our own. Most of us spend the majority of our energy focusing on novels. Yet gaining exposure to short stories made me realize how much the underrated medium offers to both readers and writers alike.
A Writer’s Perspective
Shorter pieces give you the freedom to experiment with your writing style. In my class, I wrote a story in second-person from a male perspective. Pretty far out there for me. That was a narrative that I didn’t have enough courage to flesh out into a full novel, but a short story allowed me to try it out.
Writing short stories also helps you develop longer pieces. Plenty of authors start out writing short stories and extend particularly gripping narratives into novels. You can sample different plot ideas and learn which one captures your interest the most.
Or you can keep it short. Once you’ve completed a story, you can submit it for publication to literary magazines and anthologies. No agent needed. It’s a great way to gain writing credentials and/or potential payment. That being said, many literary magazines charge reading fees. I recommend submitting to the ones without reading fees first. John Fox and
A Reader’s Viewpoint
You gain a taste of the writer’s style. Lots of novelists started out writing short stories or published short stories between novels: Stephen King, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, the list goes on. Reading a short story from an author gives you a sense of the author’s voice.
Short stories offer the chance to enjoy a story without a major time investment. If you don’t have the time to finish an entire novel, the short story still gives you the satisfaction of watching a character grow and allowing a plot to fully develop.
Some of my favorite stories include “Love and Hydrogen” by Jim Shepherd, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler, and “Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events” by Kevin Moffett – but I’d love to hear your recommendations as well.
What are some of your favorites? Have you tried writing short stories before, and have they helped you write longer pieces?
I finally had the chance to read On Writing by Stephen King and I highly recommend it. King’s memoir has plenty of hilarious anecdotes from his life, and his book is also full of wisdom about the craft. I pieced together four points which stuck with me in particular:
- “If you write … someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” King feels he wasted time being “ashamed” of what he wrote, and he thinks this feeling happens to many writers. Bottom line: write what you want. There will always be people out there who try to convince you to write about a different topic, but they’re not the ones writing the story. You are.
- “The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.” Tell the truth – whether it’s through the dialogue or how you describe the characters. A writer’s job is to make his or her world feel as real as possible. The practice also helps ward away cliche.
- READ. King acknowledges that one of the best ways to improve one’s writing is by, well, reading. Love of writing begins with a love of reading. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. Reading the stories of others not only serves as inspiration, it helps you understand what you do and don’t like in fiction. It’s difficult to gain this objectivity when you’re drafting your own WIP.
- The story’s already there, and it’s the writer’s job to show it. King believes that the story already exist and what the writer needs to do is refine the story and polish it. It’s similar to a sculptor looking at a block of marble and knowing what the statue inside the marble will be. The writer reveals the story like the sculptor reveals the statue.
What books about writing have you found particularly helpful? Do you agree or disagree with what King says?
Less than a year ago, I published a post about writing podcasts (all of which I still listen to a year later). I thought I’d add a follow-up to that post with three new writing podcasts that have my attention. They’re a mix of inspiration and invaluable industry knowledge.
Kobo Writing Life – You may know Kobo because it’s a book retailer, but the company’s also started a podcast which features great interviews with successful authors and industry professionals. It’s always interesting to compare the path to publication stories of newer versus older writers. The podcast features a mix of trad-pubbed authors, self-pubbed authors, and anyone whose ideas are changing the story industry. Favorites: “Amy Tannenbaum” and “Bella Andre”.
The Smarter Artist – Less of a writing industry podcast and more of a writing mindset podcast. The Sterling & Stone guys talk about writing routines, lifestyle changes they’ve made for their writing, and conquering self-doubt as a writer. Each podcast is between 5-10 minutes to cut out any fluff and leave solid advice for listeners. Favorites: “What To Do if You Have Only One Book” and “How to Define Your Goals as an Artist”.
In junior high, I thought it would be a great idea to read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure why, because the text went way over my head at the time. I think I set it down halfway through and picked up Ella Enchanted instead (still a great book, just not quite the same).
But as we all try to do with classics from time to time, I picked it up recently and read it again. This time, I couldn’t help notice the great observations Woolf makes about the craft of writing. Two of them stayed with me in particular: (1) our writing as an extension of ourselves, and (2) success as a process.
Writing as an extension of ourselves
Whatever the characters in Mrs. Dalloway want for themselves, they want for their writing. One character, Septimus Warren Smith, is a writer who faces shell shock during the novel.
At one point, when he anticipates a doctor finding him, he thinks: “Now for his writings…Universal love: the meaning of the world. Burn them!” Since he believes that the doctor will seek to remove him from his current life, he wants to remove himself first. (This is definitely one of the more morbid examples in the book – and spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t yet read it!)
When considering how to best leave, though, one of his first concerns is for his writings. His work has become a reflection of who he is, so much so that he needs the writings to be burned even if they contain ‘the meaning of the world’. Just as he wants to remain untouched by doctors, he wants his writings to remain untouched.
As writers, we pour an incredible amount of time and effort into perfecting each small word or turn of phrase. Because of this effort, Woolf points out the strong attachment we feel to what we create.
One of my favorite scenes to write in any novel are the ones heavy in dialogue. What’s said is just as important as what’s left unsaid. Tension builds as voices rise. A relationship alters from a single beat of silence. There’s endless possibilities to create an additional layer of complexity to any story through speech.
How can we improve such an important part of our story? I’ve included below some tips I’ve collected in the past year about how to craft realistic and engaging dialogue, and hopefully these suggestions will help you create your next pivotal exchange between characters. Continue reading
I’ve noticed a lot of great posts surface online recently about dealing with burnout, such as “5 Ways to Recover After a Writer’s Burnout” by Nichole Severn at She’s Novel. Everyone can start to feel overworked and simply overwhelmed after a while. And if you’re anything like me, your past few weeks have become nonstop working (and writing) day in and day out without pausing to take a moment for inspiration. But everyone needs motivation – even the hardest work ethic needs a push every now and then.
This Monday, I decided it would be best to create a “Monday Motivation” post of sorts and guide you to some of the best quotes I’ve found from successful writers about resilience. That’s right, even the most famous writers admit they sometimes struggle with work. Turn back to this post whenever you need a bit of motivation to get back into your routine, or read through these amazing quotes now to feel energized about starting your week’s projects.
I’ve had an incredible, adventurous, and exhausting time this past month exploring South Korea and Hong Kong. (Shout-out to every single cityscape in Seoul: the views were gorgeous.) To be honest, I haven’t done as much writing as I planned to accomplish during this trip. But there was potential writing inspiration in every photo I took, awareness of other customs I want to include in future works, and a general boost to my summer writing now that I’ve returned home.
Whether you’re flying halfway across the world, visiting the beach, or taking a road trip along the coast, I am a huge believer that all writers benefit from summer travels. All of my novels were inspired from past trips, and I know this past month’s study abroad program will probably result in Seoul being a future novel setting as well. Which brings us into the first point…
- Fresh story settings. There’s nothing like experiencing a place for the first time. While we may be familiar with our hometown, when you get used to a place for too long you forget to notice the little details. What are the scents in the local market? How do people greet each other? What famous structure does the city hall building remind you of? You never know, a new story setting could inspire a new plot.
- Take (lots of) pictures and keep them as writing prompts. My phone is currently filled with all kinds of random photos I snapped in Seoul – at cafes, with friends, of unique store window displays, and of course endless city skylines. What catches your eye while traveling will later invoke your imagination while writing. Every time my manuscript reaches that “soggy middle” stage or I feel a bit of writer’s block coming on, I look back to old vacation photos and feel inspired again.
It’s been a year since I published The Innocent Assassins, and almost a year since I published One Last Letter. Even within the past year, I’ve noticed my writing improve. I sat down at my computer the other day to read a few old manuscripts I typed up (even pre-TIA) and I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the common writing mistakes I used to make. The following list of writing mistakes are ones I’m determined to avoid in future writing, and ones I wish I’d read about in the past!
(1) Adverb usage.
Most of the time, descriptive words can replace adverbs and make the sentence stronger. It all goes back to “show, don’t tell”. Why write she said it “tiredly” when you could write she “paused and rubbed the throbbing temples of her forehead”. When adverbs are avoided, visualization becomes much more vivid for the reader.
(2) Using the character’s title when I could be saying “he”, “she”, or “(Character’s Name)”.
This post from K. M. Weiland discusses what I’m talking about. This means saying “the lady”, “the man”, “his mother”. I’m pretty sure in One Last Letter I used “the cowboy” a bit too many times. I realized I was including “the” nouns as a way to remind myself of the character’s role in the story, but the reader already knows the character’s role. They don’t need to read about “the cowboy” instead of Jesse or “he”.
These are not only some of my favorite films about writers and writing, they’re also some of the best films for any movie junkie! As summer rolls around and you might need a writing break, I highly recommend watching these three.
Midnight in Paris
Why this movie?
“No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”
It’s always fun to recognize all the Jazz Age writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, though fair warning: they’re complete stereotypes of how the media remembers them. The protagonist, Gil Pender, is a screenwriter who wants to work on a novel. While venturing through the streets of Paris after midnight, he’s swept back in time to the Jazz Age and immerses himself in the Parisian culture of the period. This movie not only captures the writing struggles of trying to break into a different medium, it also discusses what it’s like to seek inspiration from both the past and present.