Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Writing Short Stories for Children: Part Two ...

Getting the hang of writing short stories has a bunch of benefits: helping the writer master technique and structure, the ability to work within a limited word count encouraging efficient, economic writing, experimentation with the 'twist,' and also just being enormous fun and an extremely satisfying thing to do. It is NOT essential to be able to write them if you prefer other forms, but if you do want to get to grips with this form, here are some thoughts and tips.

1) Short stories often spring from a single dilemma or wish. Or a single quirky object, interest, obsession, event or comment (e.g. museums are boring, a boy finds it hard to sit still, what happens if you never tidy the mess in your room, a football can break down language barriers)
2) Keep it single/simple. Too complex an idea or problem needs time and space to resolve.
3) Simple doesn't necessarily mean un-layered or basic. Short stories can still have themes and complex meanings
4) Technique can be transformative: metaphor, motifs, symbolism, imagery can double the value of your words.  Sometimes technique is everything/ is the story.
5) Setting can be a character
6) Character development is limited in a short story but your MC can still be changed by the events of the story
7) If it's a journey story, it won't be a short one.
8) A short story is a lovely place to explore the domestic and everyday. They can reveal depth and interest in what people expect to be the mundane
9) Don't try too hard for meaning. There is nowhere to hide and it is easy for the writer's hand to show in a short story. An obvious author in the text suggests your idea isn't quite ready or right for this format. You'll know when it's working.
10) Humour is a very desirable but not essential element, and does not need to be obvious. 

I looked up other people's advice on writing short stories before attempting this post and was interested to see that most were vague and/or broad tips. It is hard to pin down some practical rules that will give you the desired result. There is always an indefinable something in any writing advice, and just like other forms, short stories require a dab of magic to really sing. Playing around with the format is probably one of the best ways in. And my super duper best advice is to practice with very short formats. Start with up to six words. Then try 50 word stories. It is very doable to write a complete and satisfying short story in 50 words or less. Doing so teaches you what is needed and what isn't. And gives you a handle on the patterns that work. Remember many jokes we retell work on this basis. A complete story with a punchline in a short format.

Here is an example that I wrote some years ago for a radio contest. I was very new to writing at the time but you get the idea. And my story was included in a book of the most successful competition entries.

"Do you like my cranberry pumpkin chocolate blancmange?"
"Oh yes, honey, it's lovely."
"It's my best recipe. I make it all the time."
"You look a little green. Are you OK?"
"I think I'm getting the flu."
It must be love, he thought, as he headed to the bathroom.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Writing Short Stories for Children: Part One ...

Let's talk children's short stories. Partly because I have a collection coming out in August!! The Time Machine and Other Stories by Moi (Ahoy) - swoon - I am so excited!!! Partly because they are the thing I have most had published ( thirteen over the years in anthologies and educational journals and magazines, and soon five previously unseen stories will be getting their 'moment' in the collection) so I feel like I have the measure of how to write them, and partly because last weekend I wrote two new ones - one organically and one requested and I found the resulting difference in process surprising in a couple of ways.

Short stories used to be a good way to kick off a children's writing career in this country. A way to get seen and known, and a way to hone and reveal one's craft. For a brief period in the 2000's we were really lucky that a couple of publishers produced trade anthologies. Random House in particular put out maybe five or six themed collections by assorted authors, and Scholastic did a couple of their own. But usually, having some stories published in The School Journal in New Zealand was the time-honoured way for a writer to gain some respected publishing credits. It is still possible to do this now but both The School Journal here, and The School Magazine in Australia have changed the way they do things and it can be harder to get a look in. The desired topics are also now prescribed in advance. Great, if you can write to request/ a brief, but not so good if your main approach is to write organically.

In the beginning I didn't actually 'get' short stories for years, and wasn't too good at writing them either, until I did my English Lit degree. The Writing for Children paper unlocked my understanding. But a degree is not the only way in - there are many ways to develop the knack for writing them. Getting the hang of writing long form or picture books will help but it is fair to say that short stories are their own beast and require a somewhat different approach. Not all novelists are short story writers and vice versa.

Remembering back to when I was a young thing wanting to write, and observing today's children with the same ambition, it seems obvious that the novel is very seductive and we all reach to write something we are not yet ready to write (although there are always exceptions). Few youngsters start with the short story, but that would be an ideal first step to gaining the requisite skills in imagining a brief and very manageable story arc and pinning it to a character who can still change over the course of that arc without needing the depth of development a novel requires. Short stories also train you to vary the text between narrative, dialogue and action. In fact with children's short stories being, well, short, there isn't always a lot of space to indulge in narrative.  Things must happen in 'short' order. The commitment required to produce a short story compared with a novel is far more easily met. Wrangling a single plot arc with only a few briefly developed characters is far more achievable. Its a very good place to start.

And myself? Well I hadn't written any new short stories for a couple of years. Not until the weekend just gone. I go through little bursts with this form. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write them. Sometimes I need to do it to remind myself I can still write at all. They are encouraging, and fun, and satisfying. Three very starry qualities. Anyways at the end of last week two things happened. I had an idea for a short story resurface. One I'd mulled over in the past without any real sense of how the story would play out. But this time I felt the urge to actually sit down and see where things led. The other thing that happened was a long phone call with the editor of my short story collection who suggested I write a particular story for inclusion in the book. I agreed with the rationale and could see the potential in the story. But my inclination is to avoid requested/meeting-a-brief type projects. Almost everything I write is on spec, written organically as an idea takes hold and I let things unfold without restriction or expectation. Yes it means my time and efforts might be for nothing if the story I produce goes unwanted but the only person I have to please is myself. And if I send it off to a publisher and they say no, at least I am still pleased and satisfied by what I wrote. With a commission, you are trying to please someone else from the get go. The possibility of failure is exponentially greater and is harder to ignore. It's no fun disappointing someone else.

So, because I had this story I promised to write, I wrote the one that I wanted to write instead. I'd noodled around with it in my mind for about 24 hours and then I got to work. Within a day (Friday), it was done. Was it any good? I couldn't be sure. But I'd pleased myself. It made me laugh (subtle chuckles) and it resolved as I'd hoped. Result! But now I couldn't avoid the requested story. And a tight turn around on this had been asked for. So I sat down with the notes Id made during my chat with the editor and got cracking. It made my head hurt. Not because I didn't know what to write, but purely because I was going to be judged on whether I could achieve this specified goal. And the pressure to not stuff up sat like an albatross on my shoulder. So many of the other stories that will appear in the collection have been published previously. Scrutinised, weighed and accepted by strangers, so I knew they were good enough, and I had their seal of approval to prove it. But this one was straight out of my noggin, tested only by me. I finished it on Saturday. And I sent it off to the editor before my doubts and misgivings could take over. Before any one else could read it and give me feedback. For good measure I chucked in the other story as well. That one's about snot, but in a very understated way. And dear reader, they were very well received and will both be in the collection. I talked with my SO about the experience and he gently chided me for saying I can't do commissioned work. He had a point, but honestly, my gut still resolutely tells me I can't. And the difference in process for writing the two stories? - the mental hurdle I furnished myself with for the second one, and the headache it gave me. I much prefer the organic process but I have to remind myself I can also meet a brief if necessary - I have to stand firm and overrule my gut, which doesn't know everything. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, putting the stumbling blocks in place to stop ourselves completing, or even attempting, new work. Frank Herbert was right - 'fear' really is the mind killer, and we need to find a way to step around it. Also, I'd just like to quickly note I don't usually write short stories this fast. That was a shock. I don't know how that happened (maybe having such a dreadfully tight deadline). It probably won't happen again. Maybe fear can be a cattle prod too :)

Anyways, I think in my next post I'm going to talk a bit about the how of writing short stories. I just have to go and work out how I do it first :) Talk soon.