Short Story Workshop Notes – WDC2016

(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

This introvert arrived at the Hilton in time to register and attend the first session of the day.  On the way up, I threaded my way between hucksters selling tour bus tickets, sweaty people on their way to work, and tourists strolling in neat, clean, tidy shorts outfits and taking up all the sidewalk. A small dark man in an undershirt was sitting in a doorway under a scaffolding, and another man was shaking him, trying to wake him up; I realized only a block or so later that he had passed out. I lived in New York City in the late 60s, and it was reassuring to see that it was still as dirty, gaudy, and crowded as ever. The New York Times makes it look so glossy and expensive.

First session: April Eberhardt was speaking about the elements of a good short story. She has worked for Zoetrope and is a reader for Best American Short Stories, and like many people today is apparently making a good living in a niche she has carved out for herself: Author Advocate.*

It was good. There was nothing particularly new to me in the presentation, which I found reassuring.

  • A sprint versus a marathon
  • High stakes, big burst
  • Characters, topics, and treatments are important
  • Strong first and last line
  • There should be a change by the end.

She quoted a number of famous people on the subject of short stories throughout her talk.**

Important things to consider:

Concept:  In other words, where do you get your ideas?*** Your own experience, another’s experience, observation, news, anything that sticks.

Structure:  An event changes a character. There is a single rising line, a single point of view, a unified time and place, and a series of steps.+

Elements:  I taught English, so I’m familiar with the list, which I had my students memorize and chant++: Setting, character, point of view, conflict, plot, and theme.

  1. The setting is the time and place. It should be realistic, (even when it isn’t, meaning you should have good details). You should establish it early, including the date and weather (except when you don’t). Social conditions should be clear.
  2. Characters should be unique and believable. They include a protagonist and possibly an antagonist. They can be reliable or unreliable. They can be likeable or loathsome. Have a limited number.
  3. Point of view is the perspective. You can have the “innocent eye,” stream-of-consciousness, first person, or third person omniscient.
  4. Conflict: A major issue. It can be a one-time event or recur in the story, it can be internal or external, it can be be between good and evil or between the character and an outside force.
  5. Plot: Intro (set in motion), conflict (who’s at odds), rising action, climax (turning point), and resolution (the final outcome)
  6. Theme+++: The theme is the underlying point. It is a commentary on human nature or the world. It can be explicit (in the title) or implied. And it can emerge during the writing.

Unforgettable:  In a nutshell, you should have a unique character, setting, structure, dialogue, or theme. Don’t write what someone else has already written. Or no, go ahead. It will be all right. Readers want you to provide the five T’s:

  • TELL (who what where)
  • TANTALIZE (make them care)
  • TWIST (complicate)
  • TUMBLE (surprise)

Submissions:  Simultaneous submissions are okay. Look up good markets in the back of Best American Short Stories^^^ Choose a manageable number, and keep track (use a spreadsheet). With simultaneous submissions, it is essential to tell the other markets if you sell. Follow submissions guidelines#. Look at each publication’s guides, because each one has a little twist. She recommends an A list (impossible market), B list (reachable), and C list (emininently possible), but she cautioned that Zoetrope gets over 15,000 submissions a year and onyl publishes a few. She says it’s a numbers game, and you can pay an outfit like Writer’s Relay to submit for you. You typically send the entire story, with a cover letter (unlike book submissions).

In a nutshell: The talk was a good overview for story writing and submitting, and I met a neat person in my row, Christine Geertsema, who is writing a fantasy/SF novel about giant worms.

The goal for this introvert for this weekend was simple: To get to know some people and to learn about the business. A good start has been made.

*Note to self: I should carve out a niche for myself. It was a theme of the day, and a theme of the 21st century. My husband invented himself as a computer consultant and though he is down to one client and doesn’t actually do computer consulting, he brings in regular checks for what he does do. I find the idea terrifying.

**Note to self: If giving a talk about writing, have a supply of quotes by famous people. Not these ones.

***Note to self: This was the most common question I got when doing author talks. Ideas are not the hard part. I could write about the walk to the Hilton, the train, or waiting for a bus, and have a story.

+Note to self: Except when you don’t do that. The only requirement is the change.

++I lie. They actually had memorized the chant in seventh grade. They just remembered it when I taught it in eighth grade

+++The FUZZIEST thing in literature. I deplore its existence. It leaves the identity of the author out of writing. Theme emerges from a piece of writing because that’s what the writer cares about, so deeply that he or she can’t help writing about it. Yeah, I haz opinions. Also, I didn’t write that story so you-all could learn a damn lesson.

^Good luck with that.

^^Note to self: Make up a really neat acronym.

^^^Yes, I wandered into a literary fiction workshop by mistake.

#Seriously. Follow directions. I was an English teacher, and I was always appalled by the ability of people to ignore directions. In school it gets you a bad grade. In real life, it gets you rejected. If you want to strike out on your own path, you had better be so brilliant and unusual that you are forgiven. And if it is your first try, you are not going to be all that brilliant and unusual that anyone is going to cut you a break.

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