A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a really excellent short story workshop courtesy of Marcon 46 and Tim Waggoner, author of twenty novels and hundreds of short stories. He’s also a creative writing and composition professor at a university, so he has the experience with both writing and teaching that is ideal for this sort of workshop. Tim gave a number of really excellent bits of advice, and I thought I’d share a few with you in the interest of helping everyone improve.
1. If you find yourself writing stories with the “good part” (the climax) at the end, change it up. With a short story, you want the good part to be at the beginning, to draw the reader in–there’s no reason to have any boring bits, that’s the beauty of working with short fiction. So take your climax at the end of the story and make it the beginning of a new story (I went home after this lecture and wrote a new story based on this premise, and I think it’s much better than the first). Leave out as much of the exposition as possible.
2. Speaking of exposition, it should be avoided as much as possible in short stories, but it’s inevitable that you, as the author, will want to talk about the interesting setting and fascinating back stories you’ve created. Your story needs to have these elements even though they aren’t visible to the reader. Create a separate word file for this narrative stuff so that you can keep track of everything but keep it out of the story. I tend to write the exposition in the story and then yank it out and put it in a separate file that I save for later (sometimes the exposition goes back in, but often it doesn’t) but Tim mentioned that you can also just keep a separate word file and write all the exposition in that, without letting it get anywhere near your story, allowing you to flip back and forth between documents.
3. Writing from the monster’s point of view is rarely scary. This makes the monster sympathetic and removes the horror element. I found this statement fascinating because I know of at least one publisher that is specifically asking for horror stories from the point of view of the monster, and I found it to be particularly difficult to oblige, perhaps because of this problem. There are also some excellent novels told from the POV of the serial killer (like “The Minus Man” or “The Cold One”), but I think those works have more of a chance to build up suspense and horror because they’re novels, rather than short stories, which need to pack a wallop in a much shorter space.
4. Adverbs are bad. This is something everyone will tell you over and over and over again, but it’s worth repeating for the n00bs out there. I use adverbs more than I probably should, but I do try to avoid them, and so should you. As Tim says, “they’re lazy.”
Obviously this doesn’t cover all the advice Tim gave, just the bits that really influenced me. I highly recommend attending a workshop or panel with him if you get the chance.
The way I’ve had (2) explained is “show, don’t tell” – exposition works when it’s something your characters experience or observe that’s relevant to what they’re doing.
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