As the series editor who chooses the stories in the annual O. Henry Prize Stories, I read hundreds of short stories every year. I also have the benefit and pleasure of asking each year’s twenty winners to write a short piece about how and why they wrote their stories. Along with my own experience as a short story writer, I’m in a good position to ponder a question often posed by aspiring writers: What are the essential elements of a good short story?As I set out to answer that question, however, I found myself instead enumerating what is not essential. The first thing you should set aside is any explicit or guiding notion of what your story is “about.” Readers often ask writers what their stories mean, but if the writer has a ready answer, that is a problem. A good writer knows where and when the first hint of a story appeared, and how she wrote it. She knows what the process was from draft to finish – but a story’s “meaning” is often as much a mystery to writer as to reader, and that’s as it should be. Writing a short story is an intuitive activity driven by the writer’s wonderful subconscious and it’s as far from meaning as dreaming is from being awake. Conscious logical planning will get you from Point A to Point B in the shortest time but the subconscious excels at fortuitous invention. A writer must learn to trust the startling images and characters that come up in the course of composition. Her subconscious, if she trusts it, will guide her through the beginning, background, and development to the ending, which is often the most difficult part to write, and to understand. The next most important thing is grasping the particular demands of this form. In bringing to life the world of a short story, it is crucial to know what to leave out. Despite some superficial resemblance to the novel, the short story differs from it in important ways; a story must draw the reader in without attempting to imitate the enveloping completeness or epic sweep of a novel. A short story also isn’t a song or a poem, forms that express their world of meaning through extreme compression and abstraction. Some very terse stories do resemble a poem or song, for example Michael Parker’s “Stop ‘n’ Go” in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018. Whatever its length, though, and however elaborate or simple its language, the short story is rooted in its own unique deployment of quotidian details, which must feel real and convincing. In all stories, even the most starkly written, the story’s world must be recognizable, however eccentric or fantastical or hyper-realistic it may be. Characters sit on uncomfortable chairs or walk on graveled paths, and the reader must be able to sit on those chairs and walk on those paths. Frequent O. Henry winner William Trevor’s conflicted Irish and English characters feel as real and important to the fond reader as her own friends. The main character in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Tomb of Wrestling,” in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, confronts an intruder who means her harm, and the reader is as terrified as she is. The thousands of decisions a writer makes in editing a story boil down to trusting the reader to make connections. That trust dominates the writer’s decisions as she moves from draft to draft and decides what the reader needs in order to understand plot, sequence, setting, and character – without spelling out those elements. Explaining is unnecessary when the story is right; in fact, too much explanation feels to the attentive reader like an annoying interruption, a breaking of the spell. Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence. At a magical point, the writer’s subconscious inventions connect with the reader’s intelligence and emotions, and the reader understands why the story ends where it does; how the ending is an illuminated version of the beginning; that the story’s secret has been revealed without words. The trust that has guided the writer to get rid of all but the right details has paid off and the reader has everything she needs to make the story’s meaning her own. Photo by Da Kraplak on Unsplash
When I first started writing what is now Intercepted, my debut novel, I did it hidden in my basement with the intention of never letting it see the light of day, but as I kept writing — and, let’s be honest, deleting — I grew more interested in the craft, and more interested in what made the authors I admire stand out from the rest. One thought kept popping into my head over and over again: writing voice.Yes, the term “writing voice” may seem like a simple enough concept on the surface, but what does it really mean? As writers, there are so many things we consider as we put our words onto paper: filter words, dialogue tags, adverbs, and even show. Am I a plotter or a planner? Where does my manuscript belong in terms of genre and sub-genre? What in the world is a query letter? All of these questions can be answered concisely, but when it comes to voice, the explanation becomes more complex. Voice can be a combination of your writing tone, sentence structure, patterns, and perspective. It is a stamp on your writing that makes your work personal and recognizable, so much so that your audience can identify a sample of writing as yours without ever seeing your name. As a debut author, that seems like a daunting task, but it makes all the difference in how you will be received as a writer. Presently, in the world of publishing, there are so many talented authors saturating the market that standing out amongst the crowd can seem almost impossible. This is one of the reasons why voice is so important. For me, discovering my voice started well before the thought of writing a book ever crossed my mind. I blogged; it was not a popular one by any means, unless you ask my mother or best friend. It was just a means to stay in touch with friends and family and update them on the happenings in my life. However, as I continued to write my blogs, the comments from readers started to influence the way I wrote. I would get a thrill when someone would reach out to me and tell me how hard he or she laughed at my latest post. Even better was when I’d get an email from a reader stating how much they wanted to get together and have a drink after reading one of my posts. After a while, I knew what I wanted my readers to feel when they read my words. I wanted my stories to be relatable and fun. I wanted my readers to feel like they were having a night out with friends. And that feeling of relatability transferred into my writing style once I finally became brave enough to start my manuscript. Even if you don’t blog, there’s no way in this day and age that you aren’t writing to someone at some point during your day. And while I’m not sure anybody wants to read a book of tweets or Facebook statuses, you are still using writing to get your point across. Another great way to hone in on your voice is to grab a notebook or open a word document and go wild. Just write whatever your heart desires. A quick google search will yield you tons of writing prompts if that’s what you need to get your juices flowing.
Sit down and ask yourself what kind of author you want to be. Decide what experience you want your reader to have. Ask yourself what you can bring to the story that nobody else can.Most importantly, be yourself. Find inspiration from your favorite authors and allow it to guide you when developing your style. Part of being a writer is being a reader. Knowing what draws you to an author is crucial in creating your own voice. Everyone has an influence, just don’t lose your voice trying to emulate someone else. As writers, we all might be a little crazy to do what we do, so make sure you’re doing it in a way that makes you happy. Whether you’re writing a romantic comedy, thriller, or memoir, remember that yourstory is important and your voice is needed. Writing/Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
VINCE BEISERAfter water and air, sand is the natural resource that we consume more than any other–even more than oil. Every concrete building and paved road on Earth, every computer screen and silicon chip, is made from sand. From Egypt’s pyramids to the Hubble telescope, from the world’s tallest skyscraper to the sidewalk below it, from Chartres’ stained-glass windows to your iPhone, sand shelters us, empowers us, engages us, and inspires us. It’s the ingredient that makes possible our cities, our science, our lives–and our future. And, incredibly, we’re running out of it. The World in a Grain is the compelling true story of the hugely important and diminishing natural resource that grows more essential every day, and of the people who mine it, sell it, build with it–and sometimes, even kill for it. It’s also a provocative examination of the serious human and environmental costs incurred by our dependence on sand, which has received little public attention. Not all sand is created equal: Some of the easiest sand to get to is the least useful. Award-winning journalist Vince Beiser delves deep into this world, taking readers on a journey across the globe, from the United States to remote corners of India, China, and Dubai to explain why sand is so crucial to modern life. Along the way, readers encounter world-changing innovators, island-building entrepreneurs, desert fighters, and murderous sand pirates. The result is an entertaining and eye-opening work, one that is both unexpected and involving, rippling with fascinating detail and filled with surprising characters.
FRANK HERBERTFrank Herbert’s classic masterpiece—a triumph of the imagination and one of the bestselling science fiction novels of all time. Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides—who would become known as Muad’Dib—and of a great family’s ambition to bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream. A stunning blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.
I always get a little squirmy when I’m asked to give advice on writing. I mean, what makes me an authority on the subject? Sure, I’ve written a bunch of books, but the only “training” I’ve had in my chosen vocation is the thousands of books I’ve read in my lifetime so far.I’d like to think that despite not having a lot of experience or knowledge about the whole writing thing when I started, surely I’ve learned something along the way. And I have. In that vein, here are a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my nearly twenty years of being a published author. No, I haven’t figured out the magic formula that will grant a writer instant success. But I have accumulated a nice list of what not to do if you’re planning on having a career as a writer. Do not spend all your writing time making excuses as to why you can’t write instead of actually writing. Excuses will not write a book. Finding the perfect time to finally start a book is like choosing the right time to move to another country and start a new life. There will never be a perfect time, as there will always be reasons why the timing isn’t optimal. If you have a burning desire to write a book (or move to another country), make it a priority. The rest will fall into place, and you’ll be a lot happier with yourself. Do not take to heart everyone else’s writing style/advice/methods before you’ve given yourself a chance to figure out your own. Writing is incredibly personal. There are as many writing techniques and styles as there are writers. It’s what gives us our individual writer’s voice. It’s precious and unique and you need to own it and not dilute it with external influences before you’ve given it a chance to sprout. If I’d listened to all the well-meaning advice when I started (don’t write in first person, never start a sentence with “and,” outline everything before you write the first sentence), I would never have written my first book. Do not surround yourself with naysayers. For whatever reason, there will always be people in our lives who will attempt to discourage us from our pursuits. Either family members, friends, or other writers will have negative things to say about our talent (or lack thereof). Don’t listen to them. It’s always easier to be a critic than the warrior fighting the battle. Just remember that it’s not about them. Your writing is between you and the words on the page. And nobody else. Do not wait until the muse strikes before you sit down to write.This one always makes me laugh. I would have written exactly three pages in my entire career if this were true. In my previous life in the business world, I don’t imagine I would have lasted in any job very long if my attitude had been that I’d only show up for work when I felt like it. There are usually about a million other things I’d rather be doing than gluing myself to my chair and getting to work. Since I consider writing my career and not just a hobby, I treat it with respect. Do not say my family/job/life isn’t conducive to writing a book.News flash: unless you’re independently wealthy and your family is entirely self-sufficient, this will never change. I wrote my first books in my SUV at the football field and horse barn while my children practiced. My husband traveled about ninety percent of the time for his job so I was basically a single mom for most of the week. Instead of chatting with the other mothers, or reading a magazine, or napping, I used that time to write. There are pockets of time in each of our lives that we can prioritize as writing time. Expect to let go of a few things (binge watching on Netflix, hanging out on Facebook, sleeping in on weekends) to find the time. But the time is there if you’re willing to make your writing happen. Do not expect that the hard work is over after you sell your first book. It’s only just beginning. To prepare yourself for your writing career, start thinking about your next book as soon as you send your first book proposal to prospective agents and editors. You’ve got momentum so make the most of it. Writers write. It’s what we do. We turn off the negative voices, we create the time and the place, and we write. To borrow words from Nike, Just Do It. Writing/Photo by Lubomyr Myronyuk on Unsplash
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash
A quick Google search for ‘writing advice’ tells me there can’t be much left that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winners offer tips. Forty experts tell beginners what to do. Bestselling authors give us insight into their creative processes. And so on, ad infinitum. Then there’s that perfect book, half craft, half writer’s memoir: Stephen King’s On Writing. If I could only have one how-to manual on my shelf, it would be that one.Where does this leave us, then? What guidance can I, a debut novelist and writer of flash fiction, possibly offer the world, or the emerging writer? I’ve thought about it over and over, and finally came up with two words: Be fearless. We know writing takes work, and skill, and talent, and perseverance. There’s the old ‘Butt-in-the-chair, honey!’ mandate (with its cute acronym) — a writer’s corollary to the athlete’s ‘Just Do It’ mantra. You want to run? Run. You want to write? Write. There’s something so plainly tautological about it all. And there can be beauty in tautologies.
But I think fearlessness is the single quality we as writers need to cultivate, and I mean this in multiple ways.We need the bravery to pour our emotions out, spilling ink onto paper with a little of our own blood mixed in. That’s no small trick. We need the courage to send our words into the world, knowing that once we do, a part of us is gone, floating in the public sphere, no longer under our control. If one accepts Roland Barthes’ notion that the author is dead, we authors must embrace the concept that we’re killing some portion of ourselves the minute our work leaves us. And, of course, we need the self-esteem and thick, carapace-like skin to hang on and persist when the inevitable rejections hit our inboxes. Believe me, they will hit — hard. A bland form rejection from an agent or editor can carry all the pain of bludgeon to the face, a direct smack to our very soul. Everyone who writes, or who wants to write, requires a ring fighter’s determination, a Rocky-esque willingness to go the distance, and to keep going. Being fearless also takes us in new directions, allowing us to experiment with previously unknown forms, new characters, and diverse points of view. One of my favorite things about writing flash fiction — tightly condensed stories often under 500 words — is exactly this: Within the space of a day, I can be a cranky old man on a front porch in Mississippi, a young housewife, or a sneaky feline. Fearlessness is a gift, a license to try something different and liberate ourselves from any habitual ruts. And it need not be limited to our writing lives. We can extend it to our whole lives: to our relationships with ourselves and others, to our careers (and the changing thereof), and to how we interact with the world. Finally, we need to forge some armor of another sort — the kind that protects us from dissatisfied readers. It’s useful to remember that old John Lydgate saying about not being able to please everyone all of the time. Every once in a while, our words may not even reach the point of unpleasing, instead inspiring far less positive reactions. Still, they’re our words and our thoughts, and we have to steel ourselves against ugly feedback. (Hint: read your reviews, or not. Then go back to doing what you do.) When I teach writing classes, the very first thing I tell my students is to prepare for rejection and failure. Both are going to happen, sometimes much more frequently than we’d wish. The rejection and failure aren’t the focus, though; it’s what we do afterwards that counts. And what we, as creators, should do afterwards is simple: get up and do it all over again. Would I call myself fearless? Would I use that label? I don’t know; I haven’t walked through the world with a superhero cape on my back. I do know that others have said this about me, starting with my first professor in graduate school twenty years ago. That man is gone now, and I can’t pick up the phone and say, “Hey, guess what? I believe you.” So instead, I write, a little or a lot every day, and try to live up to the descriptor. I try to fear nothing, even when that seems impossible. Maybe you were expecting a writer’s user manual. A list of do’s and don’ts full of perennial tips like ‘show, don’t tell’ and ‘avoid adverbs.’ Something along those lines. But the best advice I can give, and — in my mind — the only advice worth its salt, is encapsulated in two words. Be fearless. Then sit back and watch what happens. I have a feeling what happens will be good. Be Fearless/Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash