Confession: For many years, I didn’t like short stories. The concept conjured memories of high school English classes where we were required to create short stories, filling lines with sweet teenage angst like a Boston cream pie donut. I used to like those donuts when I was nine. I also adored pink and blue bubblegum ice cream at that age. There are some things you grow out of and I had put short stories into that category.
I started taking my writing more seriously and I’ve come around to admiring the
short story format, especially those under 3000 words. And I discovered
there’s a reason why many short stories don’t work well for me. It’s very
hard to write a good short story. You have to pack everything you could
put into a novel of 70,000 words: break it down to the essential, still write
beautifully, and make sense so you don’t lose your reader for lack of words.
you find a good short story, it is like the Scotch whisky of writing.
There’s depth and multi-layered flavours from the first sniff to the last
lingering taste in your mouth. Like a good Scotch, you don’t need a lot to
appreciate its beauty.
my list for why every writer should strive to write a short story:
definition, it’s short. You can practice the craft of writing without
committing to an entire novel. If it doesn’t work out, you probably
haven’t invested years of work in it. You can burn it, eat it, or recycle it
and start something new. Basically, it’s like only committing to a first
date. Unlike a novel, you don’t need marry your story and then later have
to suffer through a nasty divorce when it doesn’t work out.
can get other people to read it because it’s short. Getting someone to
commit to reading your mega three-inch tome can be difficult. Much easier
to get feedback by having your friends and family read your 1000 words of
No 1, you can invest years into perfecting your short story, and it’s easy to
go back and pick up and re-work it because it’s short. Try doing that with
your 120,000-word novel stuck in your bottom drawer with your socks.
Hone your skills
will become a better writer. Being forced to keep your story to only 2000
words means you have to make every word count. You don’t have the page space to
tell us about the entire history of your character or about the Napoleonic wars
before the plot begins. Learning how to tell a story with only a few words
will make you a better writer.
can enter short story contests and learn how to handle failure. Learning
how to accept rejection will be valuable when you try to publish your novel
later. This is an important life skill for a writer. Or really anyone
willing to be brave and try something new.
The Short List Creds
You can enter short story contests and get short listed. This will be a boost to your confidence and morale. You are a writer! Even better, you might actually win. You are definitely a writer! You can celebrate with cake and ice cream (but please, not bubblegum flavour).
can get your short story published in a magazine or anthology. Maybe even
earn cash (or at least a free copy of the book). You now have publishing
credentials to add in your pitch to agents when you finish that novel.
You can experiment with POV, tenses, blending genre, trying a new genre (like a paranormal western). Go crazy! It’s only a short story. If it doesn’t work out, remember no 1.
can improve your editing skills. For most writers, learning how to
hone editing and revising is an essential skill. A short story is a good format
to get critical. Check every word and sentence. Way easier to do this
in short story and find your weakness. Do you jump around in your verb
tenses? Use too much passive voice? Have favourite words? Lover
of adverbs? A short story is an ideal format to polish those editing
may create something beautiful and make some reader fall in love with short
Meet Seana Moorhead
Seana Moorhead is an
aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved
to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including
kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she reads
almost anything that grabs her attention, leads her into another world or teaches
her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her
partner and three dogs.
Sadly we had to postpone our Spring Thaw Retreat to the fall, but this week we are able to virtually welcome Seana Moorhead , a Writescape retreat alumus. Seana is a fine writer, a lawyer and a blogger at Ascribe Writers. She tells us her story of the old adage: “Write every day”.
Guest Post – Seana Moorhead
When I got home from Spring Thaw, Writescape’s writing
retreat at Rice Lake, I committed to writing every day.
I had approximately sixty scenes to edit in my
latest project. So I calculated that if I edited one scene every day,
estimating to take about one hour each, I would need sixty days or two months.
Since the writing retreat was in late April,
this meant that I should be finished by the end of June.
Plan A in action
To meet my goal, I needed to find about one hour
each day to write. At first, I tried to do this in the evening which was a
complete fail. I do not have enough brain power and energy to write after a
long day of work. Besides, I’m a morning writer. So at the end of May, I
decided to add one hour in the morning to accomplish my goal.
I started getting up earlier. This was made
easier by the longer days and I tend to get up earlier in the summer months
anyway. Still, little to no writing was done. Almost half way through June and
I had managed to do only one scene. A dismal failure. Instead I only managed to
get to work earlier. Not exactly the result I was aiming for!
Although I enjoy writing and wish constantly
that I could find more time to write, I still can’t seem to get into a habit of
writing every day. I began thinking about how to start a good habit.
For example, every morning before work I take my
dogs for a walk. I do not allow myself any excuses. I started this discipline
about eight years ago. It does not matter how cold it is outside, if it is
raining, if I slept in, or if I feel too tired. When I do feel like skipping
the walk, I tell myself, just fifteen minutes. No walk is not an option.
So on those very cold winter mornings, it may only be fifteen minutes before
the dogs and I run back to the warmth of the house. But on a beautiful spring
morning, we take closer to an hour, roaming through the fields and woods. In
the eight years of this discipline, the dogs and I complete our walk about 98 %
of the time. I realized I needed to approach my writing practice in the same
of trying to find an entire hour, I only needed to commit to fifteen minutes.
I decided to try that for one week. 15 minutes. Every morning. No excuses.
In preparation, I created a play list that was
15 minutes in length. I also decided my 15 minutes would be after all my other
morning routines – ie. Walking the dogs, breakfast, etc, since experience had
taught me that I needed to get my regular morning routine done before I could
On Monday, I woke up early as per my new routine
and walked the dogs. Then the distractions began. I had to take the recycling
and compost out, and then the compost bin really needed a good rinse. The bird
feeders needed to be filled. It’s amazing how many mundane chores can get done
when I don’t want to focus my brain. By the time I did all of those things, I
had twenty minutes until I had to leave for work. The excuses started:
What’s the point of
fifteen minutes? How much writing can I really get done in fifteen minutes?
It’s probably not worth it.
It’s Monday – maybe I
should give myself a break and start on Tuesday.
I could make it up
tonight. Tonight I will do half an hour to make up for the morning.
I almost didn’t do it. But I started with
turning on my laptop and ordered myself to sit down and write for the fifteen
minutes. I sat. I wrote. Twenty-two minutes later, I raced to work so as not to
be late. I had finished one scene. Yahoo!
The next day was a bit easier as I was prepared
for my brain to make the usual excuses. Luckily, number one excuse (how
practical is 15 minutes) was already proven wrong. I sailed through the next
two days, writing every morning.
Then Thursday hit and my brain thought that
maybe we had done so well for three days that maybe we could skip this one? I
remembered my dog walking routine. No excuses.
So I squeezed in my fifteen minutes. And then on
Friday, I woke up early and actually wrote for an entire hour before work.
After one week of this discipline, I had
completed editing ten scenes – more than I had done in the last two months. I
found myself turning on my computer in the evening to write for another fifteen
minutes and that often turned into half an hour to fifty minutes. I was excited
about my novel again and was eager to keep working on it.
Writing takes creativity but it also takes discipline and commitment. But be realistic on goals. I didn’t finish my scene edits by the end of June, but keeping with my new habit, it will be done by the end of the summer. What writing goal do you have to complete this summer?
Seana Moorhead is an aspiring author working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives on a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.
This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.
Guest Post from Seana Moorhead
I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.
Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third. Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.
This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:
(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)
(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)
(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own
(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.
I like a well structured book. My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs. Poor thing!
When in doubt, I research.
First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.
Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail? Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?
Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.
A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).
What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy. Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline. It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).
The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.
Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father. In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.
The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection. Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful. There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep. In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.
Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful. There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.
What does this mean for my problematic second book and me?
Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.
I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.
Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.
I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.
Off to write!
Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.