How Not To Write a Short Story

Homer writing
Homer writing on a memo pad. As convenient as this method is, most writers would probably prefer a desk and a typewriter, where they can sit down and compose sentences on a solid surface. I wonder if Homer actually scribbled out the Iliad and the Odyssey using this archaic method.

About the Short Story

Short stories are often considered the building blocks of the literary world. Learn to write a good short, and all of a sudden you will find that your avenues of literary communication have broadened dramatically. For example, the short story format can be expanded to create a screenplay, a stage play or a novella. Another alternative is to string together a linked series of short stories to create a full length novel. No matter, how you look at it, putting together a good short is nothing but beneficial to writers of all levels.

Following are a few methods you might consider when you desire to shortcut the creative process.

Get Hammered and Just Let The Words Flow Onto The Paper

Homer Simpson drinking with a friend
Homer Simpson drinking with a friend

Alcohol has long been a substance associated with and abused by writers, especially of the male gender. Furthermore, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Hunter Thompson were sometimes associated with doing their best work while under the influence. With Hemingway this is mostly myth, for even though the American novelist was often photographed in bars and taverns with a drink in hand, most observers believe that Ernest usually did not crack open a bottle until he was done writing for the day.

Unfortunately, such is not the case for his Parisian ex-pat buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who according to his buddy, Ernest, had a horrendous drinking problem. In fact, the publication of A Movable Feast, which describes in sordid detail, F. Scott’s Parisian drinking escapades, was not published until after Hemingway’s death, in part, due to the stark portrayal of Fitzgerald and other American ex-pats .

Unfortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald is not the only notable writer to have died at early age from alcohol abuse. Other members of this not-so-elite- club include Jack Kerouac, Jack London, Dylan Thomas and Edgar Allan Poe. Fortunately, the women seemed to have fared better with the bottle, though they are not exempt from the excesses of imbibing.

Write An Outline and Spend Lots of Time Getting Organizing Before You Actually Begin Writing

Homer Simpson actually has a very organized mind.
Contrary to popular perception, Homer actually has a very organized mind.

There are two schools of thought here. The first is to outline, organize and pre-plan thoroughly before you actually glue your ass to the chair and churn out a manuscript, ASAP. After all if it worked for Jack Kerouac (On The Road), it will surely work for you.

The second is to write by the seat of pants, but who really wants to put words down in that fashion.

P.S. Other novels that were penned in very short order include Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Enders Game (Orson Scott Card), The Gambler ( Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and A Catcher In the Rye (J.D. Salinger).

Play It Safe, Don’t Take Any Risks

Homer making himself comfortable
Homer making himself comfortable.

The more comfortable you are, the better your writing will be. Just look at Homer.

Seek Out Agents and Publishers As You Write

homer on the phone
homer on the phone

If you got a really great idea, the publishing world will flock to your doorstep. No need to have the whole manuscript written out beforehand, just get the general gist of your concept down on paper, and then start making contacts. The rest should be relatively easy.

 Write Only About Your Own Experiences

Homer networking
Homer networking

All you have to do is follow that old axiom, Write What You Know; you can’t go wrong. If Mark Twain said it, it must be good advice. Even today, an up and coming writer will see and hear this said from all sorts of sources. Best advice is to follow this attitude religiously and if you happen to come across a Nobel Prize winner who advises differently, you should discard those words immediately.

 

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A Writer’s Quickie Guide To New Year Resolutions

Homer Simpson busy at work at the typewriter
Though seldom used today, the typewriter is a perfectly acceptable means of writing.

It Really Doesn’t Matter How You Write

I guess it kind of goes without saying that it doesn’t matter so much as to how you put the words down, just so long as you write. Really, all you need is a pen or pencil and something to write on. Paper products, such as notebooks, napkins, paper towels or actual plain sheets of paper are preferred, but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter what the material is.

Corn writing is not recommended because the writing surface is left exposed to the elements
However, Corn Writing is not recommended because the writing surface is left exposed to the elements, which can lead to a rapid deterioration of your content.

Resolutions Condensed

The following New Year’s resolutions are condensed so that you will have more time to enjoy the New Year’s festivities. You can worry about writing something profound after the First of the Year.

OK, guys and dolls, here they are…..Write better and more often and sober. Try something new, finish it. NETWORK!!! Procrastinate less and read more. And don’t forget that perfectionism is the death of creativity.

There you go; I can’t be much more precise than that. Now go out and party and don’t think about writing until next year.

Happy New Year everybody
Happy New Year everybody

Using Kickstarter

Spacewalk on Gemini flight, from NASA
Spacewalk on Gemini flight, from NASA….For some taking the plunge into self publishing, the first step may be a bit  like spacewalking

Taking The Plunge

It’s a constantly changing and strange world for those who have not yet broken into traditional publishing and are now considering a try at doing it themselves. Roughly speaking, authors have been self-publishing e-books for over 10 years now with the bulk of online activity coming within the last five. For the most part, Amazon has been the main place to post your e-book, but other venues such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple and Sony have been around almost as long. Following is a quick survey of some things that you might encounter if you decide to self-publish.

Content

Not only do you have to have content that is of a high quality, but also your written material must be in demand by those who are willing to purchase and read an e-book. This might sound like a no-brainer to many writers, but keep in mind that there is a lot of well-written, highly-conceived material that receives little attention by readers. In other words, to draw the interest of readers you have to hit the right chord that will make that person purchase your e-book. This is just as true for the short story priced at 99 cents, as it is for the full-sized novel that runs in the ten dollar range.

The Writer Glut

As time goes on, literary sales to owners of electronic reading devices may become more difficult as the numbers of authors attempting to self-publish increases and the number of e-book  readers levels off. This is just a matter of  numerical reality and common sense. Nowadays, when I put I put up a new title on Smashwords, it is off the charts (relegated to page 5 or greater) in a few hours. Back when Smashwords was just starting out, a newly published e-book would stay visible (in the first several pages of listings) for a few days.

Reversing The Trend

However, all is not lost for the newbie writer, for there are several ways to beat the odds and gain a loyal following. Let’s assume for a minute that you have already found a small niche with a couple of written pieces that readers respond to in a positive way, which hopefully includes an occasional purchase or two. From here the next step will be to bring more people into your readership base.

The best way to do this is to self-publish more work, while at the same time, letting everybody know about your newest release. Currently, blogging and participating in other forms of social media, such as Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc., are the best methods to get the word out……. And hopefully along the way, something that you wrote goes viral and you become the latest internet sensation…….BUT DON’T COUNT ON IT……for slow and steady seems to be the rule of the day.

Going The Kickstarter Route

So far I have been working on the assumption that you are doing everything, like editing, proofreading, cover design and formatting, on your own. If you aren’t, good thinking because bringing talented personnel to help out with these tasks can be a big boost to the way your final product appears to the prospective buyer. It can also be a big drain on your bank account.

This is where funding sites like Kickstarter can be an essential aid to the newbie self-publisher, because by the time your first publication is ready to go live, you will be more of a publisher than a writer. However, the plus side to all of this, is that going through a public crowd sourcing site, like Kickstarter will force you to plan ahead and seek good graphic designers, formatters, proofreaders and whoever may be required to get your little literary effort looking ship-shape. And then again another big advantage, is that once your project goes live, your potential readership will grow from the ranks of those who choose to support your project. And that my friends is a win-win situation.

contrary to popular belief, self-publishing is seldom an easy ride,
Contrary to popular belief, self-publishing is seldom an easy ride.

 

 

Why Creative Writing Is Like Playing In An Empty Baseball Stadium!

During and following the recent Baltimore riots, Camden Yard, home of the Orioles, hosted several major league games, where no fans were allowed to attend
During and following the recent Baltimore riots, Camden Yard, home of the Orioles, hosted several major league games, where no fans were allowed to attend

The Event

The recent death of Freddie Gray of Baltimore sparked a series of events that evolved into something more than just an expression of civil disobedience concerning police brutality. The end result was more like a series of protests, where some of the events turned into riots, requiring a police and national guard presence. I know that the whole situation sounds bad, but I do recall as a high school student in the very same city, we received an unscheduled school holiday, when Martin Luther King was assassinated and parts of the city were embroiled in major rioting and looting. And in those days the issues were probably more elevated and intense than recent events, yet despite the seemingly uncontrolled venting of rage, change did come to the city. Even with the recent events in Baltimore, there does seem to be a pathway available to address some of the public issues.

A Bizarre Picture

However, one of the most striking (and surreal) images of the recent riots was the pictures of the Orioles baseball games, where no fans were allowed to attend because of the possibility of disruptive outbursts directly related to what was going on in the streets of Baltimore. When I first saw the pictures of the empty stadium on the news, my thoughts did not go to the street protests, but to the baseball players, who were continuing their professional game, even though no one was present in the sports arena. And it was here that I saw a situation that I could relate to…….more than any picture that emerged from the Baltimore conflict.

scene of players emerging from cornfield in the Field of Dreams movie
scene of players emerging from cornfield in the Field of Dreams movie

Later On

Currently, the games have resumed at Camden Yards and legal charges have been brought against six city police officers in regards to the death of the one person who was in police custody. I have no idea how relations between the city police and the city minorities will evolve, but I do believe that the baseball season in this city will return to normal, if it hasn’t already.

The Analogy or Why Writing Can Be Like Playing In An Empty Stadium

For those writers in the audience, especially those that are just starting out, they may often find themselves in a situation, where the only people aware of their creative activities are those, who are also in the game. This is quite normal for anybody, trying to pursue a writing career or for someone participating in any of the other arts. Perhaps, the most important point here, is that this should not affect how one plays the game. For I’m sure that on those cool days of late April and early May, when not a soul was ateending the game in person, the participants were still playing just as hard and using their athletic skills to the best of their ability. In other words the presence of an audience doesn’t matter, all that much.

Writing Really Is a Field of Dreams

Further contemplation upon this subject leads to the appreciation of one of my favorite baseball movies of all times, Field of Dreams. Not only does this film feature a wild-eyed dreamer, who wants an audience for his game, but also there is this savvy older writer, who understands the game all too well. Maybe one of the most memorial images in the movie is when Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones are watching a major league contest, while discussing the issues of the day. In other words, they know how to be part of the audience, though the their goals might be much bigger. And here is what I am trying to say, and that is as a writer (or artist) you cannot be too concerned with your audience……just concentrate on your skills as a player. That’s all you can do….the rest is up to fate.

Yankee Stadium on a busy day
Yankee Stadium on a busy day

 

 

Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.
Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison
Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant
A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

The Zen of Short Scripts

The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia
The Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos, NM is reminiscent of buildings used in the sets of western movies, image from wikipedia

Writing Features

I began writing scripts for feature length film not because I thought that it would be a good idea, but because someone else thought I had a great story for a movie. Unfortunately (or fortunately) whatever the case may be, my friend just happened to be an agent for screenplays and TV pilots. As luck would have it, he was not very successful at negotiating sales, even though he had one of his own scripts optioned and turned into a pilot. Nonetheless, I finished my first script and seeing how relatively straightforward the process was, I went ahead and put together two more. Presently, these screenplays sit in a drawer. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Some things To Consider

Will your screenplay be economical to shoot. That means no fancy special effects, no foreign locations, and the fewer scenes you have the better off you will be if and when a Hollywood executive gets to take a real look at the script. Also a smaller cast might be an advantage also. Does anyone remember The Blair Witch Project? Your concept does not have to be that bare bones, but still the remarkable and unpredictable success of this film should be noted.

Why Make A Short Film

Overall, there are many reasons why you might want to make a short film. First of all it’s cheaper. That kind of goes without saying, for making a five minute short will be a lot easier on the old budget that a feature length. On a similar note a short film does not take a lot of time to edit and involves a smaller cast and production crew. Furthermore, the short will give the director and writer more artistic freedom, so that they might undertake riskier work. Also of note, is the improving market for short films, especially with the advent of such online markets as Vevo and Youtube. And finally, if you short takes off, it could still get previewed at a high-profile film festival or even receive an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film.

The Short Film Script

Now comes the challenge of actually sitting down and writing the short script. When you do you might want to keep some of these ideas in mind. Don’t forget that a short film is usually really short, less than ten minutes with the 2 to 5 minute range being very popular, especially if are planning to put your finished product up online. Just think of a short film as the equivalent of flash fiction….that is small bite of reality that might go over well in our contemporary world of digital communications and the 30-second sound bite. And just because your little episode is short, remember that it must tell a story. This means a beginning, middle and good ending.

Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film
Old school method of using a camcorder to make a film, from wikipedia

 

 

The Storyteller’s Art (according to Jack London)

Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell......In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum
Fleeing Hobo by Norman Rockwell……In past eras an image like this would not have been too far from the reality of life on the bum

To Build a Fire

In case you don’t know who Jack London was, just go backtrack a few years to your American Lit class in any basic English course. Chances are you will come across a story about the Alaskan frontier titled, To Build a Fire. That story was written by Jack London, based on his adventures and prospecting up on the Klondike trail way back at the end of the 19th century.

To Build a Fire was first published in 1902, then released in 1908 with a slightly different plot
To Build a Fire was first published in 1902.

More London

But there was a lot more to Jack than that one short story, for the man from the West Coast was a well-rounded traveler, hobo and adventurer. Unfortunately, he was also a very accomplished drinker, for like too many great writers, alcohol consumption killed him at age 40. Still, in his short time on the planet, the author from Oakland, California left numerous novels and short story collections for readers to consume, long after he passed away in 1916. Some of Jack’s best know novels include Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf.

The Road

One of my my favorite Jack London books is his hobo memoir, called The Road. Here, he recollects his rough and tumble days of the early 1890s before he went north on the Klondike Trail in search of wealth and gold. In The Road, Jack recounts the hard times brought on by the financial crisis of 1893 and how he survived the difficult times by riding trains, begging for a meal and trying to stay clear of the police, who were always throwing bums in jail. (Jack actually landed himself in jail and fortunately he recounts his jail time in The Road.)

The Storyteller’s Art

From The Road comes this little gem of a quote. “I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tall tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.” In order words Jack often had to lie his butt off in order to keep from starving to death. Times must have been quite difficult in those days, before it became commonplace for charitable groups to provide food and shelter for those without a place to live or food to eat.

More Words of Wisdom

Incidentally, Mark Twain, who had his own share of mis-adventures and times on the street, said the same basic thing quite succinctly. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So does this mean that to be a successful story-writer, you need to drop out of school and devoid yourself of all worldly goods. Of course not, though the life of asceticism could give you some memorable life experiences to write about. Then again you don’t want to end up like Christopher McCandless, where you end up as the subject of a book (Into The Wild) rather than an author. But even in these early decades of the 21st century, there is a lot to say for taking risks both in lifestyles and written content.

Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia
Miners climbing Chilkoot Pass in 1898 on the way to the Klondike Gold Rush, from wikipedia