My Craft of Short Fiction - by Jeff Ambrose
Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat. I can't talk about The Craft of short fiction, just as I can't talk about The Craft of fiction in general. "Craft" has to do with the skill of making things. All writers approach the making of stories in their own way. Writing might be the only profession in the world in which the end -- the making of a story -- justifies the means -- how a story is made. So I can only talk about My Craft.
However, we learn from other writers. What we learn is limited, but powerful. We can't learn how to do it, but we can learn how they do it. And maybe the way they do it shows us a way into our own making of stories. That's been my experience.
So: How do I approach writing short fiction?
First, I read short fiction. I read magazines such as Asimov's Science Fiction and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I read anthologies such as The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories and The New Space Opera. I read short story collections by my favorite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, James Van Pelt, and so forth. And I'm always on the lookout for short story writers I've not read or heard of.
I read short fiction to understand form. There are two kinds of stories -- formed stories, and unformed stories. We all recognize a formed story. It has a middle, beginning, and end. The unformed story depends on the form, but it's told in an unformed way.
The best example of how these are related is Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." This story's form (or plot) is simple. A man learns his son has died in the war, he goes to a bar and gets drunk, then he goes home and commits suicide. If Hemingway had told the story that way, it would've been a formed (or plotted) story. But he didn't. In "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," he just told us the middle. He knew the form, but he gave us an unformed story.
In the early 1900's, formed fiction became the domain of genre fiction, and unformed fiction became the domain of literary fiction. But no longer. Genre writers write unformed fiction within their genre, and literary writers write formed literary fiction. Thus, I just write the stories I want to write, as I want to write them.
All this theory is essential, because . . . well, we'll get to that in a moment.
Second, I must want to write short fiction. My subconscious is the curator of a vast museum of ideas. I'm not allowed in it. All I can do is tell him what I want. So I say, "I want to write a short story, gimme ideas please," and he disappears a while and emerges with suitable short fiction ideas.
That might sound crazy, but look at it this way. Ideas are story seeds. Just as some seeds produce rose bushes and other seeds produce giant redwoods, some story ideas produce short fiction, and other story ideas produce novels. If I want to write short fiction, I need to tell my subconscious to send up those ideas.
Good short story ideas (generally) have one main character, one setting, one interior conflict, and one exterior conflict. With two or more characters, two or more settings, two or more conflicts, you move from the land of short fiction to the land of the novella or novel.
Third, I develop the idea. Like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Harlan Coben, John D. MacDonald, I'm a discovery writer. Once I have an idea, I sit down and get to work with a minimal amount of pre-writing.
When I say minimal, I mean structure. If I know how to structure an idea, I can get to work on it.
How much story structure I need varies from story to story. "Alien Camp" is based (in structure) on Ernest Hemingway's "Indian Camp." I knew my story would have three parts, just like Hemingway's. Some kids go to the alien camp, something happens, then they go home. Once I had the structure, I was good to go -- even though I knew nothing about the kids or what might happen to them when they got to the alien camp.
My story "The Boogeyman Men" loosely follows the structure of an old Harlan Ellison story called "Do-It-Yourself." I tried to write "The Boogeyman Men" several times with no luck. I knew it was a great idea, but I didn't know what to do with it. Then I read Ellison's story, and -- BAM! -- I knew how to tell the story.
Fourth, I cycle write. Since I'm a discovery writer, I know little about my characters or setting. Sometimes, if I'm having trouble starting a story, I'll grab a magazine or anthology and read different openings until I find one that might work for my story, then imitate its structure. Within two paragraphs, I'm off and running . . . until I get stuck. Then I go back to page one, reread what I have, making changes to whatever occurs to me -- word choice, sentence structure, dialogue, character motivation, description. When I get back to where I lost steam, I'm good for another few pages. I continue like this, day after day, cycling through the draft, shaping it, filling in gaps, fixing discrepancies, as I go along, until I finish.
Since the first draft is the final draft, I'm done. I believe, by and large, that rewriting short fiction is a waste of time. A short story is so small and can be told so quickly -- in just a few days, really -- there shouldn't be any gaping holes or major changes that might occur in a novel. If there are big problems, it means my skill level isn't up to the challenge yet. Since I improve by writing new stories than trying to fix broken ones, when I finish the first draft, the story is finished.
Fifth, I edit and proof. Editing is about trimming needless words and making sure the sentences say what I want them to say. As a rule, I try to cut 10% from my manuscript, if not more, but I don't live and die by it.
To help, I use Ken Rand's The 10% Solution. When I finish working through his checklist, I'm done. For an average-length short story, this takes two hours. I do a final spellcheck and grammar check (MS Word's grammar check is helps catch double words and dropped -eds and so forth), print it out, and give it to my wife to read. She marks the mistakes I missed, which I fix.
Then I'm done and off to a new project.
How much of my craft will help your craft will vary from writer to writer. In the end, you have to develop your craft. To do this, what you must do above everything else is read short stories. You can't write what you don't read.
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Jeff Ambrose has wanted to be a writer since the sixth grade. When he turned thirty-five, he decided it was either time to run for president or get serious about writing. He writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, and crime fiction. Sometimes he commits literary fiction. He lives outside of Dallas, Texas, with his wife and four children. You can find him on the web at www.writerjeffambrose.com or on Twitter: @JeffAmbrose13 or buy his stories on www.amazon.com