Tag Archives: Short Story

The Art of Writing: Brainstorming

So, you want to write your next big novel or short story. The first step (at least it is for me) is to brainstorm your story. Jot down all you can about your story. Start with the characters: the people around which the story revolves. Who is the main character? What characteristics define them? What are their goals? Is there a love interest? Do the same for him or her. Flesh them out. Once you have your characters straight, you can work on the plot of the story. What’s the conflict? What drives the tension? What is the story arc? Every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. Differentiate between such things here while you’re brainstorming. Don’t get upset if it’s still a little muddled, or even if you have more than one exclusive storyline in mind. You’ll straighten it out by the time you’re done. Brainstorming, as we were all taught in school, is just about stirring the pot of ideas. Write down everything you can think of. Every little detail. It doesn’t matter how small, nor does it even matter if it contradicts something you’ve already written down. Just get ideas on paper.

 

When are you done? Well, it depends on the length of the work in question. If it’s just a short story, you’re probably done when you have delineated the main characters and fleshed out the plotline. Then, you can start writing. If it’s a novel, you have to do the same type of work, but the details can be a little less clear. Many novelists change things or add things halfway through their work. Don’t feel boxed in because you’ve already brainstormed a path for your novel. Leave yourself some flexibility; it’s all part of the creative process.

 

Once you are done brainstorming your ideas, the next step is to outline your story. Of course, all of this is moot if you are a “pantser.” That is, a writer that writes by the seat of their pants. They kind of brainstorm as they go along. I used to be like that, but no more. Now I plot things out. Must be my old age, I guess. 🙂

 

Short Story Review: Polaris

I have a whole book of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. One of the first ones in the book is a short piece entitled “Polaris.” It comes in at only 4 pages or so. But that is all it needs. Polaris is a clever little piece about the mystery of the North Star and dreams (the entire book is a collection of dream related stories, actually).

 

It tells the story of a man living in a house by a swamp who spends a great deal of time watching Polaris. Its position fixed in the sky gives him considerable pause to ruminate and wonder about hidden meanings. To him, it seems as if the star has a message, perhaps to him, but one that has been lost in time. So, he begins to dream. He dreams of an ancient civilization 26,000 years in the past; a civilization called Lomar that flourished at an earlier time at which Polaris held a similar position in the firmament (according to astronomers, the actual position of the North Star does change, but very slowly, as a result of a wobble of the Earth’s axis. This phenomenon is called precession (I think) and it causes the apparent motion of Polaris in the sky. It takes the star approximately 26,000 years to complete one cycle and return to the same position—it’s a clever little scientific insert into the story). After some time he assumes an identity in that civilization of a craven man who possessed incredibly keen eyes. As a result, he is tasked with watching for the advance of a hostile army of creatures called Inutos: “squat, hellish yellow fiends” that have been plaguing the ancient kingdom. Atop the watchtower, the accursed narrator is bewitched by Polaris and falls asleep. Instead of keeping faithful watch, he dreams of a future time in which he is a man grown accustomed to sitting by his window in a house by a swamp to stare at the North Star. He cannot wake from this dream, and no matter how he tries to explain his predicament to those around him, they do not believe him. There is no record of a long lost civilization called Lomar; the only beings to ever dwell in these frozen wastes before are the Esquimaux: “squat, yellow creatures.” (Another name for Eskimos is Inuit, a word deliberately close to Inuto) By the end of the story, the narrator’s descent into madness is all but assured as the division between dream and reality is so obscured. Which story is the dream? And which the truth? Is the narrator a dreaming watchman who has failed his countrymen in the lone task to which he was appointed? Or is he a modern day man who has lost his grip on reality? Or … is he a modern day man who is the reincarnation of a dreaming watchman who failed his countrymen? The story does not answer these questions; it simply asks them and leaves the reader wondering and with a profound distrust of the seemingly mundane North Star.

 

The only weakness in the story that I can think of is the possible accusation of racism against Eskimos. But that seems a trifle unfair and a bit too PC for my tastes. He described the Eskimos and imagined a conflict 26,000 years in the past with an imaginary ancient civilization. In the conflict, the Eskimos are the aggressors and every culture in history has been an aggressor at one point or another. If you seek to be offended by such, you can choose to be so; but for myself, I don’t think imagining conflicts between cultures or even using the terms “squat” or “yellow” to describe someone or a group of people is necessarily racist. I can see how it can be interpreted that way, but I choose not to (then again, I’m not an Eskimo). Putting all that aside, I thought this was a great story.

 

Overall, I’ll give this short story four and a half stars out of five. Most excellent!

Literature: On The Nature Of Writing (Part I)

Perhaps, this was covered in English 101. If so, I missed the class. I thought I’d take a few minutes (or paragraphs, as the case may be) to ruminate about the various types of writing and the reasons for writing. Both for your edification and my own.

Off the top of my head, I count seven different types of writing: literary essays, philosophical essays, scientific papers, novels, short stories, poems, and other non-fiction. I think that covers the whole gamut (And to think that going into this, I was expecting to get away with just listing three—Wow! How my thoughts run away with me!). For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore literary essays, scientific papers, and other non-fiction. I’ve helped write and publish only one scientific paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a literary essay (unless you count my blog—hey, that’s probably a whole new subsection … so there are eight different types of writing, maybe). My experience in poetry is equally limited; it usually only comes to the fore in the context of my other writing. The battle-hardened warrior must solve an ancient riddle to win the prize, and, of course, the riddle is in the form of a poem. Still, I will have a couple thoughts I want to share regarding poetry. I am more experienced in writing philosophical essays, novels, and short stories: I took four of years of philosophy in college, and I have learned the literary ropes, mostly on my own (a few classes here and there, but not many).

 

Anyway, with respect to these types of writing, I have a couple thoughts. First, there seems to be three ways of looking at any kind of writing. First, one can look at it as a means of self-expression. This is a completely solitary activity. The ultimate goal of the writing need not concern another human being in any way. Such a work can be seen strictly as a piece of art; and what it means is often subject to interpretation. Another way of looking at writing is as a means of communication. The primary purpose here is not as a work made strictly for one’s own enjoyment, but rather, to make a connection with someone else; to bridge that gap between two people and share a thought. Finally, one can look at writing aesthetically, but at this point, I think I’m getting a little out of my depth. Most people claim this last facet is all subjective anyway, except maybe a few philosophers who may not be convinced. I know I can recognize bad writing in a universal sense, and I think most people agree Shakespeare had a way with words. But clearly, it is not cut and dry like a math equation.

 

Perhaps there is a technical name for these three aspects of writing—self-expression, communication, and aesthetics—but regardless I believe they provide a critical lens through which any writing can be examined, at least, superficially.

 

Anyway, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit for the day; next time, I will examine each type of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and philosophical essays) through each of these lenses. We’ll see which belongs associated most appropriately with which.

Fantasy Literature: Short Stories vs. The Novel

The art of writing a short story is distinctly different from writing a novel. There is far less “room” in a short story than a novel; you must make every word count, particularly if you are up against a tight word count. The story must be unified by a single theme or over-arching idea; there is no room for subplots and parallel memes. Depending on the genre, the notion of a twist is also quite prevalent. In fantasy literature, for example, there must be something in the story that takes it an unexpected direction, or flips our expectations upon their head. A piece of clean prose that tells a simple straightforward tale will not cut it. Nowadays, there is a requisite of something unusual, something that makes one look at the story from a clever angle.

 

One is also limited by characters and viewpoints in the short story. Generally, the writer is limited to a single viewpoint with but one protagonist and one antagonist. There might be a couple other minor characters, but they will be few in number and their roles hardly substantive.

 

A novel is an altogether different animal. While it is true, that there is usually a central theme for any great literary work, there also can be sub-themes and sub-plots and what have you. These can be developed throughout the course of the work, because there is no word-limit on a novel (although length of a novel certainly is no indicator of quality). Complex literary devices like symbolism and such can be fully employed in a novel; one has plenty of room to develop and expand upon such concepts. In the fantasy genre, the novel, like the short story, must be more than a straightforward tale. We are drawn to the unusual and the surprising. Because of its greater length, the novel has room for multiple twists, each one eliciting a pleasant burst of “ahh!” from the reader. A story of a brave knight rescuing a princess from a dragon no longer cuts it today.

 

In the fantasy novel, multiple viewpoints and plotlines have become almost standard practice. Rare is the novel with but a single protagonist these days.

 

So which one will you write? For myself, I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve written a number of short stories, with a few minor publishing successes. However, I got into writing to write novels not short stories. Short stories are great to hone your craft, to figure out the intricacies of fusing dialogue with narrative and what-have-you. And I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on short stories—I even have a number of short story ideas that will probably never come to fruition—but I have decided that I want to focus on novels. Besides, short stories don’t pay enough to support a writer. They exist to fluff the resume. And they are great for honing your craft. But, in my opinion, that is all they can do.