If you've been reading my reviews here, you know I'm a great admirer of Edgar winner G. Miki Hayden's short stories. If you haven't been reading my reviews, then shame on you. SHAME ON YOU!!
In any event, I asked a few questions and she taught a master lesson. Here is part one:
ST: I really love your Miriam Obadah stories for AHMM. I find them moving besides being good mysteries. Do you concentrate on one aspect (emotion) instead of another (puzzle) at different times as you write or do the stories just come together as the reader sees them?
GMH: Thanks so much, Steve.
I don’t concentrate on one aspect and then layer in other aspects of a story when I write. I also rarely restructure. I write and then polish. However, while I certainly think that writing everything at the same time produces a more cohesive piece, I also will suggest that students (I teach for Writer’s Digest at Writers Online Workshops) can layer in elements later on if they aren’t able to provide them in the initial draft.
The most common essentials that students will miss in their writing are emotion, setting, and point-of-view character internals.
The eliciting of emotion is definitely an important fundamental of fiction, but that’s probably the hardest thing for writers to do. So I don’t really mean that THE WRITER NEEDS TO ACTUALLY EVOKE A FEELING, as creating suspense, tension, the onset of romance, or even reader sorrow is extremely difficult. If someone can actually trigger reader feelings—wonderful—she may make a lot of money selling her manuscripts. But if she can’t, then she can at least include the mechanical representation of these sensations. We are always able to write, “His heart thudded in his chest and he thought he would faint.” That will substitute for the real thing in many instances, and a writer does need to have at least some of that to round out any story.
As for setting, I encourage students to sketch in a few specifics, but also to keep the setting alive throughout a scene. For instance, if the characters are in deep conversation in a school cafeteria, let’s hear a little bit of the noise—the crash of trays, the laughter of the kids—and maybe even see someone slide on spilt milk. But I say sketch in these details, because the setting shouldn’t take away from the dialogue. It should simply create part of the reality, the background part.
The other most-often-missing element in fiction by new writers is point-of-view character thought. And some of this can be emotional as well, so I don’t entirely separate the two. The more the writer lets the reader know what’s going on with the character, the fuller the story becomes for his audience. Of course this, too, has to be paced out, and has to be on focus for the scene and the story. As writers, we don’t want to give stream of consciousness, but we also don’t want readers to be in the dark as to what the character believes, in regard to the situation.
I said I mostly don’t restructure, but sometimes I do, and the times when I do, I restructure the opening. The opening, especially of a short story, has to be quick and offer the hook as soon as possible. Writers often feel the need to “develop” or to “set up” the story, but less here is more. We can start quickly and then come back, and through internals give more development and setup.
ST: Do you have any methods either for the generation of short story ideas or for the writing process that you can share?
GMH: Ideas are everywhere, so instead of talking about how to generate them, I’ll say that once a writer has an idea and has started a project he ought to stick with that until he’s done. Worse than not being able to come up with an idea is not being able to carry through the writing to the end. I think that’s a chronic difficulty. Trust me, no story idea is significantly better than any other. No idea is “the” idea. The treatment of the idea is what really counts.
With a short story—as opposed to a full-length manuscript—I generally prefer to have a fairly well-formed sense of what I’m writing when I sit down to do the draft. I find that thinking through the logic of the story and knowing where it’s going can make the writing process a whole lot easier.
On the other hand, not everyone works in the same way, and not every piece will proceed along the same path, either. Writers do have to learn to trust their own processes. But I’m suggesting that if someone works out the short story plot in his head before he sits down, he’ll find the writing flows more easily.
That’s harder with a novel of course. Novels are longer. I don’t say that to be facetious exactly, but people do sometimes ask what the difference is between writing a short story and writing a novel. That novels are longer is pretty much my answer as to the difference. The length of the work affects the pacing of the story arc and may even account for the proverbial “sagging middle” of the novel—the segment of the manuscript where the writer herself sags and has no idea what to do next with her characters. (The answer is—push through to the end.)
G. Miki Hayden is the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.