A couple of weeks ago I posted the first part of an interview with one of my favorite short story writers*. Then I lost internet service for a few days, then life got in the way, now I'm back to finish what I started. In fact, what follows is the entire interview. The first two Q&As duplicate what I posted some time ago. Enjoy:
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, 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?
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.)
ST: Your stories have been nominated for and won awards. Care to give the genesis for one or two of them?
GMH: Again, it’s not the idea, really. What makes a story successful is the execution. And believe me, too, a story can be successful and never be published, much less nominated for anything. Selling a story is the goal, but it’s not the actual hallmark of success. I just this year sold two stories I’ve been trying to sell for a number of years. I look at it as having finally found the proper markets. The stories didn’t change, but I found markets that really wanted this exact type of material. These, by the way, are stories with Middle Eastern protagonists—Moslems.
Some of the stories I’ve sold immediately, however, were stories I completely geared to a specific market with very exact requirements. In that case, I sat down and generated the idea and the story based on what the publication or anthology wanted. For instance, I did have a story nominated for a Derringer, and that story appeared in Babs Lakey’s anthology entitled DIME. Obviously she wanted something a little bit on the pulp side. What I did in writing “The Girl in Apartment 2A” was to take an idea and a character I had for a novel and turn it into a story. In this case I already had the character and her particulars and the story was sort of a prequel to what I felt would work for a novel.
I think, in other words, that writers can use short stories to test out characters they might want to write more about. Writers might also want to test a few themes that interest them, such as a period of history or a setting. Or a continuing protagonist.
But let me backtrack a little in explaining the execution side since I’ve mention that a couple of times. What I mean here is that the writer must add something to the story that makes it stand out. What will make a story rise above the rest might be the complexity of the background. Maybe the writer can charge the story up with a Wall Street setting that seems to jump from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The story is timely and adds a chilling depth of financial detail in describing a multibillion dollar, even deadly, fraud.
Or maybe the story replicates the plot of a well-known novel from another era—but in the end adds an exciting twist. Or the story may bring in rich historical detail, which is something I myself like to do. I had a story published last year that was set in 1826, during the building of Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. ...That was inspired, actually, by a visit some folks from our MWA chapter made to Sing Sing in the company of fellow member, federal Judge Andy Peck.
While I do know of some stories about the spouse buried in the back garden that then flourishes or a rival writer tricked into eating certain foods that have gone on and won prizes, this is the exception rather than the rule. Trite and tried may conquer in the end, but not usually. Generally speaking, we should attempt to present a finely etched, well-developed, different sort of story if we want to compete in a market as crowded as this one for short stories is.
ST: You also write sci-fi. Do you find there's a big difference in how you go about constructing your stories depending on the genre?
GMH: In writing science fiction, unless the setting is a known one into which I introduce changes, I probably do much less research while writing. What I’ve done with a lot of my science fiction stories, however, has been to write them as mysteries—or as crime fiction. The beauty of the mystery story is that with a high-stakes, well-focused situation, the format of the story is in some sense a given and has an automatic power. Here, instead of researching the setting, you can think one up. However, research can actually apply in science fiction in many instances. For instance, an alien species can be based on earthly reptiles or types of insects. Or the intergalactic society we write about might have as its counterpart the culture of a South American Indian tribe. Or we may need to research the latest in particle physics to find a way to explain our multiverses.
The actual construction of the story, however, will be pretty much the same in science fiction or in mystery or even in romance—plotted around a central aim of the protagonist, or a central conflict. The protagonist makes progress, is stymied, makes progress, is blocked, overcomes, and eventually wins the day. How many conflicts then depends on the length of the story. Yes, really.
ST: What short story writers--mystery or otherwise—have inspired you?
GMH: Offhand I can think of three short stories that have really inspired me. One was by Dostoevsky and it simply overwhelmed me with the reality of the character and the protagonist’s situation. The story, “White Nights,” has been adapted for the screen several times, and a new digital version—transposed to L.A.—apparently will come out some time soon. I guess I wasn’t the only one to react to the story.
Another story, and I recall neither the author nor the story’s title, was set in the not-too-distant future in which the earth is simply overcrowded with people. This story featured each of the points of view of all the roommates (several) in one small apartment. I’ve never read a short story before or since with so many protagonists or one that gave such a strong feeling of a realistic, possible future for mankind.
The third story that influenced me I remember exactly nothing about except my impression. This story ran in a major magazine, a market that paid a lot for the story. And reading that story, I understood why it had been chosen—because in the end my emotions were profoundly affected. The story delved much more deeply than most stories do. The author made more extreme choices in the details than we typically do as writers. And thus the story had real impact and was published in a significant magazine.
I’ll add my impressions of a fourth story, one by a well-thought-of mystery writer. The writing was exceptionally skilled, and the story very different. It was, in fact, written in second person, and how often is that done? However, I found the story despicable and pointless. It had no moral, ethical center, and thus was simply, to me, an exercise in inhumanity. Writing that doesn’t do something to raise us all up (even writing about crime from a psychopath’s point of view can fly the flag of the radiant)—writing that doesn’t contribute to the betterment of our common situation on this earth either through pure entertainment or illumination—is to me without purpose. We writers create as well as reflect our civilization; we thus have a responsibility. That well-paid-for, well-published story also inspired me, but in a completely different respect. Even for writers (as with physicians), the motto should be “first do no harm.”
G. Miki Hayden is the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.