The Good Short Story Tips and Tricks: Hook and Pacing

DSP typically plans and produces six to twelve anthologies a year with a short story word count ranging from 5k to 15k words. Technically, there is no sole right way to write a short story, but there are a lot of wrong ways. However, we’ll focus on a couple of methods used to entice your reader and get them hooked on your story for the next twenty to forty pages.

Let’s assume you know the components for proper characterization, tension, theme, POV, etc. For a good short story, you only need to place heavy emphasis on two aspects of your story; a good hook and your scenes moving at a face pace toward the climax.

The Hook

The hook is the opening line or scene to ensnare your reader. It’s a statement that makes them develop an interest in your story right off the bat. For a short story, you want them vested in your tale from the very beginning because you don’t have a lot of words to develop your character or theme. There are several easy ways to write a hook that will have your reader jump into your story; in media res, mystery, and disturbing.

In medias res means, “in the middle of the action”. Instead of starting out those teenagers having sex by the lake and then getting killed one-by-one by the psychopath in a hockey mask, you start the story with one of them running for his life while being chased by the psychopath. In my story, Malicyne’s Puzzle, the hook took place with a battle between a pirate ship and a naval frigate. Thela’s Angel started with poor Thela getting beaten to a pulp by her husband in the inn. Daughter of Darkness starts the story with the holy knight, Rhain, landing a killing blow through a demon lord’s heart in the temple of night elves dedicated to the worship of the Tri-Headed Queen.

Mystery is a very common mechanism. You start out with a profound statement or an enigma for your story. In my book, Fallen From the Stars, it opens with the following:

“Come with me.”

A gunshot rang out, followed by a woman’s scream and the world turned to utter darkness. That’s all I can remember.

Was the main character shot? What happened? Who said, “Come with me?” Readers don’t find out until Chapter 12 Bad Memories, but in a short story, you reveal the mystery of the hook usually at the climax or at the end.

Disturbing is a less common one but is great for grimdark fantasy, horror, or something in which you’re going for shock value. It makes your reader shout, “WTF did I just read?!?” and then they are compelled to read on just to figure out why you wrote that. The Disturbing method will typically contain triggers (again, for shock value).

A word of warning about using the Disturbing method – know your audience. If you’re a fantasy writer who typically writes YA epic fantasy and you want to try your hand at grimdark fantasy, your loyal fans are in for a rude awakening. Secondly, a lot of publishers have a “no graphic [anything]” rule (or rules on certain triggers in general), so don’t violate submission guidelines by writing something that will make people wonder if you’re sane or turn your editor off to you.

Pacing

After you’ve written your hook, all your scenes following should be paced as if racing toward the climax. You’re not walking or building up to the climax, you’re running to it. A perfect example of how you should pace your story is by watching the promo trailer for Dragon Age: Origins. Here’s the link (Warning: Violence and Blood):

What did you see here if this was a story? An intrepid band of adventurers on a quest in monster-infested mountains filled with ice, snow, and death. There is the brief pause by the main character, a weapon is thrown from the ice and then boom, we are running through the action building up to the climax of the sorceress Morrigan casting a powerful lightning bolt that lays low the dragon. Did you note how fast the action moved and how it flowed from one character to the next? This is how your short story should flow from one scene to the next, and then building up to the climactic battle with the dragon at the end.

Master this and you’ll sweep your reader up for an intense ride with only a few thousand words.

Happy writing!

Nip the Naysayers

It is hard enough being a writer, sending your writing out only to receive rejection letters. But what about those around you who are critical of your passion for a career that pays little, but calls to your soul? I get criticism too. Often people tell me they see it as a hobby. It is not a hobby to me. It is my life. They don’t see it that way no matter what I tell them. I want to share some tips on how to ignore them, keep writing, and maintain your sanity.

A rejection letter is harsh. When your aunt or employment counselor chides you for not becoming a lawyer or an executive, it’s even harder. They make you grind your teeth at night and develop headaches because you feel like quitting writing just so they would be quiet. Well, take heart.

Writing, like the arts, doesn’t get much love from those who don’t see it the way we would like them too. From their perspective, it’s a dalliance, a hobby–or worse–a waste of time. To those of us who are serious, getting published in magazines or books is life or death. We love seeing our byline in a publication and are bit by the itch to get the next byline or the next publishing contract. We perfect our query letters and synopses to the best of our ability.

If you do sense you are under attack, perhaps telling people you are busy writing and closing the door to your writing studio will do the trick. Be assertive, but not overly upset and they should get the hint. We can’t change them. It is a sad fact of life, but we can change the way we respond to them. It’s not fair, but life is not fair.

Another great way to get naysayers off your back? I can think of two. One, you put honest effort in… and you are, right? Two, they see you succeeding at it. Then they will look forward to seeing your next published book or that article in the magazine you were dreaming of seeing yourself published in.

Never take the chiding or ridicule seriously. Maybe they are secretly jealous of you, seeing you reading your draft of your writing project, looking like you are not spending your time more responsibly and wishing they had the time to do what you are doing. It’s them, not you. Treat this the way you would if you got a rejection letter. File it away and keep writing. Keep writing because you are not writing for them; you are writing for you, the editors, your readers.

That’s what matters. Own it and be responsible for it. Getting angry is giving them another reason to harass you for not following your heart and work instead on an oil rig- -anything that makes “actual money!” See it from their perspective. If you follow all these suggestions, you may persuade them to see yours. They may even offer help or suggestions.

Good luck!

 

The Great Debate: FanFic

Fan Fiction. Where do you stand on the big debate? I am personally neutral on the matter, as I see the arguments to both sides, but I’m still curious. How do other writers feel about fan fiction?

By its very definition, fan fiction, or fanfic, is a written genre where canonical elements such as characters, settings, plot lines, or specific scenes from already published works are then used to create new fiction. Given this piggybacking nature of the genre, the whole concept of fanfic has stirred a great debate amongst authors, publishers, and readers as to whether or not fanfic is blatant plagiarism or a form of inspiration on which to build new work? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

On one side of the debate, there are those who are absolutely against it. And perhaps one of the biggest arguments against fanfic is that many see it as plagiarism. Most people who argue against allowing fanfic to be a thing, see it a direct rip-off of work that has already been published. There are plenty of authors, such as George R. R. Martin, who greatly despise fanfic. And I’m sure we can all see that argument, why write about someone else’s characters when you can just create your own? 

Another argument against fanfic is that it’s all just sexualized trash based off different ships. For anyone who may have forayed into a fandom to check out some fanfic, you know what I’m talking about. If you were to google Harry Potterfanfic right now, I guarantee you that 90% of it will be Harry getting it on with Ron, Harry and Hermione, Draco and Hermione, or Harry and Draco. Either way, a lot of fanfic does seem to go the way of the ships – whether they make sense or not (Adam Taurus and Blake Belladonna anyone?).

But there is a counter argument in favor of fanfic. Mostly, some people see it as a stepping stone to other, more authentic works of fiction. The best example of this in our modern day is 50 Shades of Grey. What started off as Twilightfanfic ended up taking on a life of its own. And regardless of how you feel about the series, there is no denying the massive success it experienced once the characters morphed into Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

With that in mind, there are plenty of fanfic writers who would argue that its simply an exercise in aspiring writers to practice their development of original writing. Writers all have to start somewhere, so by using fanfic as a sort of memetic exercise, one could argue that fanfic writing allows aspiring writers the chance to better understand how to construct a work of fiction, by essentially rearranging a favorite work of theirs. This time of response shows fanfic in a more approachable light as it establishes writing not as the focus of a perfect, finished product, but rather as a process. 

So, with that in mind, the great debate continues. What do you guys as both writers and readers think? Are you in favor of fanfic? Are you against it? Or are you like me and pretty neutral on the whole thing? 

Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

See where I’m going with this? When you stop writing for the masses and write for yourself, you will be free to create the purest form of your story – and that version always manages to find its intended audience, whether large or small.

Interview with Author K.N. Nguyen

Dragon Soul Press had the pleasure of interviewing Author K.N. Nguyen!


Do you believe in writer’s block?

When I first started writing, I did. I first started writing my novel back in high school. I would work on it off and on throughout the years, always unsatisfied with where it was going, and shelving it for years at a time. I blamed writer’s block as the reason why I couldn’t complete the story. The plot and character development would always fizzle out, leaving me with a story that wouldn’t reveal itself to me. In May 2015, I picked up writing again and vowed to stick to it. It took two years, but I managed to finally complete my original idea that I started back in high school.

I think that I was able to complete my book for two reasons: 1) I was disciplined and actually made myself sit down and write every day, and 2) I started looking for mentors to help me stay on track. One of my mentors is my brother-in-law. We worked together to hold each other accountable and provide feedback. Another person who I would consider as a mentor, although I’m not sure if he would consider me a mentee, is another author. The second mentor is a published author who has always held himself open to me and provided advice to my questions. He’s helped me see that writer’s block is not what we think it is. In reality, it’s a mixture of different problems that have been dubbed “writer’s block”. Once I was able to see that it was all in my head, writing has become easier and less of a struggle.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?

I do read my reviews. How I deal with them depends on what stage my piece is in. When I get feedback from beta readers, I take it with a grain of salt and look to see if there is a common theme to the comments that I receive. If I notice that there’s several people asking questions or noting confusion or distaste about a particular section, I look to see if I can polish it further. This has led to me strengthening my characters or scene. As an author, sometimes you are cursed with inside perspective and don’t realize that a passage is unclear or a character is flawed because in your head they are perfect. I’ve had to strip down my babies a number of times until they reached their final form.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

I don’t try to hide secrets, but I do try and like to have a good surprise.

What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?

If I could function without sleep, I would use that extra time to write. I’ve recently experienced a big change in my life and I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like. Between this and my daytime job, I find myself missing my quiet moments to myself where I could go on an adventure in one of my stories.

What is your favorite childhood book?

Oh, this is a difficult one. I would probably say that The Chronicles of Narnia as a whole would be my favorite. That series heavily influenced my earlier writing style.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Finding a way to tie in my various deities to my series without overwhelming the reader. My first series is influenced by Mediterranean mythology and has a number of gods. Unlike the Romans and Greeks, I don’t have the luxury of the world knowing about my gods and so I have to be very careful in the way I incorporate them into my story.

How many hours a day do you write?

I used to write up to two hours or three thousand words a day, but things have fallen on the back-burner a bit. I hope to resume my usual routine shortly.

Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

I don’t know if I would consider it a spiritual practice. I use it more as a therapeutic one. When I picked up writing back in 2015, I used it as a way to decompress from work. I had a horrible habit of taking my work home with me and letting the stress build up. Once I started writing, I found that I was less stressed because I was able to separate my working world and my personal one.

What does literary success look like to you?

This is a good question. To me, it’s finishing a project. It took me seventeen years to finish my debut novel, and I barely did that. As I worked on the book, I found that my universe began to expand and I could see other stories that were waiting to be told. I never thought I would get to that point, and so to have all of these other worlds open up to me is amazing.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have one book (the second in my Fallen series) which is scheduled for release next year. I also have a novella and a couple short stories that I need to finish up in the next year. I’m glad you didn’t ask about how many unfinished story ideas because that would be about ten.

Where can readers learn more about you?

I have two Facebook pages, one for my personal author page and one for my writer’s group page. I also have a page for DragonScript where I attempt to blog and provide updates about all of the writers that have been involved in our anthologies.