Creating Tribal Lays -short story writing workshop.



(Get mind out of gutter. Kate left a winch around here somewhere.)


Every time I read a book on how to write, I decide I can’t do it and will never be able to do it ever. That started before I was published and it still goes on.

Worse, when I read a book about other writers’ biographies and how they wrote this and that, I think that either they’re lying or I’m a very weird sort of writing, bordering on the bizarre.

Because every time I read a book on other writers, they say something like “I decided to write my book on death machines in space because I was reading popular mechanics on how to build a fiddle-playing automaton.” Or “I wanted to write a book to express the humor of the human condition.”

Then I realize I’ve said things like “I wrote A Few Good Men because I wanted to write The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress but without a computer who controls everything.”

But that was not how the book started. The book started with Lucius in my head, and those first two paragraphs. The rest came afterwards.

But that’s not the only way I’ve got books. (It is admittedly, the most usual way.) I’ve got books that do start from “How much fun would it be to write about a diner where both the owners are shifters.” (For those of you who know this is based on Pete’s Kitchen in Denver, btw, I’ve found that the owner Pete, who has to be in his nineties because he’s older than my dad, does the managing on the shift midnight to seven am. Um…) and books that start from… well, a publisher calling and saying “Do you want to write the wives of Henry VIII.”

The problem is most writing books tell you how to start from the high concept and narrow in. That’s fine and dandy, but that’s not how some of you will work.

Some, sure, will start with high concept and zero in on the characters, sometimes by a process called “interviewing.”

And some people start as I do with the characters and then try to figure out the worldbuilding and plot that will maximize the impact of the characters.

And some people will start with a sentence or a word.

First, no matter where you start, there you are. (You can’t hit me. I’m running in zigzags.)

Second, you can get to a complete short story (or novel) no matter where you start.

It’s just the map is slightly different. If you’re the sort of people (I am) that reasoning through a story very carefully will mean you kill the story (deader than a doornail) then don’t do that.

A writing manual is not a suicide pact.

So how do you apply all this good knowledge (ah!) and wisdom (ah! Ah) to your writing if you’re not going to carefully reason through things and build your story from pieces?

Well, if you’re like me, you probably will apply it in revision. And revision is dangerous as heck when you’re young at writing. But it will come, and the more you know how to focus and the structure of a novel, the better the story will be.

If you’re like me you study the structure, and it goes in the back of your mind, and then it comes out, somehow.

If it helps, take your favorite short stories and diagram them. Identify the problem at the beginning, then the call to adventure, then the try/fail sequence, the climax, and the resolution/aftermath (which in a short can be only one sentence.)

And then, once you write a story, the plot tools will give you the ability to figure out what’s wrong, when a story goes really badly.

I’m just going to give you some avenues of exploration for the type of story you’re stuck with, when you’re trying to figure out what it is, and then we’ll go into more detail in the future. Be aware that as exhaustive as these next few lessons will get, it’s still not the whole thing, but just some avenues to wander down. If you start writing seriously, you’ll find whole paths and winding ways of your own that I never thought of.

Anyway you do it:

If you start with the character – I have a novel series, actually, where the character has been with me and driving me nuts for years, but had no background. These days, while I paint and fix storm damage on the house, I find myself figuring it out. It’s like this:

Why is the character the way he is? What would explain how he is? What happened to him/his people/his world in the past to explain THAT quirk. There is more to this. At this point, it’s a good idea to decide what is immovable about the character and what is flexible. I’ve had character that let me change their genders and characters that didn’t, for instance. And sometimes it’s the quirk. I couldn’t for instance, change the fact Lucius thinks he’s guilty of murder, though it quickly becomes clear it’s not exactly Ben’s murder, though that’s where he displaced it. His guilt is of course over the death of Jan’s older brother. He doesn’t know how, but he knows he caused it. It only clicks when he figures out what’s been going on. And when I did too. But if you’re starting at the beginning, and particularly a short story (AFGM is a novel) it’s good to figure out what is causing your character’s quirk.


If you start with the idea – what character, what plot, what circumstances will illustrate what you’re trying to prove? Man against machine? Forgiveness is the ultimate good? What?


If you start with the environment, much as starting with the character, you interrogate the environment to figure out what kind of character it would produce, and what character would be conflicted within it. (Conflict is good. Though for a short keep the conflict small.)


So, next week – From Out The Character

There’s nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays — and we mean to make you comfortable with all of them 😉

16 thoughts on “Creating Tribal Lays -short story writing workshop.

    1. “Tribal lays are sexist”
      (Waggles eyebrows, assumes Lili von Schtupp voice) I certainly hope so!

    2. *looks puzzled* Oh? I thought Him-a-laya had something to do with the latest GMO chicken, the one that’s self fertilizing. *dives for cover*

  1. Just after seeing the headline, I have to comment – How do you expect us to keep our minds out of the gutter when you keep writing these headlines? Tribal lays? Expecting something longer? I mean… you KNOW us. We’re inveterate punsters with a fair to middling ribald sense of humor.
    Next thing you know, we’ll be calling it the “down and dirty short story seminar”. Or “Stripping Away The Mysteries of Short Stories”. Or “Word Pimping For Fun and Profit.” GAH!

    (Off to read the article…)

      1. We all know she’s laughing maniacally when she writes those headlines. I shudder to think what she’s going to come up with for next week’s character post.

        1. A weak character? Sounds more like she’s going to show us how to Out our characters. Which is going to come as a shock to most of mine. Although a couple that never bothered with closets are howling with laughter over some of the others getting a sex preferance change operation.

  2. “First, no matter where you start, there you are.”

    +1 for the Buckeroo Banzai reference.

    And running in zigzags just means I need to load more carp into the trebuchet, to get a good spread pattern.

    1. It’s only a matter of time before we start launching large groups of anchovies or sardines to create a saturation effect. Or putting laser beams on the fish’s heads for smart guidance.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one that loses confidence from books that are supposed to imbue confidence. My stories usually spring from setting, but I think I’m going to give starting from character a shot. That’s where I end up having the most fun anyway.

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