Short story workshop, post 6 (I think.)
Hello, workshopers. I bring you news of great joy.
You don’t have to be good at everything.
This is true even for novels. I once spent some time tallying the talents that could make you a bestseller. I grant you this study was skewed because at the time to sell at all you had to go via the gatekeepers and – by the time I came along – to be a bestseller, ditto.
Now that things are different, let’s put it this way: you can be a writer with a wide variety of following, and a mass of it, and yet only be good at an aspect of writing, like, say, characters, and be passable at the others, (off the top of my head, location, evoking a time/place and/or language) and totally drawers at another (for character writers that’s usually plot.) You can field a character so achingly alive that people will blink at the three-page climax and the way the villain folds like papier mache and say “ookay, that’s not what I expected” but they won’t in fact hold it against you. Or at least they’ll buy the next one.
Of all the talents, btw, the one I find least likely to bring you a wide following and rent money is language. Oh, sure, you say, but Bradbury. Yeah, but Bradbury was very much the exception and the literary road is littered with the corpses of those who would follow him.
However, part of Bradbury’s success is that he worked mostly in short stories. Even his novels had a certain episodic quality.
And – this is where the news of great joy come in – short stories need only one characteristic to lift them out of the ordinary and make them special. That characteristic can be a talent of yours. (I get language for free, pretty much.) Or it can be one of the elements of the story.
What I mean is if you’re good at character, in a short story you can just let your character run free (shouting whoo-hoo is optional) and not worry too much about plot (though even in a short story it’s a good idea to give it sort of a polite wave. Story is, to an extent, plot.)
And what if you have no character, no plot, and not really any language, but you have this location that fascinates you.
Look, you can do it. Given an unusual enough, interesting enough location, you can sell that story to the reader.
There are some things you need to remember, though:
-The location should be fascinating. If it’s going to carry the whole weight of the story, a location needs to do more work than “Nice place you’ve got there. Shame if a story were to happen to it.”
– It can’t be overdone and it can’t be totally unfamiliar. Yeah, okay, I bought the first mystery set in New Orleans’ Jazz scene, because it was unknown enough, but I knew it existed. However, the second didn’t impress me as well, because I already knew the location, and the second series had nothing else. Etc. I suspect some locations which are dream-aims of many people can be overdone and still sell. Hollywood, say. Or other such rich-and-famous locations.
-There has to be a problem, and, if location is your strongest appeal, it should inhere in the location. Say, you could write about Albania and their peculiar custom of making their daughters into a cross between sons and vestal virgins for the purpose of pursuing a blood feud in the absence of (living) sons. (Eh gods, and now I have a short story with that location/setup, in which the guy becomes a zombie to save his sister that fate. Ack. This I don’t need.) The problem can also be part of what the location IS, not just its customs, although those are inscrutably linked, often. For instance, I image a floating city would have different traffic and pedestrian regulations. At the same time, a floating city that loses power could make a great setting for a story, right? Or say a world where humans have to live underground because the surface is uninhabitable can be a serious issue. Serious enough that a trip to the top can be a whole story.
A good example of location story is Cold Equations. Yes, I know, most ships have more give. But suppose they didn’t. Suppose the cold equations really worked as set out. Now you see, the whole story comes from the location.
Oh, sure, he did what he could to make the characters sympathetic, particularly the girl, with the story of the cat. BUT the problem and the tension come from the location and he sold us on the location problem VERY well.
Go forth and do likewise.
Next week “An Embarrassing Little Problem.”