So how did February turn out for you? I am absolutely thrilled that I actually wrote a proper short story! With a beginning, a middle, and an end, clocking in at 8,413 very messy words!
It only took me . . . 2 straight weeks of work. Ha. But practice makes perfect, right?
In other news, I'm delighted to share an interview with award-winning author Lucy A. Snyder! Lucy isa prolific short story writer who has been so generous to offer her time to us, and I hope you learn as much from her sage insights as I did.
Scroll down to read the interview and get your March writing prompts!
As I say below, I am downright intimated by how much she has written, and it's not just short stories, but novels and essays and games and beyond. She is the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated and five-time (five!!!) Bram Stoker Award-winning author of 15 books and over 100 published short stories. Her most recent books are the collection Halloween Season and the forthcoming novel The Girl With the Star-Stained Soul
So read on to learn how she schedules her time, how she tackles short stories, and beyond!
1. How do you come at writing a short story versus a novel? I personally struggle to come up with ideas that are "bite size" enough for a short story. Every time I dive in, I realize I've just started writing another novel. Do you go into the two forms differently?
I certainly struggled with writing to an appropriate length when I was a beginning writer. I’d sit down to write a short story, and I’d find myself with 8,000 words and no clear end in sight. I figured out what the problem was, though: I was trying to write short stories, but I was mostly reading doorstop epics.
It’s really, really difficult to write in a form you aren’t regularly reading, whether it’s short stories or poetry or novels. Even if a person isn’t reading closely and using the fiction they consume as their personal learning texts — and that tactic can help a person learn a whole lot about writing — reading in form is the single best way to internalize structure and pacing.
Once I started deliberately reading more short fiction and paying attention to how story authors constructed their tales, writing it went a whole lot better. And through practice, I learned both how long an idea in my head might take to spin out and how to gracefully condense narratives.
At this point I’ve written enough short fiction that I can generally hit the requested word count range without too much difficulty. The upshot is that writing to a requested length is a skill most short story writers have to learn, but it’s pretty difficult to teach to someone else.
2. You've written so many short stories, as well as novels, essays, poems, and beyond. I'm intimidated, honestly--in a good way, of course. How are you so prolific? Do you have a strict schedule? A special routine that makes your creative brain wake up? I'd love to know.
I honestly don’t consider myself prolific compared to writers like Seanan McGuire or Tim Waggoner. I don’t have anything near a strict schedule. I tend to be a binge writer who focuses on writing to deadlines. I tend to work on one piece at a time and move on to the next once a draft is complete.
What I have been — and what I think has made the most difference — is strategic. A long time ago, I thought, “You know what? I don’t ever want to have to turn down a writing gig because I don’t know how to write the thing the editor wants.” So I studied a wide variety of writing; the only form I haven’t ever attempted is playwriting. I have an MA in journalism and an MFA in creative writing. Which isn’t to say that I think any specific degree is necessary to be a successful writer! But I did learn a whole lot in both my graduate programs. That said, college has become grotesquely expensive here in the U.S., and everything I learned in school I could have learned elsewhere. It just might have taken a whole lot longer. And everything about the business side of things I did learn elsewhere.
I’m a plotter rather than a discovery writer. I’ll think about a piece a whole lot before I actually sit down to write it. While I do leave room for a story to organically develop, I generally have at least a beginning and ending in mind before I start.
At this stage of my career, editors regularly invite me to contribute to anthologies and magazines, and that keeps a steady number of deadlines on my plate. I seldom find myself at odds and ends wondering what to work on next.
I also seldom have to do much rewriting once I’ve completed an initial draft. And I sell the vast majority of what I write for publication. That’s all a function of practice and experience — when I was starting out, I’d endlessly revise a story. But now, with over a hundred stories behind me, I write fewer words per day and write more slowly than some writers. I know folks whose process is to write hundreds or thousands of words every day and then carve that mass down into a finished story or novel. They might start with 250,000 words to craft an 80,000-word novel. Having to regularly scrap so much work would drive me crazy! But that’s their process, and there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s effective for them.
An important detail is that I don’t write every day. Should I? Probably! But, I don’t, and I have a viable writing career in spite of that.
So, for all the beginning writers out there who are tying themselves in knots because they just can’t get writing done every single day like all the books say they must: it’s okay. Honest. Don’t beat yourself up. As long as you are managing to get your work done, it doesn’t matter if you do it during your lunch breaks or late at night or during epic writing binges every Sunday. Learning when you can effectively write is as important as figuring out how to write, and there’s no one “right” way to do it. Try different things and do what works for you.
With regard to special routines, I do listen to specific playlists when I write. Most music with lyrics is distracting to me, so I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. Curating specific music that I only listen to when I’m writing fiction seems to help get my brain in the necessary creative mode.
3. I realize this is a broad question, but we've got hundreds of people in this Story a Month Challenge who've never written a piece of fiction before. Any words of advice to help them get started?
That is a really broad question! There are a whole lot of moving parts involved in a short story. But if someone asked me to list my top bits of advice, it would be these:
Internalize structure and pace by reading plenty of stories of the length that you’re trying to write. As I said up above, it’s really difficult to write good short fiction if you haven’t been reading it.
By the same token, if you want to write in a particular genre, make sure you’re reading current stories in that genre. There are lots of excellent magazines that offer work for free on the Internet. Nominations lists for the Shirley Jackson Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Nebula Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, etc. are all good places to start.
Make sure every sentence is earning its keep. Ideally, each sentence will be load-bearing in more than one way: a line will establish the setting and move the plot forward, for instance. Aggressively prune anything that isn’t offering crucial value to your narrative. (You might need to set a piece aside for a while and/or seek input from a workshop partner, developmental editor, or beta reader to figure out what is and isn’t load-bearing in a story.)
If in doubt, try to begin a story as close to the climax as possible. (This bit involves being a plotter rather than a discovery writer, of course.)
4. I absolutely loved "Blossoms Blackened by Dead Stars." Did anything in particular inspire that story?
I wrote the story at the request of Broken Eye Books editor Scott Gable for the anthology Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird. He specifically asked for adventure-horror stories set in space away from Earth that, obviously, fit into the Cthulhu mythos. He further requested stories that were a modern exploration of Lovecraftian themes rather than retro space opera tales.
So, all that provided a fun and challenging set of parameters! I’d recently re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and got the idea of adapting some of the concepts from that classic tale into a space adventure setting. My frustration with Hawthorne’s portrayal of his Beatrice meant I also wanted to flip some of the problematic aspects of his narrative. Speaking of problematic content: given that I was working with Lovecraftian themes, racism was going to be a potential subject, and I decided to tackle it head-on. And finally, since I’m a long-time fan of Aliens, I’d wanted to write about space marines for a while, but didn’t want the characters to fall into standard military SF tropes.
Thank you so, so much for answering my questions -- and so thoroughly too. I definitely think a huge reason I struggle with short stories is exactly as you say: I don't read enough of them.
I also love your advice about beginning a story as close to the climax as possible. That is such a great, simple way to look at what you need to accomplish and how to step in.
For those of you interested in learning more about Lucy, head to her website -- and be sure to check out her latest collection of stories and poetry, Halloween Season.
Short Story Recommendations
Remember, the best way to improve your writing is to read widely and study how others create.
Here are two stories I've recently read and loved: