Notes from Bruce Holland Roger's Talk on Short Stories

Writing Short Stories
Bruce Holland Rogers
Willamette Writers June 2012
  • Metaphors of length
    • a novel is like a house, where you can explore all the rooms, even the closets
    • a short story is intended to deliver the reader to a single effect: one specific idea or feeling. 
      • a short story invites the reader to stand outside of one the window of one room, and look in and see what is going on.
    • a short short story
      • requires the reader to kneel outside the door the peer through the keyhole.
      • it is also a story of a single effect, but... the story gains something by the effect of being so short.
  • the short short allows you to take advantage of the fact that a reader will read a page or two of almost anything.
    • so if you want to do something experimental, something demanding of the reader, then do it as a short short.
    • if you did it as a longer work, they might punt by page 3.
  • terminal pleasure. 
    • not the pleasure that kills you, the pleasure you get as you read the last words of a book.
    • if all if you have to end with is a clever pun or a small idea, then you can’t write a novel. you have to write something short.
    • conversely, if you have a terminal pleasure that is vast and life changing, then you probably can’t get there with anything less than a novel.
  • short story structure
    • google “budrys seven part story”
    • beginning
      • character in a context with a problem
        • who is this person? where is the person in space and time and socially? what is the characters problem? ideally the problem is the biggest problem this character has faced in life up until now.
    • middle
      • character trying to solve the problem and failing through most of the middle
        • if there character tries and fails just once, that’s maybe just bad luck.
        • if they try two times and fail, that’s raising the stakes: this is a serious problem
        • if they try three times and fail, the reader starts to recognize the pattern of their failures
    • end
      • fourth attempt:
        • if they are the hero: the character assesses themselves, the problem, arrive at some insight, and change the approach to solving the problem. they trying again and succeeding.
        • if they are the villain: the character tries the same approach again, and fails.
      • validation: the character succeeded, but now we need to signal to the reader that the character really did succeed, and now we’re at the end of the story: “Who was that masked man? I want to thank him.”
        • for horror: it’s the anti-validation: the villain’s hand coming up through the dirt.
  • momentum lines
    • we assume, for people and for characters, that people stay on the line they are. if suddenly they depart from that line, we want to know why.
    • tell your story by writing three scenes:
      • a scene which establishes their momentum
      • a scene which could knock someone off in life. it shouldn’t show the character being knocked off, just that it could happen to someone.
      • a scene in which the character got knocked off their line: proof of the new direction.
  • the market for short stories
    • In the past there was a market that was lucrative, diverse, and large. Then came television.
    • There are remnants of this past: digest magazines in the science fiction and horror genres. But even ten years ago, the list was longer.
    • There are still a few oddball markets: the grocery store checkout stand magazine; woman’s world(?)
      • but they are shrinking and fading
    • It’s still possible, but it involves being flexible.
    • I sell 3 short stories a month by annual subscription, delivered by email.
    • Most of the short story collections being published are by novelists, and the publisher does it mostly as a gift to the author to keep the relationship.
    • Most of the markets today are on the web. Mostly for short short stories. Some of them pay reasonably well.
    • (And I don’t think this is a sign of shortening attention span, but simply more fragmented days.)
    • Edward Hock: the last full-time short story writer. He’d have two or three stories in a given magazine, under his name as well as several pseudonyms.
    • ebooks is another new market.
    • Some of the people who subscribe want more than just to read short stories: they want to feel that they are a patron of the arts. 
    • educational publishers
      • they might want a short story to put into an educational text
      • they are increasingly putting them online
      • (they have a captive audience, so it’s one segment that is not diminishing.)
  • Questions
    • Have you looked into graphic novels as avenue?
      • It brings the added challenge of finding someone talented to work with.
      • BTW: check out Scott McCloud’s graphic novel about the history of comics.
      • It is expensive to generate and share a graphic novel.
      • You might see this happen more with the kindle fire.
    • Are you publishing on kindle? What do you do once you exhaust your list of Facebook friends?
      • If you go with a traditional publisher, they always ask: “What is your platform?”
      • Anywhere I go, anywhere I talk, I’m hopefully leaving my name as a vibration in the air that maybe people will pick up.
      • You have to build a platform no matter what. But: If you do it as an independent writer, then you’ll keep more of the money.
        • BTW: even if you lose work through piracy, you’re still getting exposure.
    • What about people who write a short story and put it up on kindle for 99 cents?
      • Why are we writing? For more than just the money. reputation, satisfaction, etc.
      • The real question: Is the work good?
      • Content is now coming at us like firehoses. How do we select which 99 cents works to read?
      • you kind of have to risk the 99 cents occasionally, and see if you like the work, and if you do, then you are finding new authors you like, and if you don’t, then 99 cents is the price you have to pay to find out.
    • What role do contests and awards play, where do you find out where they are?
      • If part of building your platform is winning awards, then which awards do you pursue to help?
      • That’s a little bit tricky. 
      • Some contests are really good, but not well known.
      • Some contests are mostly money making.
      • Sometimes looking at who is winning the contests is good.
      • Look at Poet’s and Writers: not the advertisements, but their editorial content.
      • What are the awards that have high visibility?
        • Google it: do lots of people know it and use it and discuss it?
      • “Micro Award”: did work to get it well represented on wikipedia.
    • Short short short
      • If I could get 4 subscribers I would write 1 story that year
      • If I could get 12 subscribers I would write 3 stories a year
      • Had a scheme to go all the way up to the a story a week
      • (but maxed out at 3 stories a month.)
      • Tried a gift subscription package, with a discount, as a way to get friends of friends
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