Tag: novels

Video Saturday: Short Stories versus Novels – Michael Levin

Considering one of the last meetings of the Cat Vacuuming Society Writers Group of Northern Virginia there was a big discussion about our writing preferences: long-form versus short-form, I thought Michael Levin’s quick video about “Short Story vs. Novel – What’s the Difference” might be one answer.

He focuses on definitions and what is included in each rather than writer-preferences and how to work to change what you do to be more inclusive. The description of the video:

What’s the difference between a short story and a novel? My 10th grade English teacher, Miss Harte, provided definitions that make the difference clear. Discover what Miss Harte told her class back in 1974 (we had big hair back then!)…with New York Times best selling author, Shark Tank contestant, leading ghostwriter (www.BusinessGhost.com), and America’s writing teacher Michael Levin, because “Books Are My Babies.”

So what do you think?  Do you agree with Michael? What do you think is the difference and which do you prefer to write? Short stories or novels? Why do you think that is?


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The Disability Challenge: Getting a Disabled Character in Your Story

Day Al Mohamed reports that Portraying Disabilities in Fiction is one of Unleaded’s most popular posts and thought we should readdress it.  But, though she’s advocate of seeing it fiction more, she also has trouble getting it into her fiction enough.  The critique group speculated that it’s probably because there are virtually no examples of disabled characters in fiction, except when it’s a story about the disability.  I can count on one hand the number of stories that involved disabled characters and still have lots of fingers left over — and that’s decades of reading.

So I thought that we ought to do a challenge.  Your mission, should you decide to accept it …

… is to get a disabled character into your story.  And it’s not going to be a Mission: Impossible — it won’t even be hard as you think it will be.

Here are the requirements:

1.  Look through your story and see what character you can turn into a disabled character.  The character does not need to be a major character  — though you get bonus points if you are able to do that.  The point is to get a disabled character visible in your story.

2.  The character must interact with your main character, with dialogue and standard characterization.  Remember here, they’re still a person, and they can hate cooking, like kittens, get annoyed at bad customer service, or whatever.  Have some fun with this part.

3.  Mention the disability three ways, all different.  We’re not looking for a conversation about the disability, but rather, how it the disability affects the scene.

Example:  A young woman with a walker (1 & 3a) works her way up to the main entrance of her building.  The main character, who is a coworker, falls in beside her, and they have a conversation about the strange way another person is acting(2).  The walker makes a scraping sound on the sidewalk (3b).  They get to the entrance, and one of the front desk guards holds open the door (3c).

So get to work and add your character.  Come back and tell us how it turned out.

[Disclaimer: I’m in Odyssey all January and part of February. I wrote this in December so I could have a post and not have it interfere with the work I’m doing.  I may be a little slow to respond to comments.]

What to put in the stocking this Christmas for a fiction writer

Blue Cover showing silhouette of a princess holding a lizard.First up, I get to share some news with you. My short story, “Six Bullets” was recently released in the anthology A Princess, A Boatman, and a Lizard.  My story is about a princess who enlists in the military and then must make a deadly trip on a river to save the kingdom — with only six bullets and an army after her.

Since I have a Nook, here’s the link to Barnes and Noble for the book.  Ebook only right now, but a paperback version will be coming out probably later this month.

Onto the the topic of the post …

This year, I’ve had the challenge of looking for a writing book that would be appropriate for a 12-year old.  My niece is interested in writing, so I wanted to get her a book that would be educational on writing, fun, and yet not too focused on rules.  I wanted to eyeball them in the bookstore, but even the bigger Barnes and Noble really doesn’t have much in the writing department.  I started using 1-star reviews on Amazon to help me find what might be right for her.

Something like a book on writing is a very personal thing because all our creativity works differently.  For example, Story Engineering was all the rage among writers for a while, and I hated the book.  On the other hand, I’ve found more unusual things helpful, like Organizing For Your Brain Type, and most writers are going, “Huh?”

Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary.  This is a great dictionary that is divided up into categories such as Fashion and has pictures and names of objects associated with it.  So if you’re having trouble remembering what something is called, you can use the subject to find it.  Particularly good for those of us who have trouble with those things called details.

*** Looks up the name of a man’s shoe for my story. ***

Subject Specific dictionary.  If you know the subjects the writer likes to write in, you may be able to find a dictionary just covering that topic.  There’s a lot of them available.  Just make sure you screen them for source validity.

I was surprised to find a lack of dictionaries that were available as ebooks though.  Shame on you guys.

Medieval Weapons Push pins:   I suppose these could be used like a voodoo doll. Stick a random pin into a doll and come up with an action scene for a story.

Bulletproof Body Armor Clipboard:    For those exciting scenes where the story leaps from the page.

Togs for writing: One of the most important things about writing is being comfortable, and sometimes having clothing that nurtures the creativity.  Here are some really colorful t-shirts that look like they would be fun to write in.

All else fails: The gift card.  You can get one at your local Staples or Office Depot for office supplies, or Writer’s Digest for a book selection.

What would you want on your gift list?

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Video Saturday – Maeve Binchy’s Advice to Writers

This weekend I wanted to have another woman writer and was surprised at how hard it is to find videos of women authors, particularly those who write speculative fiction.  However, for this week’s Video Saturday we have Maeve Binchy.  Maeve Binchy is an Irish novelist, newspaper columnist and speaker. Many of her novels are set in Ireland, dealing with the tensions between urban and rural life, the contrasts between England and Ireland, and the dramatic changes in Ireland between World War II and the present day. She’s best known for her novel Circle of Friends (1990) which was made into a 1995 Hollywood movie starring Chris O’Donnell and Minnie Driver.  And since the videos are so short, I thought I’d include two.

Maeve Binchy’s Advice to Writers

Maeve Binchy on Short Stories vs. Novels

Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy Kills Girl’s Parents or Complexity in Stories

Note from Day:  The post below is actually a reprint/repost (with permission) from the site of author and editor Robb Grindstaff.  His post about “Complexity” is a great  follow-up to some of the discussion this week on Unleaded – Fuel for Witers about novels and short stories.  Other than length, one of the differences between a short story and a novel, generally speaking, is that a novel gives the write more place for increased depth and complexity.  (And right now I can imagine all the comments that’ll be posted highlighting complex short stories, but as I said, GENERALLY SPEAKING, that’s a major diffrence).  So, how does one add that complexity?  How do you add those additional layers to a story to move it to a novel? 

From Robb Grindstaff, Book Editor:


First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex Robb Grindstaff Headshotand just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge [either here or at RobbGrindstaff.com] . The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me). And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’ Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well.

Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot. Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.  Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past)…The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women. So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer. To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share. This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life. The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story? Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time. I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

– The Group protagonist

– Two or more timeframes

– The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

– The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction. I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.


Another Note from Day:  You can comment below or on Robb’s original post.  Make sure you check out his website and blog.  Thanks for sharing!



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WWW: That Attractive Quagmire

If you haven’t had a chance to watch the video Day posted yesterday, do it now.  I can wait.

So, Stephen King calls novels a quagmire, says that young writers get in over their heads writing them.  Know what?  Guilty.  I labored under the impression that I was a novelist for years before I started working on short stories.  It’s impossible to say where I would be as a writer if I had approached my nascent writing career differently, but I do feel like a lot of the time that I spent on those early novels, churning instead of honing, is time that could have been better spent better learning the craft.

Because you know what?  With every short story, I learn a new lesson.  A new skill, a new trick, a new aspect of how I write.  Even the bad ones give me ways to grow as a writer, and in part that’s the power of the brevity of the form.  They force you to grow and get better, to improve if you want to get your ideas expressed.  The early, let’s call them “quagmire years,” novels on the other hand provide much less of that.  There’s no market force driving them to be more concise, better with detail, better with character, because a young writer may often feel like he or she has words to burn.

Alright, that’s not me making generalizations.  That’s me actually looking at my course as I worked through my own quagmire years.  Novels were reasons to meander through stories, to not get to some points and overly belabor other points.  And in the process, perhaps my writing may have improved some, but I don’t know how many lessons I really learned as a writer in those early stages.

I’m not saying don’t write novels as a young writer.  Some writers progress at different paces, some are more immediately ready to get into long form.  But know what you’re doing, know what you’re getting into.  The more I stand back and look at novels from the perspective of short story writings, the more flaws I see in my habit of jumping straight into them without a clear battle plan in mind, without an outline, without character sketches.  These are the things holding me back from reentering the novel I was working on, and the things that I know I need to do before starting the next one.

So give short stories a try.  Revel in their length.  Enjoy how much faster they can be created, critiqued, and improved upon.  And beware of the traps and quagmires out there.

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