Thursday, April 17, 2014

You Can Write Short Stories (Part 3)

by Rick Barry

(If you're interested in writing and selling short fiction, I suggest you begin with my first post in this series:

          Let's jump back into the exciting topic of writing short stories for publication. At this stage, you have some possible target publications in mind for your stories. You have studied them. Next, based on what you learned about the publications (magazines, journals, Sunday school papers, whatever), you have brainstormed some ideas that pump your creative juices.

          Even before typing your title into a blank document, you need to decide a few things. What genre is your story going to be? Horror? Humorous? Sci-fi? Fantasy? Western? Contemporary? You get the idea. Deciding this in advance will steer you in the creative process.

Recognize the target audience 
          Equally important is the question, "Who is my target audience?" Your short story, no matter how wonderful, cannot target everybody from pre-schoolers to senior citizens. True, some adults will read fiction geared for teens. Some junior high girls will read romances intended for adults. Still, the majority of your readers will fall into some particular segment of society. Decide up front who those people most likely will be. Your choice of publication should give guidance here.
          When I penned "Ronnie Right's Wrong Day," I targeted lower-elementary students and added humor appropriate to the age level. Clubhouse Jr. bought that piece. Could I have sold the same story to Saturday Evening Post? Not likely. The fiction I've seen in the Post aims at adult readers.
          Some years ago I volunteered to lead a critique session at a Write to Publish conference. When I asked who would like to read a few pages for us to discuss, one young lady shot her hand up.
          "Okay," I said, "but before you start, let us know who your target audience is."
          She went blank. "I have no idea who my target audience is."
          If you release an arrow without aiming at any particular target, you have an excellent chance of hitting nothing in particular. The same is true in writing. At least target one portion of society for readability and appropriate interest level. Then the editor can tell whether your work is likely to appeal to his typical readers.

Remember: this is not a novel
           A novel provides much greater opportunity for imbuing your creation with back story, with gradual character arcs that encompass an inner journey and an outer journey, detailed descriptions, etc. Short stories? Forget it. As I've stated before, short stories are the SWAT teams of literature. You jump into the situation, locate the problem, handle it, then pull back out. You're done. Short stories simply can't offer luxurious time and space to accomplish all that novels accomplish.
          A writing student once asked if he could examine a short-story manuscript I had just sold. I was happy to oblige. What he noticed is worth mentioning:
          "You didn't say anything about where these people were before the story started or how they got here. You just jumped into the action. It's almost as if this were one chapter pulled out of a whole novel."
          He was correct. With short stories, you can simply hop into the situation, present the key characters, and run with it. The implication is always that these people were alive and doing something before the reader happened along. However, you don't necessarily have to provide the history undergirding the story. In fact, you might not even need a full resolution to the problem, if you can pull it off.
          With short stories, your characters might not change as they do in a novel. I once sold a story called "Jacob's Cell." In it, teenage Jacob languishes in a dreary prison cell. His grandfather from Moscow had warned him about communists and the extent to which such cold-hearted people could hate and persecute those who sincerely love God. As the story unfolds, the reader assumes this is a historical tale that takes place in the old Soviet Union. At the end, though, Jacob rallies his strength to look out the window, and in the distance he sees a pale-green statue of a woman lifting a torch to the sky. Does Jacob change or grow in my short story? Not much. The real change I aimed for happens in the reader who suddenly realizes it's a futuristic story about the United States, not historical Russia.

Your turn! I've shared a lot of tips concerning short stories. Now I hope at least some of you will give them a try.

To be continued...

Rick Barry has freelanced hundreds of articles and short stories, had two novels published, and has more projects in the works.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Chance to Win a Copy of Gunner's Run!

Today I am guest blogging at Teens of Today and Tomorrow. For a chance to win a copy of Gunner's Run, visit the site and leave a comment through April 21. From all the comments, one person's name will be drawn to win an autographed copy.

Here's the link:

Best wishes to you!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

You Can Write Short Stories (Part 2)

by Rick Barry

Last month I introduced my topic of writing short stories for publication. If you're arriving late to the party and didn't see that post, you might want to start here:

          Jumping back into our topic, let's assume you've decided to give short stories a try. I will further assume that you now understand the futility of concocting a story that fits no publication's particular guidelines and then releasing a shotgun blast of submissions in hopes of hitting an editor who likes your creation. No, you've done some homework. You have pinpointed several publications for which you would like to write, you've read their guidelines for submissions, and you've read enough past issues to gain a feel for the material these editors like to buy. What's next?

Ideas, Ideas, Ideas
          "Where do you get your ideas?" is the #1 question people ask me about writing. My answer? "Everywhere." Ideas surround us all the time. They flow through your mind disguised as the evening news. They sometimes hide, tucked away in your childhood memories. Sometimes they sit across from you at the airport. Allow me to share a few ideas I reached out and grabbed, then molded into short stories that reaped contracts.

          One time I sat in my parked car, eating a Subway 12-incher and listening to the news on the radio. The announcer mentioned that China had announced interest in establishing a permanent base on the moon. The news item was brief, but it started me thinking. What if China really did build a moon base? Better yet, what if both the U.S. and China built moon bases, and it was possible to travel from one to the other across the lunar surface? From those humble beginnings I developed an 1800-word story I titled "Stranded." In it, a young technician from the American moon base is requested to take a moon buggy to the Chinese station to lend a hand with a computer glitch. Jettisoning protocol, my impetuous hero sets out alone. On impulse he starts hot-dogging and performing jumps over craters in the buggy, which he crashes. There he is, halfway between the two bases, with no wheels, a broken radio, and his oxygen running out... For that story, I received $400.

Contemporary YA
          Another occasion, I was in San Francisco to attend a conference. In my spare time I hopped a bus across town to visit the Pacific shoreline. On the way back, the bus ambled along Haight Street, where there was a wide selection of colorful characters to watch. As passengers got on and off, I began to think of story ideas. What if a teen guy boarded the bus and tried to impress the gorgeous girl sitting nearby with sunglasses? Could she be a movie star incognito? What if, after many attempts to get her attention, he finally started a conversation with her? The final result was an 1,800-word piece called "The Girl with Great Eyes." The twist came at the end. When the girl in the shades rose to get off the bus, she unfolded a white cane used only by the blind and tapped her way to the exit.

          I mined my personal life to write a story for a non-fiction magazine based on people's reminisces of the past. In this case, the story was 100% true. I described an event from my childhood when I decided to help my mother with the laundry. In those days, our family still used a wringer-washer. When I shoved a handful of soggy shirt into the wringer, the rollers grabbed my fingers and proceeded to pull me into it! "The Washing Machine Tried to Eat Me" sold, and so, many decades later, I finally received some cash recompense for the scar on my left palm.

          Three different stories. Three different types of inspiration. The tricky part is developing a knack for weighing the essence of an idea in your mind. Is it interesting enough that strangers would read the whole thing? Is it unique enough to rise above the ocean of submissions from other writers? Is it fresh enough to make an editor offer a contract for permission to print it?
          Not all of my submissions have been winners. Especially in the early days of writing, I've penned my share of clunkers that didn't sell. In a sense, learning how to write short stories is a little like learning how to pan for gold. The newbie might search in the wrong places. Very likely, he'll get excited and waste time with literary "fool's gold," which isn't good enough to sell.  But if he or she has the patience and the basic gift for wordsmithing, experience will yield to sales.

To be continued...

Rick Barry has freelanced hundreds of articles and short stories, had two novels published, and has more projects in the pipeline.       

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Pursue Your Goals

Rick Barry, second from left, pursuing an elusive goal.
          Would you like to achieve your goals? If so, understand this: You will never reach them unless you take steps toward them.
          Sure, that sounds simple, but so many people seem to have goals (or vague dreams) that they might possibly reach if they tried, but they don't try. They don't take take any steps that will advance them toward the prize.
         Want to write a book? Then you have start writing. Or if not actual writing, educating yourself about writing by subscribing to a writers magazine, reading blogs by authors or literary agents.
         Want to change the landscaping in your backyard? It won't happen unless you start taking steps: Setting aside a little money each paycheck. Gathering ideas for trellises, or statues, or shrubbery for when you're ready.
          A week ago I participated in yet another casting call for CBS's SURVIVOR reality show. Sure, I realize the odds are against any one individual being selected out of the thousands who apply, but each season some do get chosen. For me, such an adventure would be a blast, so I have tried out repeatedly. (Even without the cameras, without the prize money, without any fame, I would love that sort of challenge in a tropical setting.) As the show's founder, Mark Burnett, has repeatedly emphasized, you're guaranteed not to make it if you don't at least try.
          In the early part of the 20th century, evangelist Robert Jones used to repeat, "The test of your character is what it takes to stop you." I share that thought to ask you, my friend, what it takes to stop you from reaching worthwhile goals? The fact that it's nap time? That fact that it's a little chilly outside? The fact that others might laugh and tell you you're a dreamer?
          Whatever your goals, I encourage you to stop procrastinating. Get off the sofa and start taking definite steps--even if only baby steps--toward the goal of your choice. You just might surprise yourself by reaching it. But even if you don't, you will gain immense satisfaction from knowing that you sincerely tried. Plus, you will probably achieve some other feats along the way.
         Ready to start trying?