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.
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.
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
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.
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?
In cartoons and children's books, antagonists (aka, "the bad guys") are often cardboard caricatures of evil-doers. Thus, when Dudley Do-Right's arch enemy, Snidely Whiplash, ties Nell to a railroad track, he doesn't need complex motivation. He's the bad guy. So, he does bad stuff. Kids accept that at face value and continue watching.
Popeye's nemesis, Bluto, was also pretty simple. In his case, he wanted to win Olive Oyl for his own, so he possessed a bit more reason to oppose hero Popeye. But Bluto's obvious role was still to be the villain who provided conflict until Popeye defeated him with the aid of spinach.
Nowadays, you can still find cardboard stereotypes in stories for kids. However, authors for young adults and adults need to be a bit more sophisticated in crafting their antagonists. Real people have real lives, real motivations, actual histories that affect them and their actions. This is why writing coaches suggest that no realistic hero should be pristine and flawless, and that no believable antagonistic should embody pure evil. In fact, a really good antagonist can (probably should) believe that he is not bad and actually acting wisely. In fact, an antagonist can see himself as the smart hero of a story.
Current events provide authors with a living example of this truth. When Vladimir Putin sent military forces into the neighboring country of Ukraine, the West saw that as a clear violation of another nation's boundaries, a cheap land grab at a time when the political situation next door was confused and uncertain. The temptation in the West might be to paint Mr. P as the ruthless villain who knows he is evil, enjoys being evil, but tries to cover up that nature by posing as a normal politician. However, if you were penning current affairs as a political suspense novel, you would want to create more depth in the man. For instance, picture this scenario: you are the leader of the world's largest country. Your capital is full of bustling life. New businesses are starting there. New buildings are going up. Yet, countless citizens eke out a simple existence. Alcoholism is rampant. Many citizens' homes across the countryside still have outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.
You feel your nation should be admired, respected. Instead, journalists and tourists mock you and your accomplishments. And not just foreigners--your own citizens line up to immigrate to other countries where a better life can be had. So, you look for ways to instill national pride. Your neighboring country (which you shrewdly helped to keep under your thumb by grooming its president) suddenly slips out of your control due to public uprisings. This is no time for ethics. It's a time for action. So you seize the day and take control of a strategic portion of its territory before anyone realizes what you're up to. Even more clever, you pull the whole maneuver under the cover story of protecting locals there from some vague dangers. Instantly--as usually happens when any nation accomplishes a successful military mission--you're a hero among your citizenry. "Praise the president!" people say. "We live in a great country!" others echo. Your citizens love you. Your star rises. True, other nations pout and cry, "Foul!" But so what? They're just angry and jealous that you outfoxed them.
See the difference? Even Adolf Hitler--one of the most despised characters of the twentieth century--did not see himself as a Snidely Whiplash, going about to do evil for the sheer glee of evil. Hitler had friends. He had a girlfriend in the person of Eva Braun. His citizens adored him. They saluted him in droves. After the embarrassing defeats of World War I, wasn't he the man who was finally bringing the glory back to Germany? True, minority groups would get swept aside, and other nations did not like the process, but a powerful new Germany was rising from the ashes....
Point of view is a powerful tool. When an author can enter the head of his "bad guy" and see how even a criminal can imagine himself to be the good guy, that author is ready to paint his characters with extra depth.