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.       

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