Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.

This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud.  There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).

I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions.  I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished.  I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them.  (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)

We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words.  Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion.  Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.

We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon.  I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait.  We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)

As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions.  “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or  Timothy was peculiar because he….”

For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.”  They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.

We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations.  These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.

I think they got it! By George, they got it!  

(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)

At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.

I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun

 

Post Script:  I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive.  One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish.  Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.

 

 

Jumpstart 2018 with Education

Face it. Those brain cells need refreshing. They’ve been hard at work on your work-in-progress, and they need a fresh focus so they can rejuvenate.

Our own G.B. Pool will appear at the Glendale Central Library with author Mike Belefer to teach a short story workshop on January 20th.  anatomy-book-cover

If you aren’t in the area, you can find Gayle’s Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook on Amazon.

Hope to see you there!

 

Gayle and Mike

 

 

The Long and Short of the Short Story

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

typewriterAfter writing my first three published short stories, something happened: Readers responded favorably to one of my characters. They liked this guy’s personality.

 

Of course a writer is supposed to craft memorable characters, but those are usually found in a novel. A writer has more room to flesh out characters in a 300-page novel, not a 25-50 page short story. But something was happening with my “Johnny Casino” character. His personality was too big to stay within 28 pages.

 

That’s when I realized I had more Johnny Casino stories in me. In fact, by the time I was finished, I had nine stories and 388 pages. That’s called a book. I had turned a one-shot story into what is basically a series.

 

But the journey was also a learning experience.

 

I wrote a batch of these stories and showed them to my agent. She liked them, but…she wanted more information about Johnny. She thought the stories needed a love interest, but I didn’t want the short stories bogged down with schmaltz. That wasn’t what I envisioned for my character. But I hadn’t written any reason why Johnny didn’t have a woman in his life, so I wrote a backstory. That’s when I learned a lot of new things about him. It was so detailed; it turned into the second story in the first collection, The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect.past-imperfect-cover-12

The backstory also gave me a different view of Johnny. He had his dark side as well as his sarcastic side. He was becoming a three-dimensional person. I started learning so much about him, more stories popped up. One was so compelling; it became the focal point of the second collection, The Johnny Casino Casebook 2 – Looking for Johnny Nobody.

bookcoverpreviewcropped

Since I had created a past for Johnny, I could write stories about him when he worked for the mob back in New Jersey when he was younger; after all, I had discovered that his father was a high ranking guy in the D’Abruzzo crime family. I could also do a story explaining how he became a private detective after he fled to California.

 

 

And here’s a heads up for all you multi-tasking short story/novel writers. The character I created who taught Johnny how to be a first class P.I. is the heroine in another mystery series I have been writing. I figured, if people like Johnny, they just might like the novel featuring Gin Caulfield. She is now in three novels, not short stories in this case.

 

The last thing I learned on this journey is that there is a different kind of short story out there. In classes I teach about The Anatomy of a Short Story I mention a short story is like an hors d’oeuvre. It consists of a few really good things served up in a small bite. Whether it’s a handful of cool characters in a terrific location involved in a catchy plot, the short story gets you to one location in the fastest way possible.

 

In contrast, a novel can take you far and wide with a cast of thousands with sub-plots and bits of interesting background stuff just for the fun of it, and the writer can use 300 to 400 pages to accomplish the task. But the short story writer has to chop out unnecessary characters, places, plot twists and trim down the description to its bare bones and do it in 10 to 25 pages, give or take. Or does he?

 

I think there is a new home for the short story. The Short Story Novel. The length of each individual story can be anywhere from 25 to 70 pages, but the main thing is to have a single set of characters, or in my case, one main character, in every story. Several characters make repeat appearances, and I mention one sub-plot in several of the earlier stories in any given collection that is resolved in a story of its own. Each story reveals more and more about my main character and the final story in Book One ends with a haunting question that will be answered in Book Two.

 

If this sounds like a television series, you betcha. I called it a “series” earlier in this blog and that is exactly how I visualize The Johnny Casino Casebook, whether it stays in book form or hits the TV screen. His stories might be in the “short story” format, but his entire life is a novel.

 

And for those of you who prefer to create something completely stand-alone in each short story you write, those individual tales can always be put into your own collection and published. I did just that in From Light TO DARK.

The Play’s the Thing – Plot is Everything - Some thoughts by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Second Chance Book CoverAnd to add one more thing to this blog, Johnny Casino isn’t the only short story character to be in a book of his own. Chance McCoy arrived this year. His first book is called Second Chance. There are more stories to come. And there is a second short story anthology called Only in Hollywood coming out next year. The book consists of various stand-alone stories, but one features a guy named Charles Miro, a former TV actor turned private eye. He works for a younger woman who owns the detective firm. There are several stories about these two coming up. You see, even a short story can magically turn itself into a book if you try.

Write on.

Only in Hollywood cover 2

 

GET YOUR STORY PUBLISHED by Miko Johnston

Have you ever tried to get a story accepted into a writing contest or juried anthology? Wouldn’t you love having a covert resource who can give you a competitive edge? If so, then read on because I am going to share with you my secrets for getting your work published.

First, some background. Several years ago, I tried to get a short story accepted into a Sisters In Crime anthology. I wrote what I thought was a good story that fit the theme and technical requirements. I ran it though a few critique groups to help me polish it. When I got the notification that the piece wasn’t accepted, it broke my heart. I made it my mission to get my work accepted into the following anthology. The result: my story “By Anonymous” made it into Last Exit To Murder, published two years later. I succeeded in more ways than one; having a story in a prestigious anthology helped me win a publishing contract for my novels.

The experience taught me that it takes a lot more than just writing a good story to get your work into a competitive publication.

I       THE MORE SPECIFIC, THE BETTER

It’s hard enough to figure out what editors will consider ‘good’ or worthy of publication, but it’s even harder when they don’t clearly define what they want. If getting published is your goal, your odds are always better with a single genre competition and a clearly defined theme. Focus on competitions with a limited scope. ‘Stories under 500 words’ is vague , but ‘Heartwarming stories about rescued animals’ is more specific.

II      READ THE SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES CAREFULLY AND BELIEVE THEM

Every contest or anthology will issue submission guidelines that contain vital information. Guidelines begin with an explanation of what the stories should contain or be about. For example, mystery anthologies generally want stories that include at least one murder or serious crime. If there is a theme, the guidelines will often state how the theme should be incorporated. Remember: the more specific the requirements, the easier it is to figure out what the editors want. Pay attention to technical information such as word count, page set-up, method of submission, and deadline for entries. Take that information seriously; consider them demands, not requests.

III     LEARN FROM THE PAST

Writing contests and anthologies are often sponsored by established organizations. Unless the sponsor is new, go back and read their previous publications. Determine what type of writing appeals to them. If everything they’ve published is dark and esoteric, your hilarious page-turner probably won’t get accepted. If the mysteries tend to be cozy, save your gruesome piece for another publication.

The sponsor’s website can provide invaluable help. Search online for any information about the selection process or editing of past competitions. I researched the Sisters In Crime L.A. website archives and located an old interview with the editors of an earlier anthology. All of them agreed that stories about previously unknown aspects of the city were more interesting than those that focused on familiar places and events. The anthology selections supported that. Which brings me to the next point:

IV      AVOID THE OBVIOUS

If the theme is U.S. landmarks, leave the most popular choices to ‘Family Feud’ and go with something less familiar. There are two reasons for this: First, many writers will select something famous like the Hollywood sign or the Statue of Liberty. Since editors may want one story based on that location there’s more competition. Or they might get bored reading story after story about the same place and reject them all. Secondly, as already stated, stories about unknown or unusual places and events appeal to editors. Think how omnipresent the White House has been in films, but we vividly remember Mt. Rushmore in “North by Northwest” or Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” because they stand out due to their uniqueness.

V       WORK IT, WORK IT, WORK IT!

Everything I’ve shared with you so far will give any writer a competitive edge. The rest is up to you, though. You have to write a unique story. Start early, as soon as the announcement comes out. Brainstorm a few possible themes and work on them until you have a strong idea for a story. Take every advantage you have. I submitted one story to that first anthology although two submissions were permitted. For the next anthology, I finished my story months in advance and decided to write another before the deadline. I’m glad I did; the first piece was rejected, but the second one made it into the anthology.

Will any of my tips guarantee your story will get published? Of course not, but I assure you it will increase your chances of success. Good luck!

 

 

Writing Short Stories: A Mini Course by Kate Thornton Part I

Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.

Today, Kate presents the first part of a mini course, in a question and answer format, on writing short fiction.




WRITING SHORT STORIES: A MINI COURSE PART I by Kate Thornton

How long is a short story?


Here are the official lengths from the Short Mystery Fiction Society (the folks who award the Derringer prizes each year)

Flash Story Up to 500 words
Short-short Story 501 to 2000 words
Mid-length Short Story 2001 to 6000 words
Longer Short Story 6001 to 15,000 words

Remember: every venue in which you wish to publish will have their own idea of what lengths they will accept.

What makes it different from a chapter of a novel?

A short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is limited to one main plot point and the cast of characters is of necessity short. It tells a complete story with a resolution or revelation of some sort at the end.

A written scene without these completing elements is a snapshot or vignette, not a short story.

You may certainly use characters, settings, chapters or scenes from your novel in a short story, but your short story must stand alone as a complete story all by itself. It must have an ending, even if you – or the reader! – do not agree with the denouement or ending.

What’s more important, setting, plot or characters?

They are all important. But while you may have the luxury of exploring settings in great detail in a novel, using multiple plot twists and turns, and an array of characters right out of Cecil B. DeMille, in a short story you must narrow your focus. The shorter your story, the more important it is to write concisely and to keep the telling of your tale simple while retaining its color, premise, style and voice.

First person? Third person? Omniscient Narrator?

Whatever works for your story. I have read beautifully-written short stories comprised entirely of dialogue. Beware when using a narration technique that you do not just dump the story on the reader by telling, not showing. Even a very short story must be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention. I like the way first person makes the reader an immediate part of the story. But I like the way third person omniscient can make the reader privy to every secret, every action as it unfolds.

I want to write a short story. Where do I get ideas?

Good – let’s try writing a short story. Ideas come from everywhere, but I find that themed contests and exercises (“Write a story based on this picture!” or “Write a story about sheep!” or “Write a story with a lemon, a goat and an alien princess in it!”) can be very good jump-starters.

Other ideas can be a childhood incident or other real-life event. Remember you are writing a piece of fiction, not a memoir, so make sure you have that old beginning, middle and end.

One of the best exercises you can do if you want to write short stories is read them. Read in the genres in which you want to write – and the ones you don’t. Read the masters: O. Henry, Saki, Sommerset Maugham, Edgar Allen Poe. Read Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson. Go here for some great classics

You will not only get ideas, you will get a feel for the short story form. You will also see how language has changed over the last hundred years or so.

Now read some contemporary shorts: Ed Hoch, Stephen King, Raymond Carver, (here’s a link to one of his, “Vitamins” in Granta) Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Chabon, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore.

Look at the differences, but more importantly, look at what is the same. Look at the “bones” of the story, the structure as well as the sheer reader’s delight of total immersion in a good story.

Now, try to write a short story of your own. Don’t hesitate – start writing now. Write until you have all three elements (beginning, middle, end.)

Tinker with that first sentence until it makes you want to read more. This is your “hook” – hook those readers up front. Remember those classic stories?

Help! I wrote a story, but…

Congratulations on writing a story – now let’s tighten it up. Every first draft of a story can use some improvement. Take your newly-finished work and put it away for a few days. Write something else in the meantime. Remember – there is no limit to what you can write.

Some time later, take it out and read it aloud. You’ll probably find a few things you need to fix right away.

Here’s how I tighten a story – I have been known to successfully reduce a rambling 2,000 word story to a succinct 500 word short-short – without losing the essence of the story. I go through it and take out all the -ly words first. Adverbs are not your friends. (Okay, maybe I leave in one or two. But what do they contribute to the story?) Next, I look at the dialogue tags – the “he said, she saids.” Do they make sense? Are they monotonous? Too colorful? Confusing?

Next, I read for extraneous phrases which do not advance the story. They may be beautifully-written pieces of deathless prose, but if they do not advance the story, out they go.

Finally, I read for pacing and continuity. Does the story unfold smoothly and at the right pace? Does stuff happen in the right order? Did I forget a name, change a hair color by mistake, forget that it was night in one part and day in the other? Do I need to change a few sentences around to make them clearer, smoother, more readable? Do I need to ditch a sentence or two entirely? And why did I name the heroine Gypsophylla when Lisa is a better fit? (Yippee for find-and-replace!)

With any luck, skill & effort, your story is now a better one.


Tune in on February 10 for the rest of the Mini Course, beginning with Marketing!