Romantic short stories: Say Something

Do you want to know how much I love short stories? There are short stories they used to have in those grade school readers that I still remember to this day. I used to be thoroughly engaged by those snippets they’d have in the standardized reading comprehension tests in school.

I know it’s not for some, but that’s purely individual taste. Some people don’t want to start getting into something just to have it end. I love the beauty of having something so complete and concentrated in a small package like that.

I’ve been asked to blog from time to time about tips on writing short stories, such as for this year’s Harlequin Mills and Boon’s New Voices Contest: Less is More — Making Every Word Count and I wrote a similar, but more detailed post upon the release of my first short, The Taming of Mei Lin: Ruby Slippered-Sisterhood: Writing Short and Not-So-Sweet

But I’ve come to realize that though there’s some good general advice there about keeping things tight, I really completely missed the mark. The closest I came to the right answer was to say the game is already won or lost in the plotting. Because making the scenes critical and layered or “neuron rich”, as I like to think of it, is good craft-wise, but it’s not really what makes a good short. A good short aims to SAY SOMETHING.

Say something bold. Add to the conversation. Do something no other short has done. Make the reader feel and think. Strive.

A memorable romantic short needs to hinge itself upon THEME more strongly than a novel. More not less. And the theme of “Love conquers all” or “Love is found in unexpected places” is but a mere a hand wave to the genre and nothing else. I like how author Sela Carsen said it in a workshop about writing short: A novel is a necklace with a string of diamonds connected. A short needs to revolve itself around one perfect center stone. And yes, on top of all that — the hero and the heroine still need to overcome and fall in love.

And I think that’s what I see missing from a lot of short stories in romance. External plot, but no theme. I think it’s a fallacy to think you can’t tell a rich, complex and engaging story in a short. That you have to get rid of detail and theme because it’s got to be all romantic storyline. In the end, this robs you of the romantic potential instead of enhancing it. In fact, theme may be equal or more important than…*gah* do I dare say?…character when constructing a short story. Or at least the characters should serve the theme.

I used to write short stories all the time as a kiddo in those little notebooks that no one got to read except for maybe Little Sis. Most of those shorts were sci-fi or speculative fiction. Some fantasy. A few whimsical slice of life sort of things. I had to learn how to craft a novel in terms of pacing and development because I was used to short little glimpses, abrupt scenes, etc.

See, it’s another game in the speculative fiction arena. You’re trying to be a little unexpected and twisty. It’s okay to establish a new world, but leave a bunch of open questions at the end, a la Twilight Zone. You can end on a punchline or a revelation.

In romance, we expect readers want a satisfying coming together of hero and heroine. They should overcome some obstacle and reach a reasonable Happily Ever After or Happy For Now conclusion. For that reason, a lot of romantic shorts I read feel like slaves to that HEA and nothing else. They’re pleasant, cute, warm, even sexy. The worse of them fall horribly flat, but even the best of them put forward a satisfying, but altogether forgettable tale. They don’t SAY ANYTHING new.

To make matters more sticky, there’s now a trend of using short stories to introduce longer series. The short serves as a gateway into the worldbuilding or the characters of this series. And that’s fine. Often these shorts are free so there’s no reason to complain, but these stories seem to give up their own potential and power even more. Again, they can be well-written, sexy, even a little interesting, as they’re meant to be, but as a reader of shorts, I’m still disappointed.

Now romantic novellas, you get some room to play so those tend to be able to follow a condensed romance novel structure and still be successful. When I’m looking specifically at shorts, it’s rare to see something sparkly emerge in less than 20, 000 words. Something that shows a true unique point-of-view as they say in Project Runway speak. 🙂

That’s why I’m so impressed with Stephanie Draven’s steamy stories in the Nocturne Bites line. (Wild, Tethered, BoundMidnight MedusaSiren Song) Her theme is that war makes men into monsters–literally. The stories make bold statements about war and about healing, and they enhance the themes with symbols from Greek mythology, modernized in a creative way. They all have steamy hero meets heroine love stories in them as well.

I loved Caitie Quinn’s sweet romantic short, “It’s In His Kiss”, because it may seem like a cute, sassy girl’s night out on the surface, but it slips effortlessly into exposing those “friends” who aren’t really your friends. It explores those nights on the town where you’re supposed to be having fun, but you feel just awkward and inept instead because you’re not having fun.

Diane Gaston’s The Unlacing of Miss Leigh, explores the theme of loneliness and the alienating nature of physical imperfection. She admits to being inspired by the Phantom of the Opera, but the tale is by no means a retelling of Phantom. On the surface, it’s two people in a classic romance set-up, but the emotions go much deeper.

Right now I’m writing a short story about a journey to the land of Khitan (later the Liao Empire), a now extinct power located to the north of Tang Dynasty China, which evolved from the Han Dynasty until the 13th century, about at the time of the rise of Genghis Khan’s empire. It’s both a coming home story and a going away story. A story about “civilized” life vs. the frontier. It’s a love story too.

I’ve read over 500 pages of historical research. I’ve polled people about horsemanship. Studied pictures and artifacts. There are descriptions of food, customs, clothing and nomadic life. There are action scenes and love scenes and hints of the little known political structure of pre-dynastic Khitan that I worry about people calling me on when I know that most likely no one will.

In the end, it has to fit into 15,000 words or less because I’m writing it for the Harlequin Historical Undone line. But I’m not really worried about writing tight and making scenes count so it’ll fit the shorter length. I’m more concerned about the story saying something.

This is why I say I got it all wrong when advising people how to write short. There seems to be a tone of “do less” in those blogs I wrote, when what I really should have said is DO MORE.

*One of my favorite short stories isn’t quite a romance in the romance genre sense of the word because it has a maudlin tone and ending without the traditional HEA. It’s by Ray Bradbury and it’s titled “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair.” It’s about memories and love that was perfect in a moment, even if that moment is gone. I can visualize each scene in the story perfectly. I can’t read it without tearing up.

I recently checked out the word count to see how many words Bradbury needed to jerk my heart strings like that. Did he write it in under 15, 000 words?

The actual word count was under 1500 words.

I am but an egg.

Inside the Critiquing Process: Feedback on opening

Yesterday I posted an opening to a manuscript. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, you can check it out here. Working title – My Fair Concubine.

To be fair, my sister read the entire manuscript before commenting on the opening. So she’s working in not just whether this scene works or not, but what can be done with it in the larger context of the entire story.

Little Sis’ critique

When Yan Ling first meets Fei Long at the tea house–can you combine this to be the same tea house/inn that Fei Long finds his sister at and kicks out? I want Yan Ling more active from the start. It’s cute that her feet are tired, but if it’s combined, then all the servers will already know the scandalous story and she can be gossiping with them (this also colors the environment more. right now a little flat overall)–so she can be a little more sympathetic to his plight, admiring of the first noble that she’s seen, admiring of his bearing and manners, ect, until he throws out that line about needing a woman (then sparks fly and she dumps tea on him–so much for all her sympathy! he’s just one of those sleazy nobles, ect).  However, when he explains the plan, she can already be partially on his side, not just because of the money, but because she sympathizes and has thought, “Well if I were Pearl, I wouldn’t throw away such an opportunity…”  Because she has been described more than once as practical–show how she is practical.

On a tangent (sorry, my mind’s not as organized), Dao has a backstory where Yan Ling does not. That also makes Dao more of an interesting character. That’s why these first opening chapters can do a lot more. As well as having Yan Ling more active, having her talk to the other servers, having more of her thoughts, and her interacting will also give you a chance to build her character and her background. Why is she so much more practical? Why is she at the tea house? Has she no family?

Jeannie’s commentary on the critique

Whenever someone gives me feedback, the comments need to garner a sense of trust before I’ll accept them. With my sister, we already have an established critiquing relationship, but even if we didn’t, there are certain things about her feedback which make me trust it.

First of all, feedback doesn’t mean that the scene I wrote is all wrong. I’m wary if someone comes in and immediately says something like “the book starts in the wrong place” or suggests that I re-write the scene without sufficient backup. Sure, rewrites like that are sometimes needed, but if the feedback shows that the commenter understands what I was trying to do with the story, rather than just rejecting my work outright, then it builds that trust.

Sis discusses Yan Ling’s character development in a way that tells me she gets what I was trying to do. At least she appreciated the cute detail with Yan Ling’s aching feet. Sometimes when I get feedback, I’m not sure whether the reader just didn’t pay attention or whether I really failed in what I tried to do. Because I’m not sure and the trust has not been established, I’m not sure whether I should fix something. Little Sis has demonstrated an understanding of my opening and what I wanted to do with the characters. She does this by echoing back specific details — I did want to highlight Yan Ling’s practical, no-nonsense nature. I wanted her opening to be sort of cute. I wanted her to show a bit of a temper, but not be completely temperamental or feisty.

Sis also points out a fundamental weakness that became more evident as the book progresses — namely that Yan Ling doesn’t have enough backstory from the beginning. We’re dropped into the story here where she’s presented as a servant and very quickly embarks upon the story adventure which takes her away from that life. Dao is another character introduced later that Sis thought was overshadowing Yan Ling in terms of having more intriguing backstory and characterization — which would be a bad thing since Yan Lin is my heroine and Dao is a secondary.

Most importantly, Sis earns my trust by giving me some very specific and usable suggestions. Instead of saying — “Include more of the five senses” or “I want to get a better sense of the tea house” or “I feel like your heroine isn’t active enough”, her suggestions about making the tea house the same location as the inn and showing Yan Ling interacting more vividly with the other servants are both changes that I could visualize and see myself executing to the story’s advantage. She also explained her thought process behind the suggestions and what purpose they would serve. So if it was the case that I didn’t like the suggestion, I could still address the underlying gaps that she’s identified. Immediately, I could see how the pacing, tension, and characterization of the first two scenes could be vastly improved by these changes.

Tomorrow: I’ll post the updated opening based on Sis’ critique.

Want Little Sis and me to critique your first 30 pages? Bid at the Brenda Novak auction and get both of us cheap. 🙂