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SMALL BUT BEAUTIFULLY FORMED...

Today's guest is jenre, a respected reviewer and a damned fine blogger :). She used to run the blog Well Read (taking a scheduled hiatus) and nowadays is a supportive and perceptive contributor to the m/m fiction community through reviews at Reviews at Jessewave's and Three Dollar Bill Reviews, for a start. She's also to be found at her new joint blog Brief Encounters Reviews, devoted to short fiction.

Today she's talking about what works in short fiction - and doesn't! - for her as a reader.

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As some of you may know, I've recently teamed up with cdn_tam (that's Tam) to start a site which reviews m/m romance short stories.



Brief Encounters Reviews is HERE if you’re interested, and if you're not, then I apologise for the obvious promo :).

Now, I wouldn't have started the site if I didn't already have a great love of short stories. To me they are the fillers between the longer books that I read, the convenient quickies when I'm doing all the pesky stuff a Mum has to do like sit around in cold sports halls whilst my daughter does gymnastics, the late night picks when I'm not tired enough to sleep and daren't brave starting a novel in case I get sucked in and am still reading at 3am. To me a good short story has as much value as a longer novel. No wonder then that I felt that it was high time someone spread the love of shorts and dedicated a site to reviewing them.

Having said all that, I think it's wrong to say that anyone can write a short story. It's a skill and a specialised one at that. Lots of authors, who should perhaps stick to their wonderful longer novel writing skills, put out shorts, and not always successfully. Now I'm not here to offend anyone, or to claim I have all the answers. After all I'm just a lowly reader, what can I possibly know about writing? But, I do read a lot and over time have realised that there are some mistakes that authors make with stories time and time again.

So here are my personal bugbears about short stories:

1. Trying to fit too much into the short format

This is the single biggest mistake I find in short stories. The author has huge ideas, whether is plot or setting or characters and then squashes it all into less than 15,000 words. In this case something has to suffer. You can't spend thousands of words setting out an elaborate setting and then stick an unbelievable HEA onto the end. Nor can you fit in an all action plot and create complex characters at the same time. Or at least it seems not from the some of the stories I have read. The motto of a story should be to keep it simple: Enough setting for the story to be grounded in place and time; enough of the characters to give them definition and make them real. Choose a focus and a purpose for your story and stick to that, whether it's the development of character or a focus on the relationship, and don't get bogged down with incidental details.

2. Mistaking sex for emotion

Many of the short stories I read end with a fairly lengthy sex scene. Now, I'm not complaining about that, especially if the sex is well written, but what does bother me is if the author hasn't taken the time to get the emotional stuff in before the sex or, even worse, has the emotional connection tacked onto the end. Many stories are meet + instant lust + hot sex = lifelong commitment. Huh? I'm sorry but that doesn't work for me. Sex does not equate to love in my book (although I know some of you may disagree with me on that point). In these cases a HFN is perfectly acceptable. In fact most shorts, unless they deal with an already established couple or take place over a few weeks, should end with a HFN. There's nothing wrong with that and also provides scope for a follow on story at a later date :).

3. Telling us absolutely nothing pic by Doug Hyde

This one applies to stories which are either extras to a novel or a series of shorts involving the same characters. I understand the pressure that some authors feel when their fans are clamouring for more of a well loved couple. Why not then put out a nice short, showing us something of their HEA? I've no problem with that and I'm guilty myself of pestering authors for more of a favourite couple (*cough* Nic and Aidan *cough*). What really annoys me then is if the follow on story tells us nothing about the relationship other than they are happy and still having sex 2 years later. Why would I want to spend my hard earned cash on such a non-story? In order for a follow on story to work it must tell us something new about either the characters or the situation. The best stories are those which take an unresolved tension from the source book and resolves it, or which picks up on an insecurity, a jealousy or tensions within the family, or shows us a new commitment in terms of starting a family or buying a house together. In other words anything other than just a sex scene (although I'm quite happy for the sex to be included as well as the other stuff LOL). A common complaint I hear about short stories is that the reader felt that they wasted their money on something they could have had by re-reading part of the original book.



Reading back on this I realise that I do sound rather that the bossy schoolteacher I used to be before the kids came along and turned my life upside down! The purpose of this is not to judge or offend, but to show one reader's opinion on some of the things that make a short story a dud for me. I'd be interested in whether you agree with me or not. Do you find these three "bugbears" of mine the same for you? Do you think I'm being too harsh on the poor writers who labour on their short stories with love? Or do you not care because you hate short stories and never read them?





BTW, if you want some fantastic examples of short story writing at its best then pop along to Clare's website HERE where there are lots of wonderful freebie stories.





Sez a blushing Clare (and no, I didn't bribe Jenre with chocolate to say any of that...) in a mood of blatant self promotion: see the link below on Jan 01 for the follow-up story for Nic and Aidan from "Sparks Fly" :).



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AND JUST FOR FUN, A FICTION PROMPT CALL...!!

Like to stretch your writing fingers after Christmas' excesses? Take the prompt "A NEW RESOLUTION" and write something for the visitors this month. It can be anything from a flashfic 3 sentences to a drabble of 100 or so, or even more. Any genre, any theme, any rating, any character(s). Maybe ones you already love, maybe the chance to try on a new character for size.

I'm holding a FREE FICTION DAY on the 28th, so send me new fiction - links to your existing work also welcome! - to clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll post it all then :).




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Follow this month with Clare - and the goodies so far:

JAN 15: Favourite worldwide travel with cdn_tam.
JAN 16: 10 cautionary tales from ZA Maxfield! zamaxfield.
JAN 17: The business/pleasure balance of writing from libby_drew.
JAN 18: Why M/M? And who wants to know? from jordan_c_price.




JAN 08: A great new novel and sequel from mickieashling.
JAN 09: Fiction and beautiful illustrations from essayel.
JAN 10: Forthcoming menage release from lc_chase.
JAN 11: Fabulous mix of SF and erotic romance from Sloane Taylor and Robert Appleton.
JAN 12: Follow the bizarre photographic history of Wind in Hair Guy with egret17.
JAN 13: When only your family understands the joke, with charliecochrane.
JAN 14: A top 10 of gay books you should read from erastes.



JAN 01: A FREE short from me, revisiting Nic and Aidan from Sparks Fly.
JAN 01: Delicious m/m icons from luscious_words.
JAN 02: Why I want to be a Bond villain! by chrissymunder.
JAN 03: The world of inspiration between 'historical' and 'contemporary' with stevie_carroll.
JAN 04: Some fascinating Swedish proverbs from 1more_sickpuppy.
JAN 05: A round-up of a great year just gone from angelasstone.
JAN 06: The countryside and history that inspires author sandra_lindsey.
JAN 07: The challenge of trying to balance edits, with diannefox and anahcrow.


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Check up on the original post and the Guest Schedule for January HERE.

Want to join in but missed the original call? Email me at clarelondon11 AT yahoo.co.uk and I'll happily find you a space ♥

NOTE: most pictures chosen by me and credited where known, others may be used without direct permission, please contact me with any queries/concerns.

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Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
Hi Alex
I don't think there's anything wrong in not wanting to write shorts or not liking to read them either. You obviously know what works best for you (and us as readers *g*), so just carry on :).
becky_black
Jan. 19th, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)
Short stories are a weird one for me - like you say above some definitley try to cram too much into the short time, as if it was a pared down novel, and that doesn't really work. A good romance short story could maybe show an important turning point in a relationship, or show the start of the relationship with a lot of promise for the future, but it's hard to realistically get from first meeting to happy ever after in such a short time. That's hard enough in a novel! :D

Weirdly the only way I can write shorts is with established character, either my own characters, or fanfic stories. I just don't get ideas for short ones otherwise. I'm a novel and long novella gal!
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:28 pm (UTC)
Hi Becky
Sometimes I think the pared down model approach to short stories is the one that works least well for me. I'm usually left frustrated because something has to suffer as a result.

Does this mean we are going to get a short involving Greg and Karl? :)
becky_black
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
Does this mean we are going to get a short involving Greg and Karl? :)

So far I haven't had any thoughts for short ones for them. On the other hand, Adam and Zach, the guys from Higher Ground (drafted and awaiting editing) I already have loads of ideas about what they do afterwards. Often silly ones involving their families. And even ones involving them having a family of their own - something I NEVER tend of think of for my couples! But they actually discuss it in the book, so maybe it's natural my brain would follow up on that.

Of course, that story isn't even edited yet, so is a long way from any possibility of seeing the light of day and having follow up shorts to revisit the guys written! But there are ideas simmering.
josephine_myles
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:00 pm (UTC)
I love reading and writing short stories, and I have to agree with all your points above, Jenre. Some of the less successful shorts I've read recently have either tried to pack far too much plot and too many characters into them, or have just been a sex scene with no real insight into the characters (or even a series of sex scenes with little character development).

I definitely think it's possible to get from a first meeting to an HEA in a short story, but you have to be really careful what to include and what to leave to the reader's imagination. Like you say, there's nothing wrong with an HFN ending.

But when short stories are done well, they're oh-so-good! Every word can sing, and the simplicity of the focus can create real impact.
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:30 pm (UTC)
I definitely think it's possible to get from a first meeting to an HEA in a short story

Oh, I agree, I've read stories where this has been successfully done. Forcing it doesn't work though and sometimes it's better to leave us readers hanging a little than going for a totally sewn up ending.
charliecochrane
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:00 pm (UTC)
Good article - thanks for sharing your insight, especially about short stories.

BTW am in ecstacy about the Doug Hyde picture. Absolutely my favourite contemporary artist.
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks Charlie :).
I read over it again this morning and concluded that I'd been a big bossy boots and deserved to have some author take me to task :).

The shorts that I've read of yours have all been very well written. I especially liked the one in the Encore! Encore! anthology.
charliecochrane
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:48 pm (UTC)
Nah - you were expressing your opinion and more power to your elbow. I agree with you entirely on short stories; they're an art in themselves.

Big relief that you enjoyed mine. (I think All That Jazz is one of my best efforts.)
clarelondon
Jan. 19th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
Thanks Charlie for reminding me I hadn't credited that one! All sorted :).

(Just been in and added the credit, then lost all the formatting because of some careless extra keystroke, spent half an hour re-formatting...yes, it's been that kind of a week for me LOL).
cdn_tam
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:08 pm (UTC)
Brilliant Jen (and way to go on the pimping of the blog LOL). I agree with you especially on number two. I have no problem with a story ending after a first day with two guys going "I really like you, want to get together again?" The end. it has to be realistic. I can imagine in my mind that they go on to fall madly in love, get married and use a surrogate to have twins and adopt a dog. At least I'll believe that might happen. If they are running to the chapel after that first date? Not so much.

I think mysteries and fantasy/sci fi are especially hard to write well, and I can't think of that many I've read, because you do need a lot of space to flesh out a whole new world without me going "what the hell was that?" as words or concepts are tossed in and to try and make a full-fledged mystery in 40 pages is nearly impossible to make it well rounded, not just an unrealistic solution. Yes, there are a few authors that succeed in those genres and I salute them but I think they are much more difficult than a straight contemporary.

I'm not sure when I started falling in love with shorts. Maybe when I found your site. LOL I'll blame you but when I don't have a lot of time I HATE reading a long novel in 30 or 40 page increments. When I read long I like to sit and read it in one feel swoop or a couple. Taking 15 or 20 reading periods to finish a book is just annoying and makes it feel disjointed to me, so shorts allow me to read something when I know I don't have much time.

Lordy, blah blah blah. Talk talk. I should put some shorts rules into practice. :-)
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks Tam. I think the pimping was subtly done, don't you? LOL, or maybe not!

I agree that it's the stories that need the world-building such as fantasy or SF which are the hardest in a short format. The best ones are those where the world has already been established in a previous book. Having said that, it can work. For example Oilsmouth by J. Rocci was a story which worked well in a fantasy setting, as was Flame by Eden Winters. I've just read a set of 3 short story mysteries by Marshall Thornton in the Boystown anthology and they all worked really well. I must admit I was a little surprised because I would normally agree that mysteries are hard to write in a short format. Perhaps it was because they were linked by the same character. On the whole though, you are right in saying it's the contemporary romance stories which tend to work better in a short format.

I'm glad I was the reason you started reading shorts. I didn't know that! A dubious honour, maybe, but at least it led to us joining forces at the new site :).

essayel
Jan. 19th, 2011 12:24 pm (UTC)
I enjoy reading short stories in general. Amongst m/m authors I've found some gemlike stories too but your comment about over-reliance on sex is true in some cases and makes me less inclined to read shorts unless I know and already like the author's work. It's saddening to buy a story and find that it's what would be labelled PWP if it was fanfic. A well honed sex scene can be brilliant to read in context but not if that's all there is.

I am too worried to write shorts myself because of all the reasons you quote above. I guess I feel that at least if I offer a novel length freebie the reader can see I've put some effort into it even if the result is unpleasing.
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
Hi Essayel

I think there's a market for the pwp stories which are released and I have to admit, I'm guilty of sometimes seeking out and buying a short on the basis that I'm looking for something hot and steamy. It becomes a bit of a drag when most of the shorts out there end up being just an excuse for sex though. As I said, if a story wants to be just sex, then that's fine by me as long as there isn't a tacked on declaration of love at the end.
wrenboo
Jan. 19th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
Hi Jen!

There are some writers who do short very, very well, but I've found that most of the shorts I have read just didn't do it for me. As a result, I'm very selective about these, more so than novels and novellas! Maybe it's because in a longer story there is usually enough stuff that even if I don't care too much for it, I can get interested in or appreciate some aspect. Most short stories are done before I get that.

Congrats on the new site with Tam, BTW!
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the congratulations, Wren :).

I can see why you might be cautious in your short story buying especially if you're not keen on the whole. I get what you mean about a longer novel having at least something you can find as a positive when reading. You should come and visit the Brief Encounters review site occasionally and maybe we'll be able to find you some decent shorts to read :).
wrenboo
Jan. 19th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
I have Brief Encounters on Google reader, so if something catches my eye, I'll let you know!
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Yay! Thanks for following us :).
egret17
Jan. 19th, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
I think every aspiring short story writer should print your list and post it to his or her bulletin board, right by the computer. :)
jenre
Jan. 19th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Aw thanks, Chris :).
kz_snow
Jan. 20th, 2011 05:16 am (UTC)
Excellent post, Jen. I'm going to bookmark this page.

Although I usually don't gravitate to short fiction, I've read some superb stories. (One resonated so strongly with me that I still think about it to this day, and that was Jesse Sandoval's "Los Conversos" in Blind Eye's Tangle antho. I also became absorbed in Alex Beecroft's "The Wages of Sin," although it seems to be closer to novella length.)

I like the idea of giving established characters a new platform. Sooner or later, I intend to bring some of mine back for brief appearances. (Jackson Spey really needs to be reunited with his mother, for starters.) But I'm curious about your take on this point: Is it even possible to spin off of a novella, novel, or series that entailed complex world-building? I'm not sure readers unfamiliar with the original work could be brought up to speed in a short format.
jenre
Jan. 20th, 2011 07:49 am (UTC)
Hi KZ and thanks :).

Is it even possible to spin off of a novella, novel, or series that entailed complex world-building? I'm not sure readers unfamiliar with the original work could be brought up to speed in a short format.

In all honesty, a story like this is probably going to be aimed at fans of the series and so you rely on their personal knowledge of what has come before. This eliminates the need for the complex world building in the short format. I don't think, in this case, that it's possible to create an entirely stand-a-lone story where a new reader can just pick up the short and get everything they need from that. A short like that could act as a 'taster' for a novel, so that once read, the reader is intrigued enough to check out the previous books in the series.

However, I can understand how some readers may pick up a short not knowing that it's a sequel and be a little disgruntled by the fact that they can't follow what's going on.

It's a tricky one!

Anyway, I hope you do write a short about Jackson and Adin as you know how much I love them as characters :).
clarelondon
Jan. 20th, 2011 09:56 am (UTC)
as you know how much I love them as characters :).

Me too! :)
stevie_carroll
Jan. 20th, 2011 06:27 am (UTC)
I like short stories, but I find them very difficult to write for the reasons you mention. I meant to add your site to my bookmarks list when it started up, and now I shall.
jenre
Jan. 20th, 2011 07:50 am (UTC)
Thanks, Stevie :).
corneliagrey
Jan. 23rd, 2011 09:44 pm (UTC)
I am bookmarking this post and keeping it as the perfect memo of the dont's in short stories :).

I'm not good at them. The plots I can think of are always too long, and I end up trying to squash them and hack here and there to fit the word count. Sometimes I succeed, and the story is accepted, and I am forever left with the feeling of having sent out in the world something... mutilated. And other times I stop hacking and write to my heart's content, letting the thing grow into a novella. That feels good :)

Too bad all my university assessments involve short stories or short plays. I guess I just don't have the right frame of mind to think of short plots... :)
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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