Writing a Short Story Vs. a Novel

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I recently announced on my Facebook page that I’m part of an anthology releasing on April 1st. Based off UtopiaCon’s Step Write Up freak show theme, our 8 carnival setting short stories will be bound together in one book: The Peculiar Lives of Circus Freaks. (See our announcement video and join The Peculiars here.) My Donovan Circus readers will hopefully be excited to read a Ringmaster Sheffield Donovan prequel.

We’ve been plotting this since last summer, and each of us concocted our own short stories that take place in one place known as the Kipling Carnival. Each of them unique characters, each of them with a different job and problem, make up part of the carnival crew in some way. The only thing they had in common was that they all were part of the Kipling Carnival. When we set out to write our stories, however, I realized my big problem: we were writing short stories.

Now, I write regular bite-sized magazine articles, but when it comes to fiction, I’m a novelist. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote a short story, much less had it out in the world to see (I’m guessing I’d have to go all the way back to Harry Potter fan fiction at 17). Each of my books are anywhere from 70k-110k words, which means 10k sounded downright impossible. Despite having my character, setting, and outline ready in my head, I had big ideas and grand scenes that simply wouldn’t work. There was no time for fight scenes or long discussions or themes. How did I prevent myself from diving into developing full backstories for each character?

My author friend BJ Sheldon, also in the anthology, described it in a way that really opened my eyes to breaking through the short story block.

You’re writing about a situation. Not a huge overall arc spanning an entire set of problems. Just one small situation that must be explained, understood and, in one way or another, resolved (not necessarily a happily ever after, simply an ending).

Because you only have so much space to cram in a story, chances are it can’t be a big, sprawling world with tons of characters and three huge action scenes that go on for four chapters (guilty). Not everyone’s life has to be in danger, and you probably won’t be able to follow many people (if in 3rd person omniscient) because it gets jumbled up in a short time frame.

This isn’t to say you can’t cover a long span of time day/week/month-wise, but because we each only had about a 2 week timeline in each of our stories, that made it much easier for us to maintain concise plots with only a few characters with specific motivations. I knew when my story started and ended, which gave me a nice time frame to work within. We each agreed to work in a few mentions of each other’s characters, simply for reference (meaning, someone else’s lion tamer shows up in my story, or the ringmaster in my short appears in their story even if it’s just in passing). So, I had plenty of foundation. But how did I build on it without creating an entire world behind the show?

I won’t lie, it was hard squeezing my story into 10k (in fact, my first draft ended up at about 11k). Turns out there’s a delicate balance to short stories, in how much you reveal and how to make an impact in a short bit of time. It was a brand new challenge. Rather then delve into everyone’s backstories, I focused on the one person my DC readers would recognize: Sheffield Donovan. I know the guy pretty darn well, but he’s plenty mysterious in the series. There are a couple new folks that are important to my story as well, but Sheffield Donovan is the heart and soul of the whole thing (possibly as he is in the DC series).

I hope readers learn more about Sheffield, his background and history, in this short story than in any of the series’ novels. (I know I did.) My story is a quiet one. There are no fight scenes, but I hope there’s tension and uncertainty. There is no romance, but I hope there’s a sense of love and family. There is no Lucy Sullivan and the gang, but there are Easter eggs and other tidbits that are important to Sheffield’s character and his interactions with the Kipling Carnival. This short story actually opened my writing up as I forced myself to try something different. It improved my writing as I learned what parts of the story were most important, and which were fluff.

And in all honesty? It made me even more excited to eventually write the short story prequels I’d like to do with more DC characters. Much like Harry Potter’s Marauders, I’d love to eventually write a few shorts featuring the old Donovan Circus crew, with Sheffield, Lucy’s father Lenny, and others you learn about but never meet in the current series. This was great practice to not only see if I could do it, but do it well and enjoy it.

I recommend giving your short story idea a shot. Even if it never sees the light of day, it’s good practice to learning a different writing style, deciding what stays and goes if within a word count limit, and gaining a better understanding of how you work. You might surprise yourself!

In Defense of Your First Published Book

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I get together once a week with a talented mastermind group of female writers; the eight of us discuss all kinds of writing topics including marketing and business, the creative side, and encouraging one another. A few weeks ago, I brought up the question of how we felt about our first books. Specifically, if any of us would ever consider editing them over, learning from our initial mistakes as it were.

See, we tend to get better with each book, right? With every new story, with the obscene number of hours we put into learning, it’s standard for writers to grow. We develop our voice, our style, and theoretically, our team of editors and beta readers gets bigger, which is also a huge help to growth within each book. Experience and practice are key to being a better writer, after all.

It’s safe to say that my latest books have a stronger voice and style than my first book. I mean, I’d hope so, right? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m proud of Gifted, the first book I ever published, back in 2012. It went through several drafts, an editor, and multiple betas, including a bestselling author I’m lucky to call a friend. I took it seriously; every step was a learning process.  I don’t just mean with the writing either, but also with the business side of things like marketing. I understand loads more now than I did 4 years ago, but that doesn’t make me any less proud of the work I did then. I’ve come a long way, and will keep forging the path.

Some writers toy with the idea of rereleasing their first book; ideally, it’s for simple edits like typos or tightening up the writing style, rather than a rewrite of the plot or characters (so clean it up without touching the actual story). I don’t find anything wrong with this personally, but the basic view of the mastermind group was that we didn’t want to move backwards. Because I’m proud of that work, because I want to admit how far I’ve come and grown over releases, I’m okay with leaving it as is. There’s some cleanup I could do, but obviously it’s not so bad seeing as the reviews are well-starred and readers pick up the rest of the series.

So why not keep moving forward? Who’s to say my 15th book won’t put my 8th book to shame? I’ll always keep trying to grow within my stories. I’ve finally found my voice, my writing style; how can I keep pushing myself? I can try different points of view between first and third person (which I’ve tried to do with all of my books); I can test out a different genre; I could co-write or join an anthology, or any number of things to always be moving forward.

Ultimately, it’s your call to rerelease your earlier works, and I don’t think there’s any wrong answer there as every writer is different. But no matter your decision…be proud of where you began and how far you’ve come. And remember: Always Forward.

Why Writers Should Attend Conferences

I recently confessed to a serious case of writer’s burn out. You’ve totally been there, I know it. After spending some 400+ straight days working on my trilogy, I found it difficult to try my hand at a new story. But then I’d feel listless, like I was wasting time if I wasn’t writing. So instead I froze, stuck somewhere in that in-between of a new release, creativity burnout, and desperate attempts to get out of it. I started to wonder if I’d ever write again. (Drastic, but you get the idea.) All in all, it does create quite a bit of self-pity in a writer’s soul. Who are we if we aren’t writers?

Luckily, Utopia Con came at just the right time. As my 3rd year, it was, as expected, a wild week full of laughter and love. Many attendees already know each other, are already family, but they welcome newbies with open arms. This year, I was honored to be nominated for 2 Utopia Awards categories, moderate a panel on world-building and give an Idea E(x)change talk about beating the self-publishing stigma (video coming soon). I was never alone, constantly surrounded by friends and peers who both inspire and encourage. When I said goodbyes Saturday night, I struggled not to tear up because I love these people and how we are together-who I am with them. I left exhausted, my cheeks hurting from the smiles, and my brain buzzing with ideas. I couldn’t wait to get back in action, both to market the HoA trilogy and to get back to work on other stories. It was the jumpstart I needed and while I suspected it would happen like that, I’m downright relieved to be moving forward.

For me, a writing conference is important for more than a few reasons. It’s not just about the writing panels or the signing tables or showing your books off to anyone who will glance at them. There’s a camaraderie you don’t get online; it’s infectious and loud and unshakeable even a week after you’ve been home. It’s #tribelife for sure, to surround yourself with other hard-working, enthusiastic writers who are reaching for similar goals. And because of tribe vibe, it isn’t competition – we all lift as we climb (a motto I take seriously now more than ever). We share questions and goals, brainstorm on stories and marketing, ooh and ahh over covers and formatting. We are all there to be better than we currently are, and when you’re surrounded by those kinds of people, it’s hard not to be inspired and caught up in the enthusiastic stream of ideas.

Two specific parts of the week stand out for me. Both unplanned, both necessary to my writer soul. Friday night dinner with my mastermind group (incredible women writers – Mindy Ruiz, Misty Provencher, Kelly Martin, BJ Sheldon, Tia Silverthorne Bach, Amy Evans) as we talked each other off ledges, shared desserts, and laughed so hard I could barely see straight; and Saturday afternoon, as a similar group randomly came together to discuss PAs, sales and marketing. It was one of those organic things that happened by chance and became an important conversation that’s sometimes hard to have online.

And then there are the readers. Readers are why we do this; it’s sure why I write. I love giving someone an escape from reality. To hear that it happened, well, that’s something that motivates me to get my ass in chair and get back to work. I won’t go into personal details, but my friend Ginny shared an emotional story with me about reading my series (i.e. escaping from reality). She had us both tearing up and at the end, she said “Don’t ever stop writing.” It was the exact sort of thing I needed to hear, from someone who I interact with online but had never really talked to about my books. I had no idea – and it’s a moment that I know will stick with me forever. You simply don’t know how much you impact a person.

Writers should attend conferences not just to sell books. That’s important. It’s not just about networking, either – you can’t force your friendship on the biggest author in attendance. Connections need to be genuine (that word is quickly turning into my word of the year), as do you. Go in with an open mind. Be ready to share your own experiences or pitfalls. You are not alone in this. You’ll find your people, and when you do, trust in them to have your back. You’re there to learn and grow, and be open to people willing to help you. Selling books or giving talks is the cherry on top of the awesomesauce conference sundae.

I owe Utopia Con and Janet Wallace more than I can explain – because of it, I’ve found many of my closest friends and confidantes, met so many incredible and smart people (including readers, marketing people, and my HoA cover designer), and my confidence has grown in leaps and bounds from where I was 3 years ago. I can’t wait to see what the next year holds for all of us before we do it all over again.

Clockwise: me at my table; one of my favorites from the batch – ST Bende and I laughing (which is kinda how the whole weekend felt honestly); with the gorgeous #HoA cover designer (!!!) Regina Wamba; Kelly Martin!!!; with Ginny Gallagher; with Bryna Butler and Casey Bond; with BJ Sheldon; with Brittney and Ethan, who have to be my 2 best readers and fan club members 😉

What to Do After You Finish Your Series

Last weekend, I typed the final words in the last chapter of the third book in the Heroes of Arcania trilogy. I sent the draft off to my editor and betas and currently (impatiently) await their response and ways to make it even better. Books 1 and 2 are complete, uploaded for my pre-order slot and already making their way into ARC readers’ hands. The cover reveal for the entire trilogy is later this week. HoA is well on its way to being out in the world.

Truth be told, the pukey feeling never goes away. This will make books 7, 8, + 9 on my completed shelf, and despite all the positive response so far, the nerves still get to me. BUT I know in my heart that the trilogy is done and the best it can possibly be at this moment in time. That’s enough for me to know it’s ready for the world.

I’ve spent literally years with the Heroes. Nova’s story came to me 4 to 5 years ago; her first draft was completed shortly thereafter. But with my focus on Donovan Circus, Nova’s story was put in a drawer, hidden away until the time was right. And a year ago, when I finally rewrote the first draft and plotted out the rest of the trilogy, that meant a lot of time with these characters and their stories. Most of the last 365 days have been spent with Nova and Cole; when I wasn’t writing their story, I was daydreaming it, considering all the details, actions, and consequences. I have come home everyday for the last 6 months to type even just a couple hundred words; I have been in Arcania so long that it feels like home to me, too.

I was lost last week. I had a book hangover, one I couldn’t shake because I’ve spent at least four years with it. Without a trilogy to finish, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I opened up another standalone WIP, halfheartedly plucking at a few words, but I didn’t have it in me to jump to another story yet. I wasn’t ready to deal with new characters because I was afraid Arcania was still too fresh, enough that it may accidentally bleed into the wrong story.

So here’s the big question that comes after typing “The End”: What next?

And I don’t just mean the marketing that comes during and after a book release. There’s always stuff to be done there, or paperbacks to order, or conferences to attend. This isn’t what I’m talking about. Let’s go beyond the guest blog posts and ads and marketing the trilogy. For example, aside from that stuff, here’s where my brain is at:

  • Do I work on my next book? (And if so, will it be the already-35K-words-in standalone novel? Or Donovan Circus #5? Or…)
  • Do I sit on my couch and catch up on the 173 episodes of my favorite TV shows?
  • Do I read the 77+ books on my TBR pile?
  • Or do I take some time to myself to do absolutely nothing, instead focusing on naps, dog cuddles, and fruity, alcoholic drinks?

Let’s face it: I don’t have a quiet mind, and while sitting around doing nothing is fun for like, a DAY, by the next day I’m feeling guilty for wasting time or missing a possible opportunity. Sitting around might be my style for a while, but it’ll be short-lived. So yes, I can watch 3 movies on a lazy Saturday, but come Sunday, I’m itching for work in any form.

JLo and I booked a weeklong summer vacation in San Francisco, our first real vacation since going on our honeymoon over 4 years ago. I’ve got plenty of books for the flight and poolside. I’ve already agreed to leave my laptop at home (though we all know should inspiration strike, I’ve my trusted tablet/phone/journal to jot down notes) so that I don’t get sucked into work. I’m excited about vacation, even if it isn’t for another two months. I’ve timed it perfectly between the back-to-back releases and even day-job deadlines.

But I’m still feeling a little lost right now. What do you do after you finish your book/series?

The correct answer is: Whatever the hell you want.

There is no wrong answer here. Every author is different. Some can jump right into another story. Usually I can, and have, but this time feels different. Perhaps because in fun standalones, I can move on quickly; and from Donovan Circus, I always know I’ll be back. But for HoA, the story has been told and I’m not quite sure where to go from here. I know I won’t be lost forever – plot details for DC5 are already beginning to nag at me, and my standalone is fun and halfway drafted, so I know it’s only a matter of time. But I want to take my time; I want to enjoy a few nights not chained to my laptop.

But for now, for this week, or maybe even the rest of the month, my mind will take a break to soak in what’s left of Heroes of Arcania. I will read whatever book I want when I feel like it, or perhaps sketch out the first few chapters of DC5. I will catch up on my favorite TV shows or even start new ones. And eventually, I will throw myself back into writing, but as I’ve spent the last year at my keyboard, I know I’m okay taking a short break. And I hope you know that no matter what you decide to do after you finish your book/series, that it’s okay to do what you want, too. Take the time to relax between projects. I think in the long run, it helps us revive our passions for the next project, too, knowing that the previous one is completed.