C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Writing: 5 signs a short story is failing

“I don’t get that one,” my beta reader said.  

One of the stories in one of my upcoming short story collections, The Divide, did not resonate.

Then I did what I shouldn’t ever do: I explained the point of the story. Like having to explain a joke, that’s a terrible sign, isn’t it?

The beta reader nodded and said, “It’s not a big enough finish. It needs more punch.”

At first I thought all I needed to do was give the story a little tweak and a boost. I added a paragraph, thinking that would do it. Then I thought about it longer. Uh-oh.

I realized that the problem with the story went deeper than adding clarification and a punch.

Here’s why I am deleting The Divide from that collection:

1. In writing that story, I made an intellectual point but hadn’t made it matter to the reader. Intellectual points do not stand well on their own in fiction. Aim for the heart and guts, not the brain. That’s why good fiction is visceral.

2. The story is merely interesting. That’s not enough. (In fact, if someone says your story is “interesting”, bad sign!)

3. The story has a clearly stated moral rather than letting the reader think at all (another bad sign.) Readers like to connect their own dots at the end of a story.

4. The stakes weren’t high enough. Yes, bad things could happen if the protagonist didn’t complete his action undetected, but I never let the reader like the protagonist that much. When bad things happen to people we don’t know well enough, that’s just a newspaper report about a far-flung disaster, not a short story.

5. The story lacked punch because it lacked an emotional connection. This was not a plot problem. It wasn’t about what anyone was doing so much as who the characters were. Worse, this story was about one of my pet peeves. I got preachy about Gitmo. I got angry about Private Bradley Manning‘s imprisonment. I had points to make about both sides of that issue and you know what? So what? The points I made were better suited to another form of writing. Or it could work as fiction, but I didn’t hit the target I aimed for. This wasn’t A Few Good Men. This was just a lousy short story.

I’m shelving the story. (You get this blog post instead.) Maybe I’ll revisit it and sand the rough edges someday, but I doubt it. I’ll probably let that one die. All short stories can’t be gems any more than you can hit a home run every time you’re at the plate.

That’s okay. Just don’t publish fiction that doesn’t please you. That won’t please anyone.

Filed under: My fiction, self-publishing, short stories, writing tips

6 Responses

  1. Nice blog Chazz; I think your criteria on why not to publish is a nice little checklist.

  2. Rob Kennedy says:

    This is perhaps one of the trickiest area of any writers work. Knowing what is and is not good.

    I’ve written stuff which I thought no one would like and most people have. Some years ago I wrote 20 poems for a book and to be aired on the radio. All 20 were published but the one the ABC chose to air, was the one I thought was the weakest and would be the last anyone would like.

    Of course it was the one chosen to be aired, and now it’s my favorite. So it is very tricky, other people’s likes and dislike can change your perception of your own work.

    And maybe what other people think is the best barometer for your work, you are not going to buy your work. So I now copy the feeling that that one poem gave off, into most of my other works, well at least I try to.

  3. Chazz says:

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments, guys.

  4. scribbla says:

    This is important information for all writers. I think the key was that you were able to listen to your beta reader and take their points seriously. Super, super post. Thank you for it.

  5. Chazz says:

    No, thank you, Scribbla. Such a nice response reminds me why I write this blog. 🙂

  6. […] Writing: 5 signs a short story is failing (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

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