By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Writing Short Stories

On the Winning Writers Newsletter this morning appeared some great advice from author Arthur Powers in a column titled: Advice from the Judge. I think it applies equally to the memoir genre, and it is worth passing on.

Arthur Powers will judge this year's Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest sponsored by Winning Writers.

Here are Mr. Powers' thoughts on fiction entries. According to Mr. Powers, unlike real estate, it is not about place. It is not about plot either. It is about characters.

Advice From the Judge

As judge of this contest, I've been asked to provide some advice for contestants. I'm half-reluctant to do so as I don't really want to influence anyone's short story. Your story is your story, and you should write it the way you feel called to write it.

However, it's fair that you should know something about the way I think, so here goes:

I love short stories. Writing them and reading them. I believe the short story allows a writer's craft to be honed in a special way, and I enjoy seeing the different ways that different writers approach their stories.

All the rules you have ever learned about writing are important. You should know them, master them, then work around them.  People will tell you it is important to show, not tell; they are right—yet sometimes you should tell, not show. People will discuss whether to write in first or third person, from a specific or more omniscient viewpoint—all this is interesting but, in my experience, it is the story that tells the writer what viewpoint to write from, not the writer who tells the story. People (including me) will tell you never to write in the second person—yet I once wrote an entire novella in the second person and it worked (won an award and was published).

In his wonderful novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok says much the same thing about painting: "This is a tradition...Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to add to it or to rebel against it."

I tell my students that character is the most important element in fiction. You should know and love your characters. Plot is what happens when characters interact with one another or situations. This is true not only of psychological and literary stories, but of science fiction, thrillers, westerns, even mysteries (where the temptation to distort characters to fit the plot is particularly strong).

Atmosphere may also be important to a story—the way a place, a situation, and the story itself feel. Texture may be created through a few key phrases, through the words you choose.

Walter Pater said that all art strives toward music, and there is a great deal of truth in that. The rhythm of a story—pacing, timing, speed—is very important. I find it sometimes helps to think of my stories in terms of musical composition.

Avoid cliches—not only in words, but in thoughts. Try not to be too self-absorbed—take your craft seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Write what you feel called to write the best you can.  Enjoy writing—I'll enjoy reading it. Good fortune!


  1. Perhaps it's my computer, but sections of the first three paragraphs of this post and the beginning of the fourth paragraph are hidden by the photo of Mind Flight. Love Mind Flight, but can't read the paragraphs!!

  2. Not sure why this is happening but it is doing it on my computer too. Hope it fixes itself :-/

  3. OK looks like I fixed it. So empowering...thanks for the alert Anonymous.

  4. Okay, this is the second time I am writing this...but it's worth repeating: thank you for passing on the post about "characters" because it fits my experience as a reader. Often in conversation or my own little writing I find myself falling back on characters I've read about in fiction or non-fiction: Melanie from Gone with the Wind, Oscar Schindler, Eddy and his five guides from The Five People You Meet in Heaven,... Atticus and Mrs. Dubose and Boo from Mockingbird. All of these characters became formative for me in my life...they made me want to be better, stronger, become my own good character. And they still do...and so many others.

    Jeanne, I am thoroughly enjoying your book, as you know ... already, I can say, your client's character (and his wife) have been entered into that little club in my mind of inspiring characters. I think his story has the potential to become this for many others. I wish you wisdom as you continue to hone the is worthy of telling for it's historical and personal values.

    Patty / Twink2

    1. Thanks Twink2 for the comment. Any lover of books must agree with you. The characters we meet in fiction and biography become life long companions and their stories become entwined with our own. I am so happy you are finding the characters in the book I am writing memorable. A book is always a tough sell to the world.