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Tag: M.H. Bonham

MisCon 28: Art of the Short Story

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Art of the Short Story
Panel members: S. A. Bolich, M. H. Bonham, Ken Scholes, Mark Teppo
Panel description: The ubiquitous short story panel. Join our talented short story writers as they discuss the ins and outs of short stories, and whether it is still (or ever was) the path to having longer fiction published.

MT: Besides monetary reasons for writing short stories, what do you gain creatively?

KS: More self awareness. I love the beauty of it, the challenge. I could challenge myself by asking what’s the quirkiest, fucked up way I can tell it? A short story is like a fling in Mexico. A novel is like a marriage.

SAB: I like short stories because they let you experiment with things you can’t do in a novel. Different point of view, subjects, presentations.

MHB: I’ve never considered myself a short story writer, but it lets me experiment. It’s a very different type of writing than novel writing. It hones a different writing skill set and the writing brain. It’s more concise and precise. Short stories have a word count limit. It forces you to write more concisely. The focus is more on what you’re writing.

MT: I’ve heard of many approaches to short stories. One is that there should be as many scenes in the story as there are characters. Do you have rules?

MHB: When I’m doing a short story for an anthology they have guidelines for writing a story about “this.” A lot of it ends up humorous. I can play with humor more. In terms of focusing, I have a situation that the main character needs to solve and I have them make it worse. At the end, they finally solve it and have an epiphany or surprise that they and the audience doesn’t expect. A wrap up. The main thing with the climax is what the audience gets out of it.

SAB: I’m a pantser. I get a first sentence and go from there. I get one third of the way through before knowing where to go. It’s important where you know where to go. Short stories need discipline because of the word count. There has to be action. You have to have a point to the story. The story must tell you why it exists.

KS: Sometimes guidelines are given by a themed anthology, but it comes down to the person the readers care about. Have the character face problems that the readers can identify with and in a place they find believable. This becomes support for a suspension of disbelief. See Writing to the Point by Algis Budrys. Even though what he says is formulaic, it works. In a story, the character fails and complicates the problem again and again until he solves it and changes.

MHB: You can only do that three times or it feels contrived.

KS: Or if you do it more times, it’s a novel rather than a short story.

MT: What’s the difference between an epiphany and a resolution in a short story?

MHB: In a short story, there can be a resolution, but it’s more likely to end up with an “oh, that’s why it happened.” That satisfies the reader even though the problem isn’t solved. In These Cold Equations by Tom Godwin, the story doesn’t resolve the way we want it, but it gives the reader an epiphany–that we can’t consider things without the human factor. It’s not a resolution, but it exists.

SAB: Choices reveal the character. The villain isn’t born evil. He made choices that led him there.

KS: In my work, the epiphany leads to failure or success. There are two layers. The external conflict leads to change internally. In War of the Worlds (Tom Cruise version), the main character was a bad dad. The Mars invasion forces him to become a better dad. Use problems that people relate to. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

MHB: There are more than equations in humanity. If it’s only physics, we take out the humanity.

Q: How important is it to read short stories in order to write them?

KS: I’ve read many. It’s important. See what the magazines you’re submitting to are doing. Read representative short stories from top writers. Flannery O’Connor. Hemingway.

MT: You can’t expand your ability as a writer without seeing what’s out there. But be careful not to parody. I don’t read in the same genre.

MHB: If you’re primarily a novel reader, the novel form will be ingrained in you. So it’s important to read many short stories to get a feel for pacing, the number of characters, and plots. There aren’t many plot lines in short stories. Once you read and understand, it’s easier to write. It’s the same the other way around, if you only read short stories, don’t write a novel unless you’ve read them.

SAB: You need to pick out a point of motivation and focus on that because there’s a limited word count. Get to the point and develop it quickly with a satisfactory ending. If it’s a flat, illogical ending, you failed the story. Markets evolve. Find out if they want more action or more internal conflict. Editors and readers look for different things.

MT: What happens if you have a short story and realize that it’s a novel idea?

KS: That was an accident for me when I wrote the Psalms of Isaak. It came from a dare. I wrote the short story. The market I sent it to closed. Later it sold to Realms of Fantasy. When I saw the artwork for the story, I realized that the story was bigger. I thought I could write four short stories. My second story got rejected, but the editor told me to write it as a novel instead. Then I was later dared to write the novel. So I kicked out the ends of the short story and expanded it.

MT: My experience was different. I took five to six years to develop a world. Each world works differently in each story so I still need to figure out the grounding.

SAB: I have no problem with vomiting out the words. If I’m stuck, I pretend there’s a word count limit. I get the discipline from figuring out what’s important in the short story. Then the excess crap goes away. If by 5,000 words you’re still setting up the world, the story needs to be a novel.

MHB: I’ve only had that happen with one short story. I was experimenting with writing in a Japanese world and had a surprise ending. I thought it was a fun story and thought that there was more I could do with it because the characters were interesting. It’s worth trying to do. If you’re enjoying the characters and playing with the world, then try a novel.

Q: Is it possible to sell a collection of short stories set in the same world? Does that work in publishing?

MT: They call those mosaics, like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

KS: Most big publishers don’t like collections because there’s not much money in them. The Martian Chronicles sold piece by piece first. Then they made the stories into a collection and sold it twice.

MT: Rachel Pollack managed to put a cover on a collection of several stories.

SAB: Zenna Henderson brought short stories together by writing bridges between them in The Book of the People.

MHB: Sky Warrior Books rarely does collections, but usually it’s only from authors we’ve known for a while. The short stories have already been published in zines. The author has a name. If you don’t have a name, they don’t have a reason to buy the collection. In a collection, there are known short stories but there’s also new short stories there.

Q: Is it okay to switch point of view multiple times in a short story?

KS: Not for a short story because there’s not enough time to get into the characters. But anything can be done if it’s done well.

MT: After the first sentence, what’s the importance of the second sentence?

KS: It carries out the promise of the first sentence. There’s no time to meander.

SAB: The last sentence is also as important as the first. There needs to be memory.

MHB: Build on the tension and characterization. Pull the reader into the short story as quickly as possible and set the pace.

MT: Always leave them wanting more.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 12

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Writing Yourself Into (and Out of) Corners
Panel members: M.H. Bonham, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Dave Gross
Panel description: In this panel we’ll talk about to write your character into a corner (literally, figuratively, emotionally), and how to get them back out again.

JB: What happens when you write into a corner? How do you write into a corner and what does it mean?

DG: I wrote about a character I didn’t create (like Spiderman). The character was not revealed yet. But I had to write it in a short period of time. Others who owned the character changed the character’s motivation and told me I had to revise it by Thursday. The conflict still paid off with the different character, but there were shifting relationships.

MHB: Throw everything and the kitchen sink at the character. Sometimes you have to take a break and work on something else. I get ideas when driving. Don’t use the God card too much–only once in a great while. Think out a solution.

JB: At the beginning of writing Grave Peril, there was no mystery or bad guy, so I needed to throw out those chapters. If I’m in a corner, there’s no clear path and I don’t know what to write next. During a deadline, getting a character into a corner is easy.

JG: I write mostly game related material, so there’s mostly action. I wrote about a vampire and a gunslinger and I found myself in that situation frequently.

JB: How do you get out of it?

JG: I killed him. But the gunslinger was also undead. I don’t like blood, so I go as far as I can go and twist it.

JB: I don’t think there are corners. I think they’re for something awesome to happen. Think laterally. Look for a solution that is not two-dimensional, outside the box.

MHB: By thinking outside the box, ask what is the worst thing that could happen. Delaying the problem could make it worse.

DG: You could avoid getting into corners by outlining. Outliners are like the idiots that drive too slowly and pantsers are like the maniacs who drive too fast. You need to balance between the two.

JB: There’s great strength with solid structure. Have a good idea before you start writing. For example, if you’re driving to California, you need to know which highways to take.

Q: Have you ever come up with an idea where the solution to the problem is a McGuffin that comes out of nowhere?

JG: Yes.

JB: It’s cheating.

MHB: I used to be a pantser but now I outline. If something goes off, I write WTFIDK in the manuscript to indicate where other things go.

DG: I’m an outliner. 90% of my writing is licensed work. They want to know what you want to do. There was one author who had an 80k outline for a 100k manuscript. I try to have tight outlines. I try to get it down to 5k but usually it’s around 15k. A good editor once said that you have to lay the pipe down early.

Q: How horrible is it to insert flashbacks with characters and themes?

JB: If it’s right there, that’s obvious. Lay the groundwork for it.

JG: I like to use flashbacks more for character development. I try to avoid using flashbacks as the solution.

MHB: I use flashbacks as character development or to reveal a piece of the puzzle.

DG: I use them as action beginning the chapter and use them as explanation, but I only use them at the right time.

Q: Do you find yourself coming up with a clever solution first and then writing the character into a corner or is it more common to write into a corner and then bang your head against the wall trying to come up with a solution?

MHB: I used to come up with the trouble first, but now with outlining, I know where I’m heading.

JB: The danger you run into as a writer is that craft can overcome the character. If it doesn’t make sense, you need to let it go if it doesn’t go with the story. The outline helps you get to those places without too much fuss.

DG: I started reading many authors. I’m a film fan and I learned from Buffy. You can pen the story sooner than the audience expects as long as you have something bigger later.

Q: Have you come up with a cool solution that you have to make up a problem for?

JB: Sometimes, depending on the story. But it can be hard. You need to predict how characters will react, what the response will be, and what the emotions are. Does it make psychological sense?

MHB: I agree. You need to consider the emotion of the character. One author had a love interest in a space opera. She wrote a sex scene and afterwards the characters acted differently because there was too much emotion. So she had to cut the scene.

DG: I mostly approach it like a mystery. Think who gets killed and why. Determine the mechanical resolution and how to obfuscate or delay the answer.

JG: Yes. I’m like an outlining pantser with a highway map especially for character motivation. I once had a poker playing character I needed to kill off. So the character died in a cyclone of cards.

Q: Do you ever realize halfway through a book that you need to redo the outline? Or do you just continue?

MHB: I just continue and return back to where I need to go. Sometimes I need to change and don’t reoutline unless it’s really messy otherwise.

JB: I do change the outline and seek an alternate route, a new way to get there.

Q: For that route, do you go with the vanilla option or the science fiction/fantasy option? Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman?

JB: That was Spielberg in a corner. He couldn’t film a sword fight scene so he decided just to shoot him. When writing fantasy, using fantasy is usually more fun getting out of a corner. Use what’s close at hand. Consider the creator versus the character getting out of the corner.

DG: Go back to who the character is. If the character thinks that he is human but he isn’t, maybe that’s how he survives the situation.

MHB: I once had a sword with a personality. When all the magic was taken away, we can still use the sword. Come up with a solution which is a way around. Or go in the opposite direction.

JG: I don’t want to use a supernatural solution if it’s not a supernatural story. Ask, what can the character do?

Q: Is it more beneficial to get the character out of a corner instead of making the corner collapse and having the cavalry come in to rescue the character?

DG: The character must have earned the rescue, otherwise it’s a deus ex machina.

MHB: Only have the cavalry come in to clean up the mess.

JB: You can have the cavalry show up but only under specific circumstances. Don’t have them show up in the middle of the story. Instead, they should show up at the end of the book.

JG: You should also establish earlier that the cavalry even exists. You can use it to get conflict. And remember that you’re writing the book about the character and not the cavalry.

Notes from MisCon 27, Part 3

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: The Werewolf Panel
Panel members: Larry Bonham, M.H. Bonham, Patricia Briggs, Rhiannon Held
Panel description: Werewolves supposedly have wolf traits, but how do popular ones actually compare to real wolf behavior? Are we still stuck on “big bad wolf” myths rather than science and biology?

PB: Are we paying too much attention to mythology than biology? I first paid attention to what they do in the book The Howling. As a mythical critter, what do you know about it?

RH: People have sent me history of werewolf links. In Europe, being called a werewolf was like begin called a witch. They did it to get rid of them. It served a purpose socially.

LB: Werewolves are archetypal across many cultures, from Native Americans, to Europe, and Japan. They’re like dragons, part of the collective cultural consciousness. Myths morph as culture morphs.

MB: It’s slippery depending on where you go. It’s the archetype of someone losing control. Deep down inside, we’re all beasts. It ranges from skin walkers who wear special pelts to getting bitten and turning into one.

PB: What comes to mind when wolves get mentioned? I think of “pack.” That came from biology and not myth.

RH: In stories, wolves are portrayed as bad. It’s different in science where it is wolf behavior.

LB: There’s the traditional lone wolf. But in wolf packs, it’s matriarchal, not patriarchal.

MB: There was a study in domestic dogs. The more wild breeds have wolf behavior. When an alpha wolf makes a submissive wolf turn over, it’s based on killing behavior. Sometimes the submissive wolf turn themselves over. This was misconstrued from what animal behaviorists saw.

RH: Wolves generally live in family groups where they are genetically related. Saying that the pack undergoes a bloody revolution all the time is wrong. It doesn’t make sense for the species. They keep ranking and a firm structure, it’s not endless fights like you see in captivity.

MB: It only happens when a new wolf comes in. Then there’s reshuffling and re-challenging, but it’s unusual. It happens more in domestic than wild.

PB: As a literary archetype, the werewolf is ultimately a tragic figure because he gets destroyed. But wolves themselves are not tragic, although they are scary instead. What kinds of things seen in movies and books annoy you?

RH: The alpha as a bully. It can be a great metaphor for a story. But as a romance trope, the alpha abuses the heroine. He never takes advice or confides in anyone. He “can’t help it” and uses it as an excuse.

LB: He can only change to a werewolf in the full moon. There’s zero control.

MB: The concept that the alpha female is subordinate to the alpha male. The female actually chooses the male. She’s the one who is leading and he will back down. In romances, the alpha doesn’t defer to her.

PB: It’s like a study on wild horses I read about. It’s instinctive behavior. The mares decide everything. Stallions only chase off other stallions and predators. Wolves do the same thing. The myth about the full moon is one of the first things that people throw out. You pick and choose what myths you use in your story as long as you acknowledge the traditions and stereotypes. I hate it when people turn werewolves and vampires into superpowers. It guts the power of it as a monster and the story. What kind of cool things can you do with werewolves using science?

RH: Look at werewolves on an evolutionary level. As a species, it’s subject to the same rules. For example, an involuntary werewolf (one that is forced to change every full moon), would more likely get killed. The voluntary werewolf (one who can change at will) is more likely to survive.

LB: Wolf behavior includes violent conflict. There is a gender conflict. If male dogs come into conflict, there’s posturing and fighting. One dog gives up to concede dominance. If a male and female come into conflict, they just stop. If two females come into conflict, it gets extremely violent, fast. For wolves, they don’t go too far because they depend on each other.

MB: Considering advances in DNA, you could have someone create a werewolf. There’s conflict between a created werewolf and a natural werewolf. There are differences in culture and behavior. A created werewolf doesn’t have history, and it would cause a schism between the two. The new group of creatures could be playing by human rules rather than wolf rules.

PB: In urban fantasy, you can do the same thing. You can take things from the real world and put it in the story. The difference between urban fantasy and fantasy is that in urban fantasy, you can make it so real that it could be.

Q: How did the myth of werewolves changing only during the full moon come about?

RH: The origins go way back to the “lunatics” and craziness. It’s a false statistical correlation. But there are not always reasons for things. People just link things up to symbols.

PB: The full moon goes back to the goddess Diana, pagan ceremonies, and magic. The Christian church said it was an evil thing so it got tied in.

MB: It was back when people were hunter gatherers and used to hunt in the full moon. Wolves were out at that time.

Q: Historically, did the werewolf change into an actual wolf or were they just people with fur?

LB: There are cultural differences. Skin walkers went upright and were humans with skins. It’s also easier to film.

PB: Traditional werewolves were bipedal and upright. You couldn’t tell if they were a werewolf until they attacked. People also mistook diseases for being werewolf. In the first werewolf story, The Beast of Gévaudan, it was actually a wolf.

RH: It’s seen both ways. Some werewolves just had the fur on the inside. There are variations on the story archetype.

Q: What’s the basis of the omega werewolf?

PB: My omega wolf is based on people rather than wolves. I get my werewolf dynamics from my husband’s family. They can’t work together. In scientific studies, they’ve labeled the omega wolf.

RH: I don’t have omega wolves in my story because I don’t use wolves as a basis. I use people.

MB: The omega wolf is thought of as the least dominant wolf. He’s non-threatening, he doesn’t go far, he’s picked on. Other wolves play with him because he’s not threatening and dominance isn’t an issue.

Q: I heard about Celtic werewolves that protected a king and got time off.

PB: It may be from King Arthur’s legends. There’s a knight called Melion. His wife stole his clothes and he stayed a wolf. When he got his clothes back, he turned back into a human.

Q: In stories, why do people turn into wolves rather than other animals?

MB: It’s because of a shift in people’s opinions on wolves. People romanticize things they don’t have to deal with. For example, the Scots are romanticized when historically they were downtrodden. People have dogs and think they see wolf-like behavior in their pets. There’s also fear of the wild.

RH: It was what people were seeing in the shadows. It depends on culture. In India, it was the tiger. In Europe it was the wolf. It puts a face on that fear.

PB: The top predator in Europe was the wolf. During the plague, they preyed on people. There’s something primal when they look at you.