Monday, September 9, 2019

Guest Post: How to Make A Story: What to Put In, What to Take Out by Elizabeth Zelvin

Please welcome back Elizabeth Zelvin to our SMFS Blog. Among other things, Elizabeth Zelvin is the editor for the Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology recently published by Level Best Books. 

How to Make A Story: What to Put In, What to Take Out

Elizabeth Zelvin

The topic of my new anthology, Me Too Short Stories, is crimes against women, tales of retribution and healing. I had two agendas. One was to give a voice to women and girls who had survived abuse and violence. The second was to do it through fiction—specifically, through short stories. I had a story of my own already written, a perfect fit for what I had in mind.

When I started reading submissions, I found that some of them were too linear. A woman was victimized, she had her feelings, she reacted. Such a narrative was heartfelt, but it wasn't a story. I was looking for stories in which something happened. I wanted plot, craft, and context, not fictionalized versions of personal testimony, heartfelt and powerful as such testimony can be.

Full disclosure: as I realized the above distinction between the manuscripts I was accepting and those I was rejecting, I realized that I'd only written half a story. Back to the keyboard! I left the opening pages as I'd written them, introducing my protagonist. Then I added a second protagonist and started to develop her very different story. By the time I was done revising, while the two main characters never meet, their destinies are on a collision course.

I still had something to learn with that particular story. I asked a respected writer of short stories for a critique.

"This scene is too long," he said. "You don't want to give the reader time to guess what happens. Besides, the scene is close to the end, so you need to pick up the pace.”

“How do I fix it?” Some critters make you solve it yourself, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.

This is the paragraph you can do without," he said.

He was absolutely right. As an editor, I help others with pace all the time. But sometimes I still need someone else to point it out in my own story.

It wasn’t the first time. I was in a workshop group that was giving critique of one of my novels. Chapter One started with the telephone ringing. The protagonist answers, rolls out of bed, throws his clothes on, runs down the stairs, and dashes out into the rain, where two friends are waiting in their car.

Once again, it was a short story writer, another master of the brief, who put a finger a third of the way down the page and said, "The story starts here."

Out came everything from the ringing of the phone to the opening of the car door. The first two words of the published novel are, "I scootched." Thanks to that writer’s finger, the book starts with a surprising verb instead of a series of boring actions that the reader doesn’t need to know.

Elizabeth Zelvin ©2019

Elizabeth Zelvin is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga. Her short stories have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha awards and have appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, among others. She has edited two anthologies: Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology and Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4. Visit her author website at  


Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Liz! Once we find the real parameters of our story, it comes alive. But that often means shaving away the inessential.

VS Kemanis said...

Thanks for these insights, Liz. We get too close to our own work and it's always valuable to have a fresh perspective from a fellow writer or editor.

badge # 979 said...

Thanks, Liz, for sharing you need an editor too. I feel better.

Ann Rawson said...

I nearly always have to delete at least a paragraph or two from the beginning - I seem to need to warm up before I start writing the story proper.

I often end up doing the same kind of surgery at the end too. It's great to find an editor who can see when a troy needs this kind of surgery and not just tinkering with the words.

I love that "I scootched" as the start of a novel, Liz!

Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, Liz. And it's always hard to edit ourselves. We're too close to the work, so it's good to have someone with fresh eyes take a look.

P.Ana said...

"The story starts here." is exactly what every writer needs to figure out. thanks, Liz!