Short Fiction

Encouraging news: Short story collections seem to be making a comeback in mainstream publishing. And that’s great, because many of us like our stories, short, sweet, and punchy. If you’ve got a file or pile of them, while not dust off and polish them — and take a shot at the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards?

Stories can be up to 4,000 words and are open to a wide range of genres: romance, crime, horror, thriller, science fiction, and young adult. The deadline: October 15.

One Grand Prize winner will receive:

• $2500 in cash;
• a Writer’s Digest interview, featured in the May/June 2016 issue
• a paid trip to the popular Writer’s Digest Conference.

First Prize winners in each genre will receive $500 and prizes.

The judges are looking for:

• Engaging, emotionally rich storytelling
• Full, complex characters
• A unique, compelling voice

For examples of stories that have been selected based on qualities like these can be found in leading short-story journals like Glimmer Train and Tin House — so you might want to check them out.

Another tool to sharpen your style and technique is the old tried-and-true strategy: study the work of masterful short-story writers you admire. My reading group introduced me to William Trevor and Alice Munro, two writers at the top of their game. Seeing how they create and build tension, craft propulsive story lines, and spin out dialogue that sparkles can be one of the best ways to improve your own work.

So if you’ve got one or more short stories tucked away somewhere, why not step them out and see what happens? Write on!

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Blushing Bard

Advertising. Bloodstained. Cold-blooded. Fashionable. Hobnob. Moonbeam. New-fangled. Puking. Swagger. Worthless. Zany.
Words coined by Shakespeare

Most likely a little-known, but amazing, fact: The Bard is said to have invented between 1,700 and 2,200 words. No wonder he didn’t need a dictionary — he practically invented it (see Sans Dictionary). Will’s not alone in the word-coining universe: George R.R. Martin, author of the incredibly popular Game of Throne series invented a whole language called Dothraki. In Dothraki, for example, “small clothes” translates into “underwear.” Bet you didn’t know that! See how much you learn reading this blog?

But I digress. New words are cropping up all the time. In 2015, the Oxford online dictionary introduced these gems: awesomesauce; manspreading; and onboarding.

Back to The Bard. Surely, our boy Will must have had tons of fun dreaming up all his freshly minted words and word combos. Just in case you want to do the same, here’s an overview of five of Wily Will’s tricky wordsmithing techniques:*

Verbing (changing nouns into verbs): When Cleopatra said, “I’ll unhair thy head!” she was verbing. When we say, parenting, shoulder the blame or table that motion, so are we.

Adjectivizing (think I just invented a new word!) — transforming verbs into adjectives. Example: After you filter water, it turns into filtered water. Barefaced, blushing and gloomy are all adjectives coined by Shakespeare.

Combining words: Clever new word combinations crop up in the media all the time and making these up has to be a blast. A few examples: Youniverse, Brangelina, tween, and authorpreneur. A variation, dubbed “portmanteaus,” refers to words that blend the sounds and meanings of two words. Blog, for example, is a shortened version of weblog (website plus log). A few more: jeggings (jeans plus leggings), screenager, and a personal favorite coined by Alex when he was four: freelax as in, “Just freelax, Mom!”

Agglutination: Whoa! Someone needs to invent a better word for this process – adding prefixes and suffixes. This results in words like: declutter and commoditize. A few gems from Shakespeare: discontent; invulnerable, metapmorphize.

Cold-blooded coining: Some words just spring from nowhere. A few Shakespeare conjured up one morning or afternoon when he was tired of writing Hamlet: addiction, lonely, and manager. Who knew?

Any words you or a friend have invented? I love to hear about them! Now that I’ve stoked your creative fires, let’s all write on!

* Kudos to the terrific site for an online story by Demian Farnworth called “Shakespeare’s 5 Rules for Making Up Words (to Get Attention)” from which I blushingly purloined these fashionable techniques and many of the zany examples.

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Story Time

Here’s a fascinating exercise: My reading group of six ordered copies of the same issue of Glimmer Train, a highly respected short-story journal. We all read the stories (or most of them) and picked the ones we each liked best and least. Then we chatted about them over pizza, pretzels, wine and beer.

In several instances, a best-liked story for one of us was least liked by some one else. Sparks were flying! Out of our lively exchange, a few shared views emerged about what ingredients strong stories have and why other stories didn’t seem as engaging. Here’s what we came up with:

Strong stories:

Create tension: There are conflicts, unmet longings and desires that animate the characters and compel us to read on to see what happens. There’s an emotional undertow that pulls us in.

Possess propulsive force: There’s a narrative drive, a sense of forward motion, a headlong energy that readers feel and respond to.

Put style in service of storytelling: Style is more than just the gimmicky, artful arrangement of words — it propels you forward into the story.

Capture the universal: Whatever the subject, however ordinary or extraordinary, as readers we come away with a sense of shared experience that we recognize and value.

Exhibit rigor: The author needs to more work than the reader, so that what he or she is saying is clear and compelling, meriting our attention and reflection.

Stories that didn’t engage us seemed to drift along with little conflict or forward motion. Nothing seemed to change; they had a static quality. Their style seemed to obscure and interfere with the story instead of advancing it. Multiple points of view often seemed to be used as a device rather than as a narrative necessity, resulting in a story that felt like a collection of fragments rather than an organic whole. Some stories seemed to demand a lot, as if it was the reader’s job and not the author’s, to make sense of them.

What an enjoyable, instructive evening! Hope you find some points to ponder and put to work for you as we all write on.

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Becoming Bolder

“Freedom lies in being bold.”
Robert Frost

Writing dangerously is all about becoming bolder. Here’s how my handy Oxford Compact English Dictionary defines the word “bold:” 1) confident and courageous; 2) audacious, impudent; and 3) (of a colour or design) strong and vivid.

Confidence, courage, audacity, impudence, strength and vividness — can we bring these to our writing? Of course, we can! What practices can help engender these qualities? That’s exactly what illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien ( has been sorting through in her own creative work. In an earlier post called “Sparking Creativity,” I described some of the techniques she’s found most helpful. Recently, I came across a few more practices she’s employed that I wanted to share here:

Put the work first: Make fueling and fulfilling your creativity a top priority. Whatever the demands on your time or challenges that life throws at you, figure out a way to keep you writing center stage — carve out the time and space to let the magic happen.

Do warmups and visual exercises: “Putting myself in a playful frame of mind and experimenting with other angles and approaches opens up possibilities for what goes on the page,” notes Anne. Creating a playful writing mindset might mean using Julia Cameron’s idea of “Morning Pages,” to loosen up our brains, or reading poetry with lots of word play, or taking three words from the dictionary and weaving a story around them for 10 or 15 minutes. Or even coloring in a coloring book to relax and stoke ourselves.

Focus solely on this one thing, no distractions: Once you are in work mode, stay in the zone. Save emails and social media for later.

Do extensive roughs: “Allow for ‘accidents’ and discoveries.” In our work, I think this means going for messy, unruly drafts that may take us to exciting, unpredictable places.

Do the finals over and over: For us, this translates into zealously pushing our writing to the next level, polishing and repolishing it until it shines.

Find models of excellence: Constantly be on the lookout for inspiration from other creative souls. As Anne observes: “anyone who holds themselves to a higher standard helps me do the same.”

Practices to ponder as we all write on.

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Author Advocate

“We’re all looking for that magic. We want to feel a story powerfully again.”
Margot Sage-El, Watchung Booksellers

Indie bookstore owners can be an author’ best friend — and one of the best authors’ friends around is Margot Sage-EL of Watchung Booksellers in my hometown of Montclair. Over the years, I’ve attended many book signings and events in her lovely community bookstore. Margot was recently interviewed by Judith Lindbergh, Founder and Director of The Writers Circle, which runs an exciting array of creative writing workshops for adults and children. To help guide us all, some of Margot’s insights are shared here. For the full interview, see the Writers Circle blog at

“We have meetings with the publishers’ sales reps and are presented with their lists. The “Big 5” lists have thousands of books on them, and the rep goes through them with us. Some reps know our store and our tastes – somewhere between suburban and urban, willing to experiment a little with high literature, but also commercial…. Beyond the must-have titles, we face a lot of split decisions. If it’s a book by an unknown author, we consider the subject, the book cover, where the author comes from, and the rep’s advice.”

“Accessibility is really important. A publisher’s distribution is key. Booksellers need to have easy ordering and easy returns. When we reorder backlist from someone like Penguin-Random House, we can only stock enough to last a week, then we reorder. With smaller publishers, there’s often a minimum to reorder, so we have to wait before we can get more…. If you go with a small publisher, check out their distribution. Interview them. How do booksellers know about their books? What do they do to promote their authors?”

“Indie authors need to know their target market, have a good marketing package, catalogue copy, book cover. (I’m a book cover snob. Perseus’ covers are gorgeous.) Most of those books look self-published when I put them on the table. And I’m not even getting into editorial content. Indie authors need to work with editors. It can’t be someone’s daughter who is a paralegal, which an indie author told me once.”

“We’re asked to read thousands of books. We spent hours going through catalogues, deciding which books to choose and figuring out the right number that we think will sell to our community….We’re vetting for our customers….We read a lot. Every six books that I read, maybe one I pass on to others.”

“We’re searching, just as readers are. We want a good book also.”

Bravo, Margot! Encouraged and emboldened, let’s write on!

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Something Wonderful

As the wind blows and the leaves come out to play, a few musings to delight us:

Delicious autumn!
My very soul is wedded to it,
and I were a bird I would fly
about the earth seeking the
successive autumns.

George Eliot


The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

Emily Dickinson

In the Library

The library always smells like this:
an ancient stew of vinegar and wood.
It’s autumn again,
and I can do anything.

Dorothea Grossman

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Adverbially Speaking

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
W. Somerset Maugham

You could say the same about writing a play or a poem — and about using adverbs in your writing. Ah, the adverb! Why among all the parts of speech is it so maligned? Why have writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Stephen King urged us to take an ax to the adverbs sprinkled across our pages? I don’t have the answer to this mystery and I’ve chosen to reject this pseudo-rule and defiantly pen prose that’s adverbially intensive. Sometimes it’s been a lonely road.

Fortunately, I’ve found an zealous advocate for the adverb: Barbara Baig has been teaching writing for more than 30 years and is the author of several handbooks, including the newly published Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers.

Here are a few of Barbara’s pearls of wisdom about adverbial abundance:

An adverb is far more than just a word ending in -ly: Along with nouns, verbs, and adjectives, it is one of the four content parts of speech used to construct sentences.

Each part performs a key function: Nouns name things, verbs specify action, and adverbs and adjectives add to, limit, or clarify nouns and verbs.

Adverbs are a valuable tool in every writer’s kit-bag and excising them from your writing will impoverish it. Adverbs play several important roles in a sentence — they make more specific and add information to verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.

Adverbs are versatile: The role an adverb plays in a sentence can show up in our writing as one word: sadly. Or as a phrase: “I’ll call you in the morning.” Or as a dependent clause: “We’ll eat whenever he gets here.”

Barbara notes, “To advise young writers to get rid of all their adverbs is like advising a pitcher with four great pitches to throw only three of them —it’s professional suicide.”

Bravo! Let’s dump the “dump adverbs” idea and focus instead on using them with proficiency and precision. For more of Barbara Baig’s craft advice, visit: Write on!

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