Writing Panel Insights: The Craft/Business of Short Stories

Oct. 28, 2018, 4:51 p.m.
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Last month, our team attended a Writers’ League of Texas panel on the craft and business of short stories. WLOT, a community of 1,300+ Texas writers, hosts a free discussion on the third Thursday of each month in BookPeople (Austin.)

The panelists:

Moderated by the WLOT program director, the panel quickly dove into the craft aspect. Below, we summarize key takeaways from the discussion.

1. Contradictory yet valid.

The panelists’ responses to questions about their writing processes were wildly contradictory--writing’s funny like that--a frustration with which any writer looking for expert writing advice is intimately familiar. What works for Margaret Atwood probably won’t work for you, but of course that thought isn’t helpful when you’re just trying to find a starting point. Some writers think you can’t teach great writing, and others think instruction is key; our team’s perspective falls in the middle. 

We think writing can be taught, to the extent that the right resources can help writers discover and guide themselves through roadblocks, enhancing their familiarity with their personal writing processes. Don’t listen to people who leave it at “you just write and know”--seek action-oriented advice. Even if writing processes aren’t generalizable, people can always give concrete examples of what constitutes the infamous “click.”

2. Determine your story’s emotional core.

A couple panelists agree that, to define scope in the early stages of writing, writers should give considerable thought to feeling. Whether that’s how you plan to motivate characters or how you want your readers to react, you should understand the emotional context. One panelist always starts with a specific character or scene he finds compelling and proceeds from there. For some, there’s danger in spending too long thinking about the story, as some writers find the work loses momentum the longer it sits.

3. “No one wants to read your work.”

Casares, especially, reiterated this point. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is assuming that everyone is interested in what you write because you’re interested in what you write, given all you’ve invested in your work. You need to earn their interest without presumption.

Additionally, the panelists agreed that while most writers write for people to read and struggle to balance instincts with consideration for their reading audience, writers ultimately won’t find satisfaction in external validation. You need to think, deeply and honestly, why you’re writing and who you’re writing for. And you need to write for yourself.

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4. Many factors are hygiene factors.

When asked about the importance of titles, the panelists agreed that the rule is “don’t suck.” In other words, short story titles aren’t that important; they’re only a big deal when they’re bad. Otherwise, they often pass notice. Markovitz, as a literary magazine editor, pointed out practical, editorial hygiene factors. The first thing that catches her about a story, for example, is the font and layout, which are little details but easy to fix before submitting your work.

5. Don’t overplay your hand.

All panelists agreed that voice is what carries a piece. Markovitz, in particular, isn’t a fan of cheap surprises to hook attention and believes a story must earn its respect. A confident voice will carry the story. The panelists emphasized that authors often overplay their hand and lose control of story endings. Because they worry their message won’t come through to the reader, they tend to beat the audience in the head with it. Clarity pays, but writers must give readers enough credit.

Our team left the panel with a different outlook on writing, excited for the next open WLOT event. The panelists took diverse approaches to writing yet still have found successes in their craft, which we think should be incredibly encouraging.