Throughout my college career as a creative writing major, I’ve been taught to read as a writer. Instead of simply enjoying a story for what it is, I look at it with a magnifying glass in hand, trying to decipher what the author has done and how. Once you can identify the elements of craft within a short story, you can begin to emulate it in your own writing. This is why reading short stories is imperative to your growth as a writer. Below, I’ve come up with a list that every writer should read, not only because they are great stories, but because they will help you become a better writer by seeing the elements of craft in a successful way.
- Saint Marie, by Louise Erdrich
There is so much that Erdrich’s Saint Marie can teach us, but the one thing that this story does so well is finding the perfect balance between scene and summary. It’s so important for fiction to include both, and if the balance of scene or summary is off, the pacing of the story falters.
Scenes should be used as a tool to get up close and personal with the characters, while also allowing readers to fully grasp the many details that would have been glossed over, or completely skipped in summary. Scenes slow down the pace, and give a moment by moment play of the action. Scenes are also important because readers get a chance to witness the characters in action instead of just relying on the narrator to inform us.
The way in which Saint Marie goes back and forth seamlessly between scene and summary is so fluid, and every writer should see it in action.
- St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell
Setting in a short story is the stage. It’s where readers will take a step into your fictional world, and begin to immerse themselves in it. The setting helps set up a tone, mood, and atmosphere—a rural town, a dark and ominous forest, or a home for girls raised by wolves.
In Russell’s story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the setting is not only unique for this specific fictional world, but is also used to show the development of the characters. Living deep within the wilderness, a pack of uncivilized children with wolves for parents had strange mannerisms and the instinct to wag nonexistent tails. Once these children moved to St. Lucy’s, a change in the setting, the children begin to develop into civilized beings.
Russell’s story and characterization of the children depend on the setting, and without it, the story wouldn’t have been such a success.
- Italy, written by Antonio Elefano
The second-person point of view is hard to pull off, which is why many writers never take on the challenge. But Antonio Elefano did in his short story Italy, and I am so glad that he did. Not only is this a successful second-person point of view, but it’s also my favorite short story of all time.
The story depicts the relationship between a husband and wife within a few short pages, showcasing the emotions involved—love and regret. The story reads as though the protagonist is speaking to his wife, whom he loved very much, but couldn’t express it to her enough. The second-person point of view was the perfect choice for this very emotional and powerful piece because the way it reads feels much more intimate.
You can learn a lot from this one if you’re interested in experimenting in the second-person. Oh, and before you read, don’t forget the tissues!
- Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates
Tension plays a vital role in fiction, especially when the happiness of the protagonist, or even their life, depends on the outcome. It’s the stakes of the story that build the tension, and if the stakes aren’t high enough, the tension suffers.
Joyce Carol Oates’s short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? has stakes that are high enough that builds up the tension in a successful way. When the protagonist, Connie, meets a stranger outside her home, her life and well-being are put in jeopardy. This stranger knows things about her, and she has no idea who he is or what his intentions are. The build-up of tension is steady all the way to the climax, where the tension comes to a tipping point and explodes.
Reading this short story will give you ways to think about how to raise the stakes for a character and how to build up tension in a way that leaves readers flipping the pages to find out what happens next.
After I learned how to read as a writer, a whole new world opened up to me. And it will for you, too! Once you see the elements of craft done well in these short stories, you can begin to use them in your own writing. Read as much as you can get your hands on, because you can learn something from everything that you read. Your own writing will only get better, stronger, and more effective, and your craft will thank you for it.
Meet the blogger:
CAITLIN O’BRIEN is a senior at Hamline University majoring in Creative Writing. Dabbling in all genres of writing, fiction will always remain her favorite. She is passionate about literature, writing, and drinking too many vanilla lattes.
YCA is the nonprofit birthplace of “Louder Than A Bomb,” now recognized as the largest youth slam in the world. YCA provides a variety of free programs for young writers such as weekly open mics, and poetry/hip hop workshops. YCA prides itself in being a brave space that doesn’t tolerate any racist, sexist, homophobic, gender biased or other identity-based hate. YCA is also the program that Chance the Rapper came up in. As a former participant in YCA’s Louder Than A Bomb, I can confidently vouch for the effectiveness of its programs. What makes YCA special is their focus on community. The teaching artists facilitate an environment where students can grow as well as support one another. It is truly special.
Founded in 2007, Tru Art Speaks is a nonprofit that seeks to provide young people with a supportive community as well as a platform for their voices to be heard and represented. Tru Art Speaks is invested in honoring youth in conversations they are typically left out of while empowering them to share their truth unapologetically. Tru Art Speaks hosts a popular open mic, writing workshops, and a successful poetry slam series. Tru Art Speaks is the epitome of art intersecting with activism. Time and time again, Tru Art Speaks has proven their dedication to young people. Everyone I know who has participated in Tru Art Speaks has nothing but praise for this amazing organization.
Since its debut in 2012, Slam Camp’s attendance has increased by record numbers. Held on Indiana University’s campus, the week-long summer program is open to incoming high school freshmen through outgoing high school seniors. The classroom-based curriculum involves a rigorous combination of writing prompts, the history of slam, competition strategy, as well as guidance for marketing yourself as a professional. The counselors of this camp are primarily spoken word artists who gained international followings after going viral on the YouTube channel Button Poetry. As a current camp counselor and former camp attendee, I cannot stress how helpful this camp was to me as a writer, performer, and budding professional. Slam Camp equipped me with the tools to go out and participate in my local slam scene.
Beginning at the high school classroom level, Poetry Out Loud is a structured program that teachers can implement into their classroom. Students choose poems from a pre-designated published anthology and perform them at various competitions. Competitors have the potential to advance from the classroom to school wide, state-wide, regional, and finally the national competition where cash prizes are awarded. Poetry Out Loud aims to enhance youth’s self-confidence, public speaking abilities, and historical literary understanding. This program has been essential in the movement to get spoken word integrated into public schools.
According to its mission statement, Get Lit strives to “use poetry to increase literacy, empower youth, and inspire communities.” With curriculum implemented in nearly 100 schools, Get Lit is achieving and exceeding their mission at an admirable rate. Their programs include standard poetry slams, open mics, summer camps, and drop-in classes. Get Lit’s dedication to providing youth with opportunities and education makes it a famously impactful organization. Similarly to Poetry Out Loud, Get Lit has been pivotal in the growing intersection of academia and spoken word.
Meet the blogger:
Blythe Baird is an internationally known spoken word poet. Her viral work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Ashton Kutcher, Write Bloody, Button Poetry, Mic, Bustle, and more. In 2014, Baird was the youngest competitor at the National Poetry Slam. By 2016, Baird was recognized as a top finalist for the Global Young Achiever Award. Her first book GIVE ME A GOD I CAN RELATE TO is a pushcart prize nominee.
Reviewed by GRANT BRENGMAN
Writer of the best book of 2013 according to Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, Carrie Mesrobian excellently renders the high school party life, in all its horny, drug-filled, and intoxicated complexity.
Sean Norwhalt knows the ins and outs of high school parties. When to run when the cops show up, and where to hide if you do need to run. At one such party, he happens to be running with a girl named Hallie. Naturally, things spark immediately. Until they don’t. They spend plenty of time together over the summer, until Hallie has to go to college and Sean still has his senior year left. Hallie breaks it off, all the while taunting Sean with talk of “future possibilities”. In Hallie’s absence, Sean has to figure out what he wants to do after graduating, and at the same time figure out how to talk to Neecie, the girl at his thrift store job.
The exploration of what’s traditionally known as a “friends with benefits” relationship acts as the romantic half of the conflict, and Mesrobian does an excellent job of depicting a teenage boy’s frustration with his feelings in regards to it. Sean’s relationship with this girl hardly even allows for the “friends” part of friends with benefits. When Sean meets Neecie, they begin building a relationship with much less sex involved. While initially this sounds like your typical teen love triangle, it’s really anything but. The differences between these two dynamics actually makes a strong thematic contrast.
The second half of the conflict shows Sean struggling to figure out where to go after high school. College isn’t exactly on his radar, but the prospect of the Marines catches his eye. Many teenagers would have to sympathize with his contradictory desire to both tell people he’s signing up for the Marines and to hide that fact. There’s both a sense of pride and some sort of shame in “just joining the Marines”.
Ultimately, joining the Marines, the relationship complications, the parties, the drinking, the weed, and so on and so forth serves largely as a distraction from Sean’s home life. Again, Mesrobian creates an incredibly relatable situation in Sean’s desire to stay away from home as much as he can find the excuses to. The novel shines a revealing light on many of the struggles today’s teenagers go through, and it’s impressive just how many little details Mesrobian is able to capture so accurately.
Meet the blogger:
GRANT BRENGMAN is a fiction writer, geek, gamer, and Sagittarius. He is a senior in the creative writing BFA program at Hamline University, and is spearheading the creative direction in an indie game development company established with his friends. His dream is to one day sit behind a desk proofreading for forty hours a week.
In order to represent the diversity of our world, writers should strive to try to increase the diversity in the casts they write. It’s not that every story ever written from now has to be about a certain marginalized group, it’s just something the literary community needs. This is especially true in genre fiction. Fiction doesn’t always need to accurately represent reality, but being able to see a reflection of yourself in fiction is a powerful and gratifying feeling. Writing outside one’s own experience is quite a challenge. So here are some basic, but always helpful tips for writing about characters of marginalized groups.
Avoid stereotypes at all costs. Stereotypes are a form of lazy writing, unless you are writing satire or parody. But even then, it’s best not to rely on them. Eliminating them for your writing in general, is the best choice. Stereotypes are usually pretty negative, and ugly, and they often lead to flat, unrealistic characters. You don’t want this in your writing. You want to create characters that your audience can relate to, but also be complex and unique. If you rely on stereotypes to portray characters of a marginalized group, then you are just going to continue to perpetuate the negativity associated with those stereotypes. You’ll want these characters to be realistic, so don’t go for the flat, cardboard-cutout approach. Try to figure out what makes them tick as a person and go from there. Don’t focus too hard on the fact that they are from a marginalized group. Sure, that knowledge should inform your character writing, but it shouldn’t completely influence every step of their development, just something important to keep in mind when creating characters. This is especially true when they reflect experiences that you aren’t familiar with yourself.
Research is honestly your best friend when it comes to writing almost anything. But that goes to double for writing about characters of other races, nationalities, sexualities, religions, etc. You don’t need to know it inside out and backwards, but you should have an understanding of what you’re going into. With the internet now, there are so many great sources out there at your fingertips. It would be silly not to use them. There are blogs and websites out there dedicated to learning about other religions, sexualities, ethnicities, etc. Even Wikipedia can be a good place to start, but don’t rely on that as your only form of research. Some good examples of resources are Mediadiversified.org which contains articles and academic pieces on diversity in media, ranging from books to television shows.
Do: Listen to Others
If you can, and this is related to research, find out what people in those groups have to say. Don’t just go up to people and ask them for their life’s story. You’ll probably just annoy them; they have lives too! But if someone is holding a panel or a discussion and it’s relevant to your writing, take advantage of that opportunity. Many out there want to tell their stories, share their experiences. Go to readings, participate in rallies, watch/listen to interviews or documentaries online. Check out the local library, some books there might be of use. You can listen to the voices of people from marginalized groups in so many different ways. It’s easy to do this to flesh out your writing and really bring your characters to life. Books written by people who use their own experience to back up their writing are a good source. One of my recent reads that I think does this really well in exploring cultures not usually seen in fantasy, my favorite genre, is N. K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy.
Meet the blogger:
Anna Krenz is a fiction writer and occasionally a poet, hailing from Wisconsin. She is currently a senior working on her bachelor’s in Creative Writing and English at Hamline University. She loves writing in any genre, although fantasy and horror are her two loves. Besides cats, of course.
Runestone has been selected as the winner for content in this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Program’s National Program Directors’ Prize for Undergraduate Literary Magazines.
The judge for content, Sharon Dolin, Director, Writing About Art in Barcelona, chose Runestone saying, “There is an impressive array of bold student work with a generous number of writers from the Midwest. In all three genres: from creative nonfiction to fiction to poetry, this journal demonstrates a consistently high level of undergraduate writing. The editors have achieved the standard they set for themselves of publishing an online journal that ‘can maintain’ and possibly ‘exceed the standards of print.’ The undergraduate work showcased here eschews sentimentality, and in many cases, takes an unflinching look at painful subject matter. Runestone is an all-around inspiring read!”
An announcement of winners will appear in the September 2017 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle as well as its website.
In just its third year, Runestone takes seriously its role in creating the next generation of editors and publishing talented undergraduate writers. The journal offers mentorship and invaluable hands-on experience of the publishing process for both its editors and its authors.
While the submission period is open from April 1- Oct. 1, Runestone’s editorial process takes place each fall during our upper-level undergraduate course “Introduction to Literary Publishing: Runestone.” The class is a collaborative effort among its faculty-editor; associate editors (who are graduate students in our MFA program); and an undergraduate student editorial board.
Congratulations to our undergraduate contributors nation-wide, our undergraduate editorial board, graduate student associate editors, and staff here at The Creative Writing Programs of Hamline University. Special gratitude to founding faculty editor, Katrina Vandenberg, whose brilliant vision and pure tenacity put Runestone into orbit.