Friday, August 26, 2011

SPARK: YA Short Stories, or how I got rid of the creepy old man in my head

Sparkfest concludes! I've really enjoyed this blogfest, so hats off to Christine and all of the other great bloggers I've "met" through this experience!

In my earlier posts, I talked about the books that made me want to write meta-fiction and dystopian novels. But for the past month I’ve actually stepped away from my dark fantasy/dystopian/meta-fiction manuscript to focus on short stories. (I’ll get into why I did it and what my goals are in my next post, but there's no reason to make this one even longer.) So I thought I would write my last post about my hunt for the right short story spark. 

When I decided to spend the rest of the summer on short stories, I sat down and wrote out drafts for the first three ideas that came to mind, and I also looked back at some old story fragments to see if any were worth developing. And I realized something very strange:
  • Most of my novel ideas and manuscripts: 3rd person past tense with young and reasonably likeable protagonists  
  • Most of my short story ideas and manuscripts: 1st person present tense with unreliable or morally suspicious adult male narrators.
 What the heck? Why is there a creepy old man hiding in my brain? 

Then I realized that while I’ve read a ton of YA novels to pull from for inspiration, my experience with short stories pretty much comes down to this short list of authors:
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Stephen King
  • Robertson Davies
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Neil Gaiman
  • The people who write stories in The New Yorker
You’ll notice that the list is made up of male writers who like creepy things and unreliable narrators, and that other than Neil none of them writes YA. Of course I gravitated towards that type of story in my own writing! I should clarify that I love that type of story and that I'm grateful that Poe and co. gave me the spark to write them and that I will definitely polish and try to publish them... But I wanted to try my hand at YA stories too, especially since that’s the market I primarily want to break into. (I tried to rewrite that sentence so that it didn’t end with a preposition, by the way, but it just sounded silly.)

So for once I had to actively look for a genre Spark, and I found it sitting patiently on my bookshelves, waiting to finally be read. Enter my new textbook of wonderfulness:

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier. What you can't see here is that the black dust cover comes off to reveal an amazing Where's Waldo-like scene of battling zombie and unicorns.
I've never been a big fan of zombies (icky) or unicorns (meh), but this collection converted me. I LOVED reading it, it introduced me to some awesome new authors, and most importantly it lit the spark for three YA short stories of my own. None of them, by the way, are about zombies or unicorns, and (hopefully) none seem derivative; I just needed something to get me in the right head space, voice, and general plot arc for YA fantasy shorts, and this book worked like a charm. I highly recommend it, whether or not you're trying to write YA short stories, and even whether or not you like zombies and unicorns. 

Have you ever had to go looking for a Spark? And did it work out as well as my zombies and unicorns?


  1. Love the zombies and unicorns! This is a great post, I enjoyed reading about the creepy old man in your brain LOL, and I'm glad you found your Spark. And I agree, this has been a fun and interesting blogfest.

  2. Zombies and unicorns is an interesting combination! Awesome Spark too! And yes, a lot of times I'll have to go look for a spark. But not a spark for an overall story idea. I usually go search for one when I'm stuck with writer's block. Great post!

  3. i look for sparks all the time! i love flash fiction challenges and prompts that i can brainstorm. i just wrote a were-unicorn flash fiction story a couple weeks ago =)
    good for you wanting to try new things!

  4. Thanks everyone!

    And I am very intrigued (and a wee bit frightened) by those were-unicorns...

  5. Unicorns--yes, zombies--no. I'm always looking for the next shower of sparks. When I find one, I study the hell out of it. Why argue with success? I've enjoyed your blog this week. Thanks for visiting mine.

  6. I just found your blog today, through the Sparkfest list, and I'm loving it! :D Great Sparkfest posts this week!

  7. I got an award today, and I enjoyed your blog so much that I've passed it on to you! :)

  8. Thanks so much, Jan and J! I've enjoyed discovering your blogs as well. And now I'm excited to do my first award post :-D

  9. Ooh, good to find someone else that likes the combination of unreliable narrators and creepy things! And I've been meaning to read Zombies vs. I have an even better reason to do that!

  10. Oh man, good call on the male-written short stories. I remember when I started reading YA (I did the whole Adult-YA thing backwards. Classics as a kid, YA as an adult), I was weirded out by how many first-person girl stories there were. I was like, "when did people start writing these?" Something about them didn't sit quite right. To be honest, it still kind of doesn't, even when I enjoy them. I never realized it's because I'm much more comfortable with a "inner male voice." Bizarro. You made me learn something about myself here!

  11. Same here, Christine -- I've read way more YA books in the past three years than I did when I was in the actual YA age bracket.