The Short Story Project Week Zero
Explanation and starter stories
When I read George Saunders’s book about reading and writing through Russian short stories, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, it struck me how similar the picture book writing and short story writing processes can be. A picture book is a poem and a short story, in many ways. A picture book can be a fragment, a minute of a day, a feeling, a full narrative, or an entire life. And a short story can also be all of those things.
I started intentionally reading more short stories, looking for clues. What makes a good story? What takes my breath away? What narrative tricks make me smile? What stories don’t I like, and why?
Almost immediately, I started getting glimmers of picture books inspired by the stories I was reading. Maybe a friendship between two characters would be complex and interesting – two 20-somethings who are best friends but also sort of mean to each other, and with a thread of love underneath it all. And I’d think, what would this relationship be if they were in first grade? And I’d try to write it.
Short stories are also often extremely weird, or can play with unusual structure – tricks that might get incredibly tedious over the course of a novel, but are perfect in a shorter form. Those are inspiring too.
And so I’d like to invite you to join me in a short story study, where we read short stories, and then write picture books in response. This project will be behind the paywall, which is $5 a month or $50 a year, though the first 14 days are a free trial. (If you like these sorts of projects, there are more like it, so consider sticking around.)
TO BE CLEAR: I am not (I can’t emphasize this enough: truly not) telling you to plagiarize. DO NOT write an exacting picture book version of the short story. If you copy and get in trouble, that’s on you. Assays in Steal Like an Artist, “We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism — plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”
So we will read these short stories and see what element we want to copy and try out in a picture book story of our own. We will read these short stories and think about what we like, or what we don’t. Maybe you are interested in the structure, or in the relationships, or in the weird magic. Maybe you love the voice. Or maybe you don’t like the ending, and you think, “what do I wish the ending was?” And then you can write that ending, but how it would work for a picture book, and then write the beginning and middle of the picture book that would go with that ending.
This Short Story Project will go on for four weeks. Each week, there will be a loose theme, and 4-7 short stories. All of the short stories are available for free on the internet. Your job is to read one (or more) of the stories, and think about how you would translate that into something that works in a picture book.
Ideally, you’ll write one draft a week. Will they all be winners? Who knows! Even if they’re not, you’re getting practice and courting your creativity, and that’s always good.
To start, in this pre-week, let’s look at three flash fiction stories. You are welcome to discuss them in the comments. Or you can print them out, take them to a coffee shop, and think about how you might turn them into a picture book.
Let’s look at a story, and then I’ll walk through how I’d think about turning that into a picture book.The first story is “The Definition of Us” by Christina Dalcher. (Go read it now, it will only take a minute.)
What stands out to me with “The Definition of Us" is the dictionary format/structure, and how I might construct similar unusual structures in picture books.
A common “unusual” structure in a picture book is an alphabet book, and the most memorable recent ones put a story into that structure (Like Fraidyzoo or Z is for Moose). This is making me think how I could put a full story into a dictionary page. How would a character or plot move through the list of definitions? Consider the wordplay in this story. What word like “cast” could mean different things in a picture book? It might be cool to have build, builder, building, rebuild. Or even a word like “jam” which could mean strawberry preserves, being stuck, or shoving into a tight space.
Would there be a character? Is the character defining things for us? Why?
And a story comes to me: a character talks about being in a jam, and another isn’t sure what this means, and looks it up in the dictionary, but isn’t sure which definition is the one that works. They reply with a letter and a jar of jam. Maybe they point out the seal on the letter (or on the jam jar) and, confused, the recipient looks “seal” up in the dictionary, and isn’t sure which definition is right. Or– well there would have to be more confusion in this, maybe. I would go through an actual dictionary, and find fun words that kids would know but that have wildly different meanings. I like the idea of two characters running to their dictionaries to figure out what their friend is talking about. And then maybe, at the end, they make their own dictionary, like a lexicon of friendship.
This isn’t the best idea ever. It’s not the sort of idea that comes to me out of the blue. But I like the idea of playing with the words and having the reader understand something that the characters do not. It’s enough to go on, to start playing around with. And maybe this is the sort of story where, during revision, the dictionary element falls away completely, and it’s just about these characters who show up. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t know until I started writing. (Which is the point!)
Here are two more flash stories for you to think about.
“Curriculum” by Sejal Shah also has an unusual structure (a list of courses).
“This is How You Fail to Ghost Him” by Victoria McCurdy is more straightforward (not an unusual structure, unless you count the brevity of flash fiction as unusual). You probably won’t write a story about elementary school characters meeting on a dating app, but there is something about making friends when you have failed to find your one true friend up until now, and you each tell a story you think you should tell. It’s also second person POV, which can be fun to play around with.
Every week on Tuesday I’ll post the new short stories for paying subscribers. There will be three to five short stories each week. There will be a forum on my website so we can discuss all of the stories. Yes, you can still comment on Substack, but the forum allows us to be better organized, to upload photos and gifs, and to private message each other (maybe you’re looking for a critique partner?). At the end of the four weeks, we’ll have a zoom where we can talk about how it went, and ideas for how we can keep being inspired going forward.
Because all of these stories are available for free on the internet, some of them are a reading experience full of moving internet ads. These are the sacrifices we make.
Also: these are stories for grownups. We will be putting them into the gears of our brains and turning them into stories for children, but do know that many of these stories have curses, violence, and sex. That’s a thing that happens in grownup worlds.
My goal for this is for us to play with exploring types of stories we haven’t written before. It’s incredibly useful (I find) to consider story elements that intrigue you, and then figure out how you would use them, ultimately revising into a very “you” story – a story only you can write. Even if none of the drafts you write turn into a submittable manuscript, if you play with writing a draft every week, you will grow as a writer, I promise.
Thoughts and Links
I had to update the bio for my next picture book (Help Wanted: One Rooster), and I asked to take out the references to my social media handles, so it just says “Find Julie at her website at juliefalatko.com.” My editor said I was the third author in a week to ask for the social media links to be taken out of their bio. INTERESTING.
My favorite bookstore (Print: A Bookstore) is consistently amazing on TikTok, but this Freaks and Geeks one is so good I might have to go buy more books (yeah, we all know I was going to go buy more books anyway). This is your reminder that if you ever want one of my books signed and/or personalized, order it from Print.
“Every finished book is the outcome of a problem solving process, most of which can and should be hidden from the reader.” I could have pasted in a dozen other quotes from this post byabout running as a metaphor for writing; that one seemed as good as any.
I love this post fromabout looking at the creative routines of people you admire, and then maybe ignoring them entirely.
The always-wisehas some wise things to say about the importance of taking breaks.
- on our inability to notice the gradual changes around us.
Something I won’t apologize for is my love of a nice dishtowel. We use them a lot and if they are a good size and look nice, it makes me happy. I recently discovered that my local independent fabric store sells dishtowel fabric on narrow rolls, so two sides are already hemmed (link is to a different fabric store that has more options). All I have to do is decide how long I want it to be, and hem the short ends (and add a hanging loop). It took me twenty minutes to sew, and that’s because I was deliberately going very slowly to make sure the stitches were straight. And it cost $5.35.
Books I read recently and loved
Disclosure: book links in this newsletter are affiliate links to Bookshop.org, a site which supports independent bookshops.
The Skull by Jon Klassen feels like a layered and meaningful revelation of a book.
Ramona read (an advance copy of) Like a Charm and then groaned and said, “I really hope this is the first in a series, but if there is, I’ll have to wait forever, because this one hasn’t even come out yet.” And then I read it and thought the same thing. It’s great.
What if you’re not a picture book writer? I absolutely think you can be inspired by short stories to make a weird novel or a sculpture or a painting. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how to do that. I would love to know if you do!
In future weeks, I won’t go through this whole process, so you will have more creative room to write your own story. We’ll have plenty of space for discussion if you want it.