Short story writing
This page is dedicated to short story writing.
My own experience.
Followed by other short story writers’ experiences and tips.
Declan Conner: 2nd May, 2011
DECLAN’S: SHORT STORIES
The Medium’s Apprentice is my latest short story. At 13,000 words, I would call it an example of a novelette as it runs to 58 pages in a printed book. With longer versions of short stories, it allows you to follow the traits of a full length story and to make your characters three dimensional.
Available on all Amazon sites as an eBook and as a print book.
See all my short stories here for purchasing separately.
AVAILABLE ON AMAZON
I came to short story writing by accident. I started out my author career by writing full-length books and continue to do so, but at times; ideas for projects pop into my head that if I didn’t write them down, the notion would be gone forever. Sometimes my brain feels like a microwave oven with the ideas coming like popcorn popping away. I suppose it is like when a songwriter gets his ideas for a song and has to reach for a pencil and a notebook, only I dive on the computer chair and type away. The problem is that with so many ideas, it would not be possible to make them all into full-length books.
What really started it all for me to get serious about short story writing was as a member of the Harper Collins author site, Authonomy, when they asked for short story submissions for a competition. One of their clients Co2, a government agency in the UK, were to publish a book to educate people on climate change and were looking for one or two short stories or poems to include in the publication. The maximum was 3,000 words and the story I wrote came in exactly on cue, but it was hard work as I actually wrote 5,000 words and it was quite an experience cutting down to the required word count.
To say I was surprised when I made it to the finals would be an understatement, especially as a panel of Harper Collins editors and some of their published authors judged it. Did I win? NO, thank goodness, Co2 chose a re-hashed nursery rhyme and a poem much to my relief. ‘Why relief’? You may well ask. The reason I say that is that I would have had to give my copyright away for no payment or future royalties. The story The End, or a New Dawn, is now published with the original 5,000 words story in my short story book, Lunch Break Thrillers and it is now earning me royalties.
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John Booth’s experience of short story writing.
John, is the author of Wizards, check it out.
In word-count terms I have written about as many short stories as I have novels (approximately a million words of each), ranging from 1000 word flash stories up to 20,000 word novellas. I’ve also published a few, there are seven Inspector Monde short stories out on Smashwords and Kindle and my stories are also in three anthologies you can buy if you want. This doesn’t make me any kind of expert on the subject but it does give you a frame of reference for what I’ve written below.
I find conceiving, developing and writing short stories different in nature from writing novels. For me, a novel starts with a concept, an image, a theme or an event. I create some characters and push them into situations keeping that concept in mind. The characters and I discover what’s going on together and when the novel reached two thirds of the size I intended we jointly head towards a resolution. I don’t plot novels in advance, I simply write them as I go.
Short stories are quite the opposite. Though you can write a short story that simply depicts a single event, I rarely do. For me, short stories have a formal structure.
1) The Setup – an event that triggers the story
2) The Action – what follows and why
3) The Resolution – when a conclusion is reached
4) The Twist – where you turn the story on its head.
I often start with The Twist, this can be a reveal (Like the end of The Sixth Sense), a joke, or an observation. If I start with The Twist I will often work all the way backward to get to The Setup. The Twist often won’t work at all unless all the story balls are lined up exactly right.
Short stories need a dénouement of some sort, a natural ending where the reader feels satisfied. It is that ‘blowing the smoke off the end of the barrel of a gun’ moment. However, if The Twist is a joke or slight in nature, I will work back from the Resolution, creating key moments in the scenes, and scene-ordering so characters move naturally from one to the other while creating the atmosphere I need. Usually I create those elements in my head. Going over each one in turn (not necessarily in the right order) until I know what the highlights are.
But the key thing is that I know the end of the story and all the stages that lead to that end before I start writing. Inspector Monde is incredibly difficult to write because I play games with the reader. Guess who the ghost is? Guess what’s going to happen next? Naturally, I can’t cheat. I must never lie to the reader or it would destroy the trust between us. What is most difficult is creating a story framework in the first place. Coming up with a good enough idea to make it worth writing is always the major problem.
The Setup is often the most difficult thing to write once you have the story clear in your mind. Readers of short stories expect everything to be relevant from the first word to the last. It’s not a form for prevarication and its closer to writing poetry than it is to writing a novel. In a novel, my characters can have some fun and I might only have one or two plot points per chapter. Think Harry Potter and Quidditch or the Weasley Twins. In a short story every event is vital and you can’t mess around. Even when nothing much happens, in a short story, the way that ‘nothing much’ is articulated will bring you success or failure.
To sum up, short stories are about ideas and meticulously plotted execution. Novels are more about characterisation and creating a story arc. There is a lot of crossover between the forms and some novels read to me as extended short stories and some short stories as condensed novels.
It is the nature of writing that there are absolutely no rules that can’t be broken, provided you can keep the reader reading.
And there are no rules for a writer except that he or she should write. If you’re only talking about writing then you haven’t made it yet. Happy writing everybody.
John Booth 29th April 2011
Plotting example: Declan Conner
To back up what John is saying, here is an example of a plot for a short story included in my collection of Lunch Break thrillers. Bare in mind this is a 5,000 word story, which allows for a traditional plot and characters to develop. In shorter stories and flash fiction it is not always possible. I have had to delete some of the plot which would give away the story, but it still retains the aims I started out with.
The Enemy Within.
The title and story are meant to work on two levels. It can relate to the physical enemy and the turmoil in the MC’s mind.
1, There is a war going on, but where? The location of the scene is deliberately held back. The soldier’s jargon is meant to mislead the reader that it could be possibly Iraq or Afghan’. It is only in the latter stages the reader realizes (as a twist) the location. I am hoping that the reader will take from it the view that there is blood on the hands of those who buy and consume drugs and they are equally guilty as the traffickers and dealers. Hence; The Enemy Within.
I am also hoping the reader will contemplate the plight of innocent people caught up in this war.
2, The MC’s background is that he has engaged in army operations as one of the elite in special operations. He resents that fact that he is no longer part of that set up. He is the representation of law and authority and the older generation in society (The twist here is to be his age, revealed at the end) His team represent the younger generation that don’t share his values. This divide creates a conflict in the MC’s mind. Hence ; The Enemy Within
The story is about conflict in the MC’s mind.
He believes that youth of today have no sense of duty or respect for authority.
Through dialogue and action, his team reinforces his view. Showing him scant respect
He questions his own values of duty, in that the war being waged is supported by a percentage of the very population he is trying to protect.
The team shows promise when the chips are down and action takes place, but finally break the MC’s aspirations for them, when they sample the very drugs they are meant to be fighting against.
He again questions the validity of a war he is fighting that sees the casualties as economic migrants, rather than refugees from the bloodshed.
Acting on information and with his mind in turmoil, he takes matters into his own hands and embarks on a solo suicide mission. Fatigue adds to his troubled mind as he starts to hear voices of his dead comrades, willing him on and adding to his inner turmoil.
He releases captives from prison he sees as refugees and sends them north to freedom.
The MC is prepared to die in action for his values.
A token of respect is shown to him, represented by flowers from the captives he released. The twist is added regarding his age.
His team finally shows the MC (as a representative of authority and morals) respect, holding out hope for the youth of today.
Of course, as John says there are no rules for adult short stories. Though the above is a standard plot, I have one 5,000 word story called Downward Spiral in the same collection. The way this is crafted is that the subject is of todays economic plight that affects individuals. It starts with an event and a set of circumstances that grow in ever-increasing intensity. This creates a fast pace through to the end and finishes with a twist and a moral, to give the story its depth.
Here is an example of a Crime Mystery thriller opening.
This is again a story from the collection of Lunch Break Thrillers. Most Crime Mystery stories start with a body and the Detective sets about discovering ‘who done it’. I have chosen a slightly different opening, which still creates mystery and still leads to a resolution with a twist. But as in all short stories there is a depth to the story. In this case it is self-doubt which many people share at times. At 5,000 words, this enables me to set the scene in the opening, but I still have to get to a cliffhanger or at least a reason for the reader to want to read on in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph I am attempting to achieve questioning in the reader’s mind by introducing the mystery of the figure in the crimson robe with circumstances that lead the reader to want to follow the story to discover the significance of the mysterious figure. In the third paragraph I am attempting to achieve further mystery and suspense as to what caused her to be knocked out. In each paragraph, I treat what happens as if it were the chapter in a full book. In plotting this story, I set the target of three paragraphs to achieve what John talks about as “The set up-the event that triggers the story.” Take a look and see if I have achieved what I set out to do. Feel free to leave comments.
The Mystery of the Crimson Robe
Rookie homicide Detective, Nancy Roberts, took great pleasure in her early morning walks in the local woods. This particular Friday morning was no exception. It was her special time to lose herself in the innocence of nature and forget the daily inhumanity she encountered on the streets. As she ambled along the trail, she kicked at the winter’s decaying foliage, releasing odours of a season past. A sudden searing pain gripped her. She stubbed her toes on a rock. “Aargh,” she shrieked. The initial pain was intense. It caused her to feel nauseated, and she sat down on the grassy slope beside a thicket. She removed her sneaker and began to rub her toes when a sound caught her attention. It was the distinct sound of rustling leaves being kicked up along the trail. Too loud for a small critter? Edging closer to the bush, she craned her neck and peered through a thick cover of leaves.
A figure approached, wearing a hooded top. She couldn’t see the face, but it was clearly a man. There was a prevailing sense of danger, and she froze, hoping the bushes would give her sanctuary. Her hand slipped inside her jacket. Hell, left my pistol at home. As he neared, she could make out his full figure and realized the hooded top was a silk-crimson dressing gown with white trim. How odd. She thought it even odder that his feet were bare. He was holding his side with both hands as if he was fatigued. Head bowed, he stumbled by without even glancing her way. Blood? That’s blood down his leg. She felt alarmed, but a sense of relief that her chameleon-like stance left her unnoticed. Her mind whirred away running over scenarios from the guy having an accident, to being mugged, to being an attacker escaping a felony. Instinct and self-preservation from fifteen years on the payroll at LAPD told her this was no time to catch up to him asking questions without backup or a firearm.
Damn, what if someone’s after him? Her eyes shot in all directions as she fumbled, unable to put her sneaker on in a panic. There were other noises, but she couldn’t get a fix on them. Fear gripped her when she realized she had also left her cell phone at home. Any notion of fitting her sneaker was put on hold, and she hobbled down the track as fast as her legs would carry her. What am I doing? She stopped following his direction. He could be a crazy. A quick diversion and she scrambled up the slope to make a shortcut out of the woods. Along the way, she stooped and picked up a stout branch as a weapon. Her heart raced and her lungs felt like they might explode. She started to turn her head at the sound of a breaking twig, when a sudden flash of bright coloured lights filled her vision. She felt a blow to the side of her head… then darkness
What is a short story?
Good question. It is like asking how long a piece of sting without a tape measure. The fact is they come in many shapes sizes styles and genres. But, let’s first look at the different lengths.
These are questions I will be answering over the coming weeks, together with asking other short story writers to contribute their own experience and hopefully to send in a few examples of their really short stories, or excerpts.
Flash fiction. Up to 1000, words
Suzanne Tyrpak, is the author of the bestselling compilation of 9 shorts, titled, “Dating my Vibrator.” The book has had outstanding success on both sides of the Atlantic on Amazon kindle, reaching the heights of two-second and one-third ranking for her short story book categories in the UK. Suzanne has kindly provided me with a flash fiction example of her work and an article on her thoughts on writing short stories.
Below is an example of the flash fiction story, Meditation, . Suzanne plans to publish this fall under the title, Ghost Plane and Other Disturbing Tales. http://ghostplanestory.blogspot.com/
By Suzanne Tyrpak
Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.
I sit cross-legged on my cushion, silent and unmoving like the others, my eyes cast downward and my vision blurred. I clear my head. Thoughts move through the sky of my consciousness. I watch them drift. I’m getting pretty good at this. I’m not thinking anything. My mind is empty.
Was that a thought?
I let it go.
I am serene.
And then he bursts into my brain.
I shut my eyes and drive him out, concentrate on thinking about nothing.
He sneaks back in.
Memories conjugate like thunderheads. His voice rumbles through me, words exploding in my brain. My lips are locked, so no sound can escape my mouth, but inside I’m screaming.
My left knee twitches. An itch inches along my spine, creeps along my skin, settles between my shoulder blades, then slithers into my brain.
He’s creating these sensations, these figments of my meditation. He whispers in my ear, but I don’t know what he is saying. He’s chanting in a secret language.
I clear my throat, trying not to make a noise.
My neighbor, a woman with blonde dreadlocks and leopard tattooed arms, shifts on her cushion, slides her gaze in my direction.
I close my eyes, so she can’t see me.
But there’s no escape from him.
He’s crowding my cushion. Sitting so close I’m sweating.
Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum.
My left foot has gone to sleep. I wish the chime would ring. Surely, it’s been forty minutes. My body is disappearing, going numb.
I hear the others breathing—in and out.
His breath feels cold and hot against my throat, icicles igniting into flames, lightning bolting through my body.
I reach for his icy warmth.
My fingers find his neck, his pulse. I dig my thumbs into his larynx, cutting off the oxygen, press until he makes a gurgling sound.
His throat melts inside my hands, and I am holding nothing. Not even a memory.
I’m falling through a void, hurtling through time and space.
My crash to earth is deafening.
The cushion has become a rock.
I sit, unmoving.
Listen to the others breathing.
Through slits of eyes I watch them.
The girl with blonde dreadlocks shifts on her cushion. I hear her breathing. And I wonder if her mind is free of thoughts, like mine.
Word count, 410
A brief article about writing short stories, by Suzanne Tyrpak
Short stories tend to burst out of me. I rarely sit down to write one. They break into my brain unexpectedly: driving to work at 4am, cycling in spin class, sitting in a restaurant, waiting at the doctor’s office—suddenly I feel compelled to jot down an idea, and that’s the beginning.
I love writing short stories, because I can focus on one incident, one or two characters. The process is satisfying, and I enjoy the simplicity. Writing a novel requires a lot of planning, and I often write historical novels which require extensive research. Writing a novel is a major commitment. Writing a short story is a romantic fling.
That doesn’t mean writing a short story is easy. Writing a short story demands that the writer be selective—about location, characters, conflict, words.
For me, writing a short story is similar to writing poetry. Because the words are limited, each word takes on more significance, especially when writing flash-fiction. I like the sparseness of the flash-fiction form. I think of it as a drawing—a few lines giving an impression, somewhat abstract, rather than a detailed oil painting. Short fiction allows the reader, requires the reader, to fill in the blanks, and in that way it’s more interactive than longer narrative.
Links to Suzanne’s books
For other books published by Suzanne, please go to her Amazon author page
How to write flash fiction
by Brett James Irvine
Wikipedia defines flash fiction as:
“A style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity”
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to expand that to include the short story, which Wikipedia (that all knowing God) defines as a prose work of fiction limited in length.
Flash fiction is one of my favourite methods of story delivery, both as a reader and a writer. I am all about the story, about that great idea made concrete, to be enjoyed by whomever so pleases. Why, you ask? My reasons are listed below:
- That ever elusive ultimate hook: the story that you can’t stop reading, because the beginning is so intriguing that you can’t put it down. Because of your limit on words, flash fiction requires that.
- Reader participation: the reader’s imagination is what completes the flash fiction story. A great ending for a book leaves the reader thinking; and a great short story can often leave more questions than answers. It allows the reader to participate, to fill in the blanks, to make the story. It uses the reader’s imagination to turn an interesting story into a great one.
- Short ideas: some ideas are fantastic, and can be turned into epic sagas spanning multiple books, series and movies. Some ideas are equally fantastic, but would fall apart on that large scale. There are also those really cool ideas that the writer doesn’t have the time to fully develop. Flash fiction is a method of delivery that allows the exploration of these short ideas, without a lot of time investment from either party. As an author, you can develop a great story idea in a few hundred or thousand words, and finish it, without extending the thinking and planning behind it to a full length novel. As a reader, you can explore fascinating ideas and theories in the space of a few pages, and still be left satisfied at the conclusion.
Now, let’s turn to the important part: how to actually write a short story. Well, firstly, the aims of a good short story (in my humble opinion) are as follows:
- Good fiction, captivating fiction, moves around interesting characters. People pick up books because of a great sounding story or plot, but they stick around because they get to know the characters. Thus, when writing flash fiction, you need to keep that in mind.
- However, because flash fiction is so short, there is more room for stories that “hug the plot” so to speak, that focus more on what happened, than on who it happened to. This allows you to advance on a story path without too much character development. (Of course, you still need to keep it in mind if you want to keep your reader interested.)
- Because of the word limit, prose has to be tight. No useless words, no sentences without meaning or purpose. Every word has a purpose.
- Because of the word limit, the perfect word matters. Words have subtle differences in meaning: think of the difference between bursting and exploding: bursting implies breaking through a barrier. Exploding implies violent outward projection of force with a shockwave. In situations (bursting with joy, exploding with anger) these words can be of similar meaning, but deciding which to use is important in delivering the ultimate impact for your story. In this way, flash fiction is like poetry.
These are the key points to remember when setting out to write a short piece of fiction. What’s left is really up to you, and depends on your writing style. Do you plot your stories out in advance, outlined from beginning to end (the plotter)? Or do you start with a core idea, hit the keys (or pencil) and see what your characters get up to (the pantser, as in write by the seat of your pants)? Since most flash fiction pieces are really too short to be over-plotted, I tend to start with the pantser method, and revise once done.
You have your core idea; you have a ghost of a character in your mind; so sit down and write that story. Showing, not telling, is key: telling usually makes up too many words that aren’t absolutely necessary. Trust in the intelligence of your reader. If it’s not absolutely vital to the story, cut it.
I hope my advice is helpful and that from here on you’re able to bang out those stories you have floating around in your head. Good luck!
For an example on a piece of flash fiction, see my short piece below, entitled “The Cloaked Man”. This story appears in a collection with 5 other stories of varying length, and varying genre, an can be found at amazon.com for your kindle, or at Smashwords.com in other e-book formats.
The Cloaked Man
Brett James Irvine
Every day I spend a few minutes staring out of the window waiting for the Cloaked Man to take me away. Every day I cast a few cups of water or wine onto the earth out back in His name. Why do we still call it earth? That place is long gone. Every day I spend an anxious hour praying and intoning the rites described in The Book, hoping that they don’t pick me to sacrifice myself for the Elders.
Every day I bite my lip when Jerrick thrusts at me in feigned lust, hoping he finishes without losing his temper. Every day he loses his temper, and beats the side of my head with his curled fist, crying until he is exhausted and falls asleep. Every day he wakes up and uses the nanomeds to treat my wounds. Every day he strokes my hair and tells me he’s sorry that I’m like this and that he’s sorry he has to punish me.
Every day I wonder why we live like this, and when the Cloaked Man will arrive, blood under his finger nails, ash on his staff, gas rising from his lidless sockets. Every day I go to sleep, awaiting a day like the last. Every day, except this day.
I see him stepping out from the cover of the trunks – that’s what we call them on this planet: trunks, for they have no leaves or branches, just a trunk and a fruit each – his back bent and hunched and aching, his knees kicking out to the side, struggling under the increased gravity. He is old, the Cloaked Man. He has a strange hat.
Gunslinger? Cowboy? I don’t know why our King called him that. He looks like a loser, an old man, a lost hero, his missing fingers a reminder that life is hard and happiness is harder. Every day I wait for this man. This day, he is here and I do not want to go. But I have made my choice.
I am not used to this new world. He is not as I wished him – he is beautiful and strong and heroic, and ugly and scarred and mean as well. His voice is free and soothing and harsh and scared. I don’t understand him. My mind hurts because he is human and not human, he is not like me, he shifts and changes and is hard and stubborn and doesn’t talk.
But I don’t intone any stupid rites this day. I also don’t waste wine like before. The Cloaked Man gets angry with waste. He says it killed our world after we left it. His beard is scratchy, and I think I like it. He doesn’t beat me when the lusting starts.
My life is beautiful and free. The Cloaked Man came to save me, and I am learning to be free. The lessons are painful and I do not understand. But I am not forced to do anything, and I like it and I hate it and I am infuriated. I learn new words all the time.
Every day, I wait for the Cloaked Man to come back. I don’t waste wine anymore, but I still throw the odd cup of water. I know He is not coming back. I hate that He left. I hate it and I like it because I understand. He is missing fingers. He has no eyelids. He is not human.
Every day I spend a few minutes rubbing my growing belly, telling my unborn child that his father was a story and a hero and a man with no eyelids. I hope our child is a gunslinger like the Cloaked Man. I love our child. I hate our child. I still lie awake after Jerrick has finished beating me, but I do not let him nanomed me.
Jerrick does not like my child. He knows it is not his. But he is afraid, so he hits harder than before and thrusts deeper. It is painful, and I hate it, and I like it too. He knows the Cloaked Man is gone. But he is terrified of the saviour the Cloaked Man left in my belly.
Word count: 700
Read my writing at:
1,000, 3,000 words.
3000 to 5000
5,000 to 8,000
8,000 + Novellas
What use are short stories to an author’s career?
Is there a market for short stories?
Marketing and selling my short stories?
Where do I find out about competitions?
Where do you get ideas?
From my own experience, I find ideas from newspaper articles. I usually look for topical subjects, like home foreclosure, identity theft, etc and my fertile mind does the rest. News articles tend to skim the surface and state facts in an emotive way and what I attempt to do is to give the reader a sense of the emotions, the individuals behind the headlines experience. The stories don’t always happen at the time I read them, but later spark ideas, especially if it is something I feel incensed about.
My fable, The secret, I wrote for the article, ‘How not to sell 10,000 eBooks in one month,’ came from trying to figure out why some author’s are successful and others not so much so. Other times, I take experiences from my own life. One such example came from a one day flight that turned in to a three-day horror story when airports were closed due to heavy snow. I was distraught at the thought of losing my luggage which contained some cheap kitchen utensils. During the trip I noticed some laughable security lapses. It also got me to thinking about what value we place on our possessions. With three days contemplating the subject, it wasn’t difficult to write a short story as a thriller, ‘Lost Baggage,’ to add to my collection in Lunch Break thrillers.
There are subject search sites on the web, that will automatically generate ideas and plots. I did try them, but somehow they didn’t spark any ideas for me, as I need to feel an emotional attachment to the story that gives it its depth . The toughest ones and perhaps the most challenging are set topics with set word count limits for competitions.
Recently, I wrote a 500 word flash fiction piece for practice that will never see the light of day. The idea came from watching an almost silent You-tube video of a blind man sat in the street with a tin and a sign that said. ‘I am blind, ‘ everyone ignored him. A woman approached and changed the words on the sign. After that, his can never stopped ringing to the sound of coins. At the end she returned and he asked what she had written. The sign now read, “It is a beautiful day, but I can’t see it.” The title of the video was, “The power of words.” I wrote it from the point of view of the blind man, using all the senses but sight and using the twist that he was blind at the end. I only used this as an exercise. Maybe you could try it for practice, but you also have to change the wording on the sign.
Where Do You Get Ideas?
by David Gaughram
People ask this question a lot. Some writers don’t like answering it, as if it will break some kind of spell. In fairness, it’s not always easy to respond. I remember one writer saying, “I make them up, that’s my job, I write fiction.” She may be right, but it’s not the whole answer.
Inspiration is funny. It can strike at the weirdest times. When you are writing something else you have to make a quick note and move on. But some ideas hit you late at night when you’re brushing your teeth or taking out the bins. Or when you’re in the pub.I got ideas all the time, but most of them are terrible. Luckily, you filter those out pretty quickly (or try to). When you are down on your work, you think every idea is awful. In the pub, every idea is amazing. I can’t tell you how many mornings I have unfolded some scrap of paper and seen an excited scrawl only saying, “something about a Fabergé egg!”
I get a lot of ideas when I’m talking with a friend and one or other of us says, “wouldn’t it be cool if…” These ‘what if’ concepts are often the strongest. What if aliens lived among us? What if cars could turn into robots? What if Germany won World War II? If you do it right, you can tap into something powerful.But you don’t always get handed something that complete. It can be a character’s name or verbal quirk. It can be an unusual profession or an exotic location. It’s often just the title. Sometimes that’s enough.
I get most of the ideas after I’ve started work on the story. I know some writers plan everything out before they write it, but that never works for me, certainly never with a short story. At best I will have a title and a scribbled sentence or two. That’s usually enough to get going if the idea is a good one.
Once I am underway, it could go in any direction. I don’t know how a sentence is going to end until I write it. I often surprise myself. It’s as something else has taken over and I am just a stenographer. That implies a lack of control, and I take lots of wrong turns. Sometimes you can fix it, sometimes you can’t. That’s the way it goes.
Picking the right idea is hit-and-miss; I have a ton of half-written stories on my hard-drive. Some are ones that needed research that I never got round to. A few are stories that really should be novels but I haven’t committed yet. Others again are the worst kind of idea. A half-idea. A good half-idea can have you waste weeks on a dead-end story. For me, it’s often a high concept but I haven’t attached the right character. I have the set-up; I just can’t find any good actors. Happens all the time.
More experienced writers than me spot these dead-ends quicker. I waste a lot of time on them. I need to learn to walk away sooner. Stephen King has an interesting take on ideas. He never writes them down. Just thinking of that makes me crazy. How can he not write them down? He says that ideas are never ready the first time they come to you, and if you force it, you could ruin it. So when he gets an idea, he ignores it. He waits for the second time it appears. Then it’s stronger. Then he runs with it. How self-disciplined is that? I suppose he doesn’t go to the pub anymore. That would help.
How do you plot a short story? Are their rules?
Can short stories improve my writing?
There is no doubt about it. Writing short stories can improve your writing skills. There is a certain discipline involved in short story writing that can vastly approve how you approach full-length novels. With the short story you have to agonize over the inclusion of every word, every sentence, every paragraph, leading to a conclusion that gives the satisfaction of a taught read.
Here is what Barry Napier has to say about the subject.
“Short and sweet; keeping short stories alive.”
In high school and college, I learned pretty quickly that there are no cut and dry rules for short stories. I think the clearest definition—the one that stuck with me—was that it is a story to be enjoyed in one sitting. A professor in college suggested that the perfect length for a short story was seven pages. In the back of my mind I was thinking: “Tell that to Stephen King.”
I mention King because Night Shift was the first short story collection I ever read from start to finish. And if memory serves me correctly, it was also the book that really started my obsession with wanting to write stories. I wrote somewhere around 40 short stories in high school and they were all terrible (I know this because I stumbled upon one of these unfortunate folders when cleaning out the office the other day).
Still, even in those wrecks, I saw where I got my beginnings. Every now and then I would read a sentence that startled me. I saw my current self in a few phrases and realized just how important short stories are to writers. For me, as I developed into a better writer (or so I like to tell myself), I used short stories as workshops of sorts. How quickly could I tell a story without leaving out important details? How much could I make a reader care about a character in 6,000 words or less?
I think short stories are equally valuable to readers. If you go back to that old high school adage mentioned above, being able to knock out a story in one sitting is a pretty great feeling. It’s the same with any other media—sometimes you’d rather watch a 4 minute Saturday night Live skit than sitting through a two-hour Judd Apatow film.
The issue with short stories is an interesting one for me as of late. At some point, I got bogged down with trying to write novels. In the course of the past year, I wrote only five short stories. Compared to the more than twenty I wrote the year before, there’s a noticeable decline. There’s no real reason for this; I just got caught up in bigger stories. However, I think it is important to note that in the thick of trying to write novels, I always resort back to writing short stories—even some flash fiction (1,000 words or less)—when a novel’s plot had me stumped.
Short stories can be a writer’s best friend. They allow us to exorcise the demons that sort of linger around like unwanted neighbors, heckling us while writing longer stuff. In a time when most best sellers are written with a vision of what they might look like on a movie screen, the short story has regrettably become devalued.
So here’s a call to writers and readers alike. The short story is alive and well and they often have bigger stories to tell than their short stature may suggest. And as for the art of writing, the short story teaches us to get to the point, to deliver the death-blow rather than drag out the torture.
For an example of what I am talking about, feel free to check out my current release 13 Broken Nightlights. Or King’s Night Shift. Or, if you really want your mind blown, read absolutely any short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut or Richard Matheson.
Speaking of Vonnegut, I leave you with this—particularly those writers out there that feel that they still need short story practice.
Vonnegut’s recipe for telling a great short story:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
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