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This past few days I’ve been really reluctant to dive back into working on my novel as I’ve been a bit lost as to how best to continue.
Instead of forcing the process I decided to take a look at some of my old pieces of creative writing, the many unfinished, unpolished poems and short-stories I’ve started over the years. There was one in particular that stood out. I’d started writing it while away at uni (the first time ’round) and didn’t know what it was going to be and (as usual) didn’t finish it. The idea was about an American monarchy, set in the Wild West in an alternate reality.
While most of the little I’d written was incoherent, some of the material sparked some inspiration for me and I used it as a starting point to develop the idea into a short story of about 2500 words.
Personally, I found it great fun to get away from the world of my novel and the plot and characters I’ve been so involved with for the last seven months. I could get creative, more outrageous, be more fast-paced and fantastical about my writing. Its given my brain a nice break from the hard-slog of novel writing, that’s for sure.
This exercise also got me thinking a lot about form and structure. A short story poses a fun challenge: to build a believable world, characters you can care about and a plot that excites and satisfies in just a tiny fraction’s worth of the words in a novel. More than ever, in a short story the structure is a vital tool for the author to use in furthering the effect of their writing, in helping to set the all-important mood.
So I’ve done a bit of research and collated some advice from the experts to aid in writing a short story should the mood strike you.
Stephen King says, ‘younger writers stumble into novel writing before they’re ready to go there’. King started writing short stories and never wanted to fully leave it behind. He’s said that some short stories he’s written started small and then grew to the size where they’d be a novel. He cites Raymond Carver as a very talented short story writer.
There’s a really great post on jerryjenkins.com that outlines some helpful points and gives advice on getting started. One of the tips that stood out for me, aside from reading as widely as possible, was the importance of ‘going for the heart’. This means to focus your short on a powerful emotion that will resonate with your reader, he gives Love, Redemption, Justice and Freedom as some examples. He underlines the importance of narrowing your scope when it comes to character and plot, focusing on one scene or incident in your characters life that is significant. Similarly with character, avoid long description and give just enough to pique your reader’s interest and allow them to create the character in their mind. He writes that the goal is a ‘resounding ending’ that leaves the reader with something poignant. Jenkins tells us not to waste time by setting up the story or including too much backstory but instead to jump in with the action. And finally, to revise, revise, revise by cutting out unnecessary words and phrases.
Eliza Robertson, author of acclaimed collection Wallflowers and winner of the 2013 Commonwealth short story prize, shares her advice on writing engaging, gripping short stories.
She has a number of tips which you can read by following the link above, but something that stood out for me was the suggestion that we ask surprising questions about our characters.
Ask yourself surprising questions about your character. Not simply, “what did Fatima eat for breakfast,” (how much emotional resonance can you find in a bowl of cornflakes anyhow) but – “when was the last time someone saw Fatima naked?” or, “when was the last time Fatima cried?” or, “when did she last say, ‘I love you.'” These details may not appear in the story itself, but they will lend your character what Adrienne Rich words as, “the sheer heft of our living.” This heft deepens the scenes you include on the page and projects the shadows of your character’s past and future.
I believe this is a really helpful tip that I’ll use in my next short.
If you’re ready to take your short story writing to the next level and try and get something published (we’d all love that right?), there’s an article by Joanna Penn on thecreativepenn.com titled 10 Tips for Writing Short Stories that Sell.
In this article she curates advice from award-winning writer Alan Baxter.
The advice for writing stories to sell is interestingly not to try and write for a market but instead to write the story that you really want to tell and then find somewhere that’s likely to publish that kind of story. I think this is great advice because you’re surely more likely to produce good work when you’re engaging with a topic you’re passionate about and have a unique perspective on.
There are other tips like rejection being the default (don’t we all know about that one) and the importance of not working for free but accepting semi-pro payments as you build your name and career. Meaning, take a lower payment if it means a chance of increasing readership of your work and helping to build your career by having your work published.
Also interestingly, the article states that the biggest problem with short stories is that they start too far back and because you’re pushed for words you should start right in the middle with the conflict.
So I hope you found those tips as useful as I did, if you’re ready to jump in and get writing you can find links to short-story prompts below.