Saturday, August 21, 2010

short stories

Several years ago I was invited to be a part of a short-story anthology, and I reluctantly declined. I'd never written a short story before, and the idea terrified me. Didn't know if I could manage that kind of distilled writing. About a year later, I was invited to submit to the Once Upon a Crime anthology, and I said I'd try. I cheated a bit, because I actually expanded a flash fiction piece I'd already written.

Since then, I've written about eight short stories, and with each one I think I get a little closer to getting it right.

I don't know the specific rules for short stories other than a length of 1000 - 3000 words, but I do know what I like.

The circle. In my mind, the perfect short story looks like a circle. It circles back to the beginning. Most of my stories don't circle back, but I'm working on it.

A complete story. Unlike flash fiction, I think the best short stories feel complete. Even one thousand words. I want to feel that it's a whole story, beginning, middle, end. This is another thing I'm working on, because mine sometimes feel like a slice of life. A little window. And that can be wonderful too, but not as wonderful as the complete story.

Surprise and delight. I think a really good short story ends with a bang. This can be achieved with a twist, a revelation, humor, emotion. Close on the highest note. Again, I may have achieved this in a couple of my stories, but not all of them.

I'm sure there are guidelines for short-story writing, but I've never read any. Maybe I should. Or not. Any advice for writing short stories?


  1. What helps me with writing my own is reading a good anthology. I try to pick up one from an editor who usually puts out something really good in the genre. Right now, I'm reading some stuff for a few classes I'll be teaching, but I picked up Dark Faith from Apex Book Company which has some really fantastic stories in it. I just finished Masterpieces: The best Science Fiction of the 20th Century, which was amazing. A great collection from fantastic authors over the years. Also reading Wastelands (from John Joseph Adams), Steampunk collected by the Vandermeers, and 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill (the only single author collection I'm reading straight through). All great stuff.

  2. thanks for the suggestions, emeraldcite. i've been interested in getting 20th century ghosts. forgot about it, so thanks for reminding me!

  3. The only short story writing instruction I remember reading was included in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's been awhile since I've read the book, though. From what I do remember, your advice is similar to hers.

    Or maybe not. lol.

  4. You're right about the circle. Since I've only written short stories I feel fairly okay with them but it's those big bloody novel things that scare the S*** out of me!

  5. Keep the cast of characters small, keep the arc small, emphasize character over plot, make every word count, have some small surprise or insight at the end. And you're right about the circle, the beginning should have the nugget for the end in it. Some day I will get it right. Thanks for the "note."

  6. heather, bird by bird...another book i always meant to read. i have a lot of those.

    paul, hah! i do think novels and short stories are very different. i didn't realize how different until i started writing them. But I wonder if short stories aren't excellent practice for novel writing.

    patti, oh, all good advice. love the the small arc. didn't think of that, but it's so true. and related, keep the plot small. some people try to write a smaller version of a bigger story. those short stories aren't as satisfying. too much stuffed into a small space, and the stories can feel almost like a draft of something bigger.

    also like emphasizing character over plot.

  7. I wasn't sure I could write a short story on purpose when I was invited to write one for an anthology (heh). Until Slurp, I'd only written when the muse struck me. [oh, that's funny too]

    I think I succeeded -- to an extent.

    For me, it was closer to writing a song and not at all close to writing a novel.

    In my songs, the payoff is in the last verse which I usually write first. Then I write the other verses as a path to the zing or revelation at the end. "Slurp" was that way for me.

    And yes, writing a short story is a wonderful discipline. Makes me select in and out. Makes me notice what is necessary.

  8. L, i def think you succeeded with Slurp. and i love the comparison to writing a song. and really like the idea of writing the end first. i might try that next time!