Short Stories are Big Quests
A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film. Lorrie Moore
As an emerging writer and avid reader, I have a great love for short stories. Short stories have been an important part of my literary life, both as a reader and as a writer.
As a child I created them. Mum would buy me a cheap exercise book from Coles and I would write stories. Usually about fairies, witches, talking animals and princesses waiting to be saved. I grew up reading Wind in the Willows, Fairy Tales, Paddington Bear, The Jungle Book, and my all-time favourite The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Little Golden Books featured a lot too; they were cheap and accessible. Like the stories I enjoyed, I would include illustrations to support my words; an illustration on the left-hand side and the written story on the right.
When I was in high school, I wrote short stories as part of my journal. Growing up in a strict Italian family my life was pretty limited when it came to exciting events and adventures. These stories were manifestations of a life I yearned for. My imagination created worlds where I had a great job, travelled the world, went to slumber parties and rock concerts. There were plenty of stories about having a hot looking boyfriend too.
By the time I got to senior school, I got myself a boyfriend and spent my late teens going to concerts, parties and the beach; reading and writing got pushed to the side.
When I left school and started travelling to the city for work, like the prodigal son, I returned to reading. The library had been my go-to for fiction. Now that I was earning money, I decided to splurge on a book to read on the train. That first book I ever bought was The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. A new release at the time. Yes, it was the 1980s! I loved the story. It’s still one of my all-time favourites and I have reread it a number of times ever since. Soon after, I discovered a hard-back copy of The Blue Bedroom. Pilcher’s collection of short stories. This indulgent purchase ignited my love of short stories that I have maintained ever since.
Along the way, I discovered other short story writers such as Elizabeth Jolley, Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Annie Proulx, Joyce Carol Oates, the master Ernest Hemingway, and recently Cate Kennedy. There are many others. I revisited Henry Lawson who I'd studied at school and discovered Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf in my Literature degree. There are so many to list. Below is an image of some of the short stories I currently own and read regularly.
I love short stories because they can be read in one sitting. They have also been instrumental in encouraging me to continue in dappling as a writer and were the catalyst for deciding to work towards becoming a published author when I achieved full marks for my first assessment, a short story I wrote, in the Master of Letters I am currently completing.
A few months ago, I made a pact with myself to read one short story per day. This doesn’t always happen. But the goal does get me reading a few in a week.
As an emerging writer, writing short stories are my professional development. Short stories have limited word counts, you are forced to be concise and to get to the heart of the story quickly. Every word, every piece of dialogue needs to work. Every word is precious. Writing short stories is forcing me to be more succinct and crisper with my prose and dialogue. Writing is helping me to get rid of ‘purple prose.’
Kurt Vonnegut has a great list of advice that I use as a checklist when I write and edit my own short stories:
· Give the reader one character they can connect to, someone they can champion for and feel empathy for.
· Every character needs to want something. Even if it’s just a glass of water.
· Ensure that the reader doesn’t feel they haven’t wasted their time reading your story.
· Make every sentence work. Each sentence has a role: to advance the action or reveal character.
· Be mean to your character. Be brutal. Make awful things happen to them. The reader needs to see what your character is made of.
· Start as close to the end of your story as possible.
· Don’t try to write for awards, accolades or for the whole world to read. Write for that one reader.
· Your reader is intelligent. Give them as much information as possible as soon as possible. Throw away the need to withhold details for suspense.
Writing is a craft. It requires practice. For me writing short stories allow me to use all the skills I’m discovering and learning about. Short stories don’t take long to write, and they give you a sense of achievement. Edgar Allan Poe said that any short story that takes longer to be read in one sitting should be abandoned. This is good advice to help guide you as a writer.
Ray Bradbury says, ‘Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.’
I have embraced Bradbury's advice. Currently, my aim is to write a short story once a month (once a fortnight during university semester breaks). The ultimate goal is to write one short story a week. I know that amongst the not so good, gold will emerge.
A writer has to have faith in their ability. Don’t you think?
The final benefit of writing short stories is that they allow you to submit something more regularly; to literary journals and competitions. You get a sense of achievement which for me fuels my motivation and keeps me writing. Submitting finished work is also helping me to build resilience in showcasing my stories and coping with rejections—which are inevitable in the writer’s life.
The following tips are additional ones I refer to when I’m writing short stories:
· First, read short stories. Study them and get a feel of how characters are created, how the story hooks you in, the language, the conflict and how they end.
· Plan. Have an idea of who your character is. There are loads of character planning worksheets online to download. Know your ending. Give your plot a reason to move forward.
· Make sure you keep it short. A short story can be anything up to 10,000 words. My sweet spot is from 1500 to 4000 words. I do find that most short story competitions have a word count range of 1500 to 3000 words.
Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression. Isobelle Carmody
· Build a collection of short stories at varying lengths. Then you will always have some on tap to submit when you need to.
· Know your setting. Keep it Simple.
· Keep your characters to one to two main characters. Minimal characters allow you to build the ones in your story with more depth within the required word limits.
· Find the key emotion. This can help you to build your story, to drive your character and narrative arc. Emotions that come from real life can be powerful. Think about the context and build around it.
I find it satisfying and intellectually stimulating to work with the intensity, brevity, balance and word play of the short story. Annie Proulx
· As with all stories find the hook. The hook can be an intriguing character, a curious setting, a pivotal starting point or an inciting incident. Start in the middle of an action or with an enticing first-line or piece of dialogue.
· Have a strong ending. Don’t ruin a beautifully written story with a weak ending. Does the character change? Will there be an unanswered question that the reader can ponder on? Is there a twist? Try to avoid endings that are too neat or contrite.
A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it. Edgar Allan Poe
· Finally, write. Finish the draft then spend time editing and revising it. Let someone read it once it’s polished.
As promised, please find my collection of Short Stories that I currently own and cherish. You will see my prized possession, the very first short story anthology I ever bought, The Blue Bedroom. For thirty-three years, this copy has graced my bookshelf and travelled with me to every new home.
When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. George Saunders
Image courtesy of Nejron @ Dreamstime.com