Long May It Last.

A couple of entries ago, I riffed upon the art of shortening the short story. But having thought a little more about it, I’ve come to realise a lot of the short stories I’m most proud of are actually longer than 2000 words. I have written novels, but they’re a different class entirely.

My longest short is called An Abundance of Apples, clocking in at around 4500 words. This tells the story of a man who trades 26 items, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. This was always going to be the approximate length, and it gave some room to manoeuvre when telling the story.

Another of my favourites is The Cracked Goldfish Bowl, about a man with an amazing memory but no self-confidence. The final word count was 4300 words, but that’s merely because I kept thinking of new challenges to face the main character rather than creating an overarching plan.

I tend to approach my short stories from the top downwards. Sometimes I know where I’m going to end up, but often I let the story wander as it wishes. An artist I know, Jennifer Robson, prefers the meandering approach to her sewing, as she doesn’t feel challenged if she knows what the end result will be.

I’m a strong believer in writing a proper ending to a story, whether that ending is known beforehand or not. Sadly I’ve read too many ‘two-thirds’ pieces with a great set up, and enjoyable narrative, but the writer has omitted a satisfactory conclusion, leaving it to flop out with a vague sentence or two. That final third might have made all the difference.

What I’m saying is that some stories need cut down to size, as discussed in that last entry, while others require some room to breathe. The question is which approach is the best one to take for that particular story.

What a So-and-So.

I once heard digital information compared to a greasy pig. You can hold on to it for so long before it slips from your grasp. Despite this, I’m unable to find a recording of the BBC Breakfast news item about the use of the word, “so,” at the beginning of sentences. I can only find their Twitter update from Friday:

Nonetheless, I’ve found a great example from last year, when the boss of BlackBerry failed to explain adequately how the company lost direction. Stephen Bates uses the conjunction at least four times at the beginning of answers, and several more throughout.

I think we all know people with verbal tics. I probably have one I’m not aware of. I once had a conversation with someone who kept saying, “He/She turned around and said…” By the end of the conversation, I imagined the other party with a nail in one foot, frantically turning round and around with the other.

On the page, a fictional character with a pet phrase can be a useful device in dialogue. If they always start with, “Well, the thing is, you see,” or call everyone, “love,” it eliminates the need for an identifier when multiple people are speaking. Even a gesture can be effective. I have a novel where a character shrugs when he doesn’t know an answer, and that’s a lot of the time.

But, well, the thing is, you see: balance is key. It’s enough to, like, give a flavour of the character’s go-to words. Including it in every, like, sentence or clause will only, like, annoy the reader.

The Final Cut.

Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.

The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.

I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.

But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.

In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.

But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.

Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.

Alternate Hilarities Released by @Strange_Musings Press.

I’m pleased to report that my short story Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse has been released today by Strange Musings Press in its Alternate Hilarities anthology, along with a number of other comedy pieces.

It’s available in both paper and electronic formats. You can buy a copy from Amazon UK, from Amazon US, or from Smashwords. Find out more about the book, and enter their Rafflecopter gift card giveaway, at the official website.

I’d also like to give thanks to the editor, Giovanni Valentino. Book publishing takes months of work, and throughout it all, he has been in regular contact with the contributors, and kept us up-to-date with its progress.