A Short Guide to Short Stories

Although I usually write poems these days, I started off exclusively producing short stories. It took a year of writing verse before I’d call myself a poet. However, I found myself going back to stories after a long time away.

There is no universally-accepted definition of a short story: some focus on the word count, while others consider whether the story could be read in a single sitting.

In any case, there are some features that distinguish this form from longer prose:

The timeframe

Even a slow or meandering short will make its point more quickly than a longer story. A 2000-word story might spend 500 words introducing the concept, the next 1200 might explore how the status quo is upset, while the remaining words resolve the story and often spring a twist upon the reader.

In a novel, the first chapter alone could be 2000 words.

Every word plays a part

While there is scope for description in a short story, there probably won’t be room to include detail that isn’t directly relevant to the plot. For example, the reader probably doesn’t need to know the main character wears a yellow scarf and a green clip unless those items are later found at a murder scene.

Characters and locations are limited

In a short, it’s rare to find more than five characters or a number of different locations, otherwise the story can feel as though it’s jumping around too much. I novel, on the other hand, can change location every chapter if the plot demands it.


If you’re writing and you find you can’t keep within these constraints, you might have a novella on your hands or even a novel. Let it develop any way it comes out.

Generally, the more words you write, the more description, plot and characters can be included without overworking the narrative.

Incidentally, it’s easier for a filmmaker to adapt a short to the screen than a novel because less action needs to be left out. It’s a Wonderful Life, Total Recall and Brokeback Mountain are all based on short stories.


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The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.

Slam Up

Having taken a break from my poetry group to join a choir, I jumped back in on Thursday. The Wyverns meet up every month to give each other feedback on our latest work. In my absence, they’d acquired a new member and set up a Twitter account.

The great strength of the group is the freedom to write in your own style. One member tends towards long and thin poems; another usually has a political undertone; a third normally writes no more than ten lines. I aim to produce something original for each meeting.

This month, one of our suggested prompts was ‘memory’. I received positive feedback from the piece, with one commenting that it had more impact when read aloud instead of on the page, although it wasn’t specifically written for either page or stage.

Speaking of performance poetry, however, I had the opportunity to watch the Scottish Slam Championship in Glasgow yesterday. The participants are all winners of other slams that took place around the country over the last twelve months.

Unlike a rap battle, as seen in the film 8 Mile, these performers don’t go head to head. Instead, they’re each allowed to perform two pieces for up to three minutes apiece in front of a panel of judges. The three who score the most combined points for their poems – four if there’s a tie – then perform another one. The best one of those is invited to the Poetry World Series in Paris.

Robin Cairns is the perennial host of the Scottish Slam, this year introducing more than a dozen contenders covering all manner of subjects, including mental health, feminism, self-worth and many stations in between. Each was so strong so that a clear winner wasn’t evident to me; however, the judges awarded most points to Calum Rodger, so he’ll be heading to France in May.

One of the other poets that particularly inspired me was Gray Crosbie, who talked about struggling to find a gender-neutral barber. I already had a poem with a related theme, but I’d left it aside months ago as it wasn’t working out as I intended.

As I sat on the bus home, I rewrote it in around an hour, and this time I’m much happier with the result.


The Mood of the Room

Before we begin the entry properly, one of my fellow bloggers has reported some difficulties leaving comments on my posts. If you’re having similar problems, let me know at purple@gavincameron.co.uk.

In 2001, the musician Darius Danesh failed to make it into the later stages of Popstars. When he announced this to the others, he tried to sum up their positive thoughts by saying, ‘How much love is there in this room?’ A clip of the incident is below:

Darius on Popstars in 2001much fun was made of this statement at the time

Much fun was made of this statement at the time, although his later career has been better received. He did have a good point about the mood of a room, as it’s something I think about when I’m performing.

On Friday of last week, I was invited to perform at a poetry night called Blend In – Stand Out. This was something of a risk on the part of the organiser because previous events had been held in Perth, whereas this one was half-an-hour’s drive away in Dundee.

However, I detected good vibes from the start. A number of the members already knew each other, and many had already started drinking, which some folk need before they feel confident. Every performer is allowed two turns. When I stood up, the audience reacted just as I’d wanted, especially the second time.

The following evening, I was again due to perform in a very different venue to a much wider audience as part of a community soul choir. This first involved a dress rehearsal for a total of more than three hours, including a technical run-through.

The show went marvellously, with the audience out of their seats by the final song, helped by our extroverted conductor. Many were there because they knew one of the 300 or so singers on the stage.

But sometimes, the mood of the room simply isn’t with the performer. At one event last year, I was on the bill between two musicians, so nobody was geared up to hear poetry. It also didn’t help that the audience hadn’t come specifically to hear the entertainment; rather, it was a place to rest as part of a wider arts event.

It’s unfortunate that even when the audience isn’t engaged, people will still look less favourably on the person who stopped halfway through. And if it’s a paid gig, the promoter might even withhold all or part of your fee.

So whatever the dynamic in the room is, my advice is to continue performing the set. A good technique is to identify one or two people who are paying attention and direct your words to them.

That is unless the mood is at the stage where you feel physically threatened. I’ve never seen that happen, though, and I hope it never will.


Dear Diary

Last Monday, our open-mike night for writers moved back to its old venue after a refurbishment. We had an excellent turnout and enough material for more than two hours, not including the two 15-minute breaks. A couple of the staff also said they enjoyed meeting us.

Then on Tuesday, it was our NaNoWriMo meeting where we sometimes write and sometimes chat and always exchange ideas and maybe fill in each other’s plot holes. After that, I spent a little time at a playwriting evening called Scrieve where playwrights get to hear their work performed by volunteer actors.

On Thursday, I was with my poetry group Wyverns where we each presented our poems about Frankenstein on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel. There is a local connection as she acknowledged in an essay that the grim Dundee climate inspired her creation. Our poems have been published in a slimline booklet.

Saturday was when we had our second NaNoWriMo meeting of the week, and despite not starting until the afternoon, it was one of my most productive days so far with 2,500 words written. However, at the end of Sunday, I only had 35,482 when I needed 41,666 to stay on target. If I don’t pull my finger out soon, I’m not going to manage the 50,000 words, but dear diary, you can tell anyone I admitted this.

I Didn’t Know You Could Do That

When I was around 15 or 16, I heard a track on Radio 2. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before.

There was no singing, yet it wasn’t recognisably rap music. Rather, someone was speaking words over an acoustic funk groove, telling us that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this point, I knew nothing about Gil Scott-Heron and I didn’t understand the majority of his references. Nonetheless, in a little over three minutes, it had shown me something that I didn’t know could be done with words, a relentless stream of passion. When I was at university, I bought the album featuring the track. This was a good 10 years or so before I started to write poetry. But together with the first two albums by The Streets, my mind was stretched in a different direction. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m more selective about what I enjoy and more critical of what I hear. However, these eye-opening moments still happen every so often. Last week, I went to an event in Birmingham held by Out-Spoken Press. I’d initially heard about this through Harry Josephine Giles, who rotated the book while reading from it. I bought it afterwards, and I could see why. The words curled, or were set vertically, or were occasionally run together in a massive heap, whereas it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than start a new line. Birmingham is a more multicultural place than where I’m from, and racism is something that Anthony Anaxagorou tackles head-on, just as Scott-Heron did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Ollie O’Neill spoke frankly about her experience of Britain’s mental healthcare system, a common theme among poets. Unfortunately, neither of their books are published until next year, so I’ll have to wait. However far my writing career goes, I don’t want to turn into one of these idiots who think they know it all and who stop learning or who taking constructive criticism on board. I want these moments to keep happening to me, the ones that hit me like Gil Scott-Heron did when I was a teenager.

It’s Gonna Be Epic!!

I was invited last week to be part of a one-off writing workshop. I knew little about the content in advance because it was brought to my attention by a third party. However, I believe improv keeps me sharp, so I was excited to go along and find out.

Martin O’Connor led us through the workshop. He’s interested in epic poetry, particularly in the Scots dialect, so he was holding these sessions around Scotland.

As part of the exercise, the eight or so participants were asked to complete several statements ranging from ‘My favourite holiday was…’ to ‘After death, I believe we…’ From these, we were asked to build a chronology of one aspect of our lives, before building up to the beginning of an epic piece of prose or poetry.

Martin invited us to send the work to him, either as it was written in the workshop or expanded into a full-length piece. The work didn’t necessarily have to be in Scots; in fact, none of the participants wrote that way.

Poetry is about boiling down big concepts into a few words, so for epic poetry, you need a lot of source material. Paradise Lost by John Milton is based upon Bible Scripture so he had a lot of material to draw up. Similarly, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are both set over a 10-year period.

Prose allows a little more flexibility for expanding ideas. The classic example is War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, which runs to 250,000 words. This took seven years to write, and is set during the Napoleonic Wars, which took place from 1803 to 1815.

This month, I’ve started upon my annual attempt at National Novel Writing Month, as well as leading the local region with the help of a co-host.

The target is 50,000 words, more modest than the works mentioned above, but the challenge is to write them all within 30 days. Fortunately, I’ll be spending a lot of time on trains, giving me ample time to boost that word count, and the region as a whole is nearly at the 300,000-word mark.

Of course, the new standard of epic literature is neither fiction nor poetry. In July 2016, Sir John Chilcot published his long-awaited report about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It ran to 2.6 million words.