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.

The N-Word.

I’ve a feeling you’re getting sick of me talking about National Novel Writing Month, so I’ll devote only one paragraph to it. To date, my total is 48,711 words, meaning less than 1,300 to go until I hit the target. I have until Saturday to complete it, leaving plenty of time.

I’ve been going to two other classes at the same time, and I seem to be going through a rather philosophical patch as I complete their respective homework.

Class one is Life Writing at the University of Dundee. Our homework is to write a short passage about our lives each week, all focussing on a particular aspect of writing, which might be the use of the child or adult voice, or employing the past or present tense. This week was a little different, where we were asked to choose an abstract noun and write a piece around that theme. Mine was On Solitude, arguing that this is not the same as loneliness.

Number two is my regular writing class with Zöe Venditozzi, held at a new, secret location. One of the prompts led me to write about a floating island and the ideological arguments its inhabitants had when setting up their community. The other is about twins with wildly different reactions: one is always brutally honest, while the other goes into denial when he hears bad news.

Also, my second published story is currently being launched in Australia as part of the FourW Twenty-Four anthology. The Wagga Wagga and Melbourne events have taken place, but the Sydney launch happens this Saturday 30 November. It’s impractical for me to attend as I’m halfway around the world, but if you live there, pop along and let me know what it’s like.

NaNoWriMo and Other Stories.

Just a quick update to say I’m still alive, but I’m not only taking part in NaNoWriMo, but homework for two other writing classes as well. As you might imagine, this is keeping me jolly busy.

With 33% of the time elapsed, I had reached half of my target of 50,000 words. I think be able to match the target, but not beat it, so I’ve been taking it slightly easier. At a day over the halfway mark, I now have around 33,000 words.

But I’ve also had time to visit the cinema. Last week, I saw Gravity, although I felt that because Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are such famous faces, it distracted somewhat from the story. Yet it remains an excellent film, with the action of Apollo 13 set to the backdrop of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And today, I attended a free screening of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in Swedish with English subtitles. I enjoyed this for its captivating story, even if it becomes a little muddy towards the end, and I hear it’s much better than the English-language remake. I’ve no current plans to read the book but if I have a chance, I’ll give it a look.

So hope you reach the end of NaNo in one piece, and any other writing projects you may have on the go. I’ll update again when I have the chance, which I hope will be the day I hit the target.

NaNoWriMo: One Week In.

If Bridget Jones had inhabited me in a Quantum Leap style. I’d say I was typing out a v. v. quick update on my National Novel Writing Month process.

I have a very organised Municipal Liaison, or ML, who gives us writing space in a friary. While I’m not religious by any measure, the calm, quiet sanctity of the place is very conducive to writing.

But equally, so is a certain coffee shop in the town centre, where I tried writing on Sunday. A friend happened to be in the area, and she forced me to go to the pub across the road and drink red wine – forced, no less – leaving me 2,000 short of my intended target.

Despite this small setback, I still bagged a mammoth weekend total. The daily target is an average of 1,667 words, which equates to 11,669 on the seventh day. As of last night, I’ve banged out 12,539. I’m just about to start hacking away at today’s total.

If you should like to follow me on the NaNo website, please do so. It’s helpful if you can also send me a message saying you saw it here so I know where you’ve found my profile.

NaNo Go Go Go.

I’m just taking a few minutes out of my writing schedule to wish the best of luck to every National Novel Writing Month participant. Thus far, I have a little over 600 words to sling on the pile.

Don’t forget, there are likely to be people in your local area to help you stay inspired, and look out for the periodical motivational e-mails.