I'm experimenting with short stories this year. I've never been crazy about writing them. My writing style doesn't generally fit most literary magazines or journals. Most appear to seek gritty, avant-garde material, which are two words I'd rarely use to describe my writing. I had the pleasure of seeing a short memoir I wrote published by Perigee in 2008, and was flattered by comments from their emeritus editor that the memoirs published in that issue were what she'd been seeking but had not seen for ages. But that piece was one of a few flashes of literary light in what I'd consider a generally mainstream brain.
Nonetheless, I attempt to write short stories at least for the sake of honing my craft in a brief, concentrated format. (The key word, often, for me being brief, as that's not my strong suit! Oh, you've noticed?!) Sometimes I even submit them. I've heard a rumor having publishing credits in literary magazines can make an agent or editor sit up and take notice.
In 2010, I've participated two months in a row in the (amazing-and-worth-every-penny-of-the-seriously-inexpensive-annual-dues) Backspace forums short story contest. Writing a story within the confines of a theme and word count has been both fun and challenging. In February, I worked not only from the Backspace contest's theme -- "Age Matters," writing from the first-person perspective of narrator older than 70 or younger than 7 -- but also that of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest. NPR posted a photo as a prompt for flash fiction under 600 words.
I'm learning a few things from applying myself to a regular practice of writing short stories.
Writing a short story gives you permission to write something you wouldn't ordinarily try.
Writing from the perpective of a 70-year-old man was something I'd never done before. I enjoyed it, and from a voice perspective, I believe I nailed it fairly well. Now I feel confident I could do this in longer fiction if needed.
Writing a short story gives you permission to dwell on the details.
When you're writing a novel, you often need to move along in your first draft -- get the story down and then go back and work out the setting notes and so on in the revision process, which may occur months or even years later. When you're writing a short story, you can often move quickly to the enjoyable task of finessing your setting, characters, and language. While the story is new and fresh in your mind, you get to play with the embellishments.
Writing a short story forces you to get to the point.
Writing a story complete in six-hundred words (a little more than two double-spaced pages) was no easy task for me. In fact, I started with a draft twice that long for a story that took place in a matter of a minute. Condensing my narrative into half the length forced me to take a scalpel to my wordiness. No unneccessary word could remain. I needed to say in one sentence what I'd originally taken a full paragraph to convey. Some of the information, the reader didn't need at all. It was for me as writer, and could be cut in the final draft. I also learned from the feedback where I'd left the reader too much in the dark.
Now it's your turn, readers.
Do you write short stories as a tool for improving your craft? What have you learned in the process?
Photo credit: Creative Commons license from B. Zedan's Flickr photostream