Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Short Stories

By Julie

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


  1. I haven't written any short stories for a long while, but I like your ideas for how it can benefit your writing. Maybe I'll try it again. I think that telling a story in a shorter format might help me work on plot development skills.

  2. I used to write short stories ALL the time, in fact it's what got me started. There was this website ANA A Novel Approach (now gone) that had these little groups and there were monthly writing prompts and you'd post a story on that prompt and your group would critique you. I couldn't wait! It was so exciting to me.

    Then I started the monster novel, and then another, and now I have a hard time writing something that isn't THAT. I submitted a few last year, and kept being told that my endings weren't endings...which makes me think that I've forgotten how to write short!! LOL.

    I'd like to do that again, and after I finish this wip I think I will.

  3. I haven't attempted a short story since graduate school, even though I won a grant for a memoir piece about my trip to Vietnam.

    I do plenty of dwelling on the details in a novel. There is no such thing as a "first draft" for me. By the time the novel is complete it's probably the 30th draft and not a single one of the original words remains. I probably drive my critique partners nuts!

  4. Andrea, exactly! It's helpful to see the arcs in a short piece clearly.

    Sharla, I am one of the few that really love slice-of-life stories. My short stories tend to fall into that category, too. They're not for everyone. I find it's a good challenge to try shorts that aren't, though, for the reason Andrea mentioned. Slice-of-life NOVELS can be really frustrating to readers, I think, though I enjoy one that leaves a few loose ends for me to think about for days.

    Kim, I revise a lot as I go, too, but I'm enjoying the experience of writing a complete story, details and all, in a week or two.

    Thanks for reading, ladies!

  5. I wrote nearly forty short stories before starting my first novel, about twenty-five years ago. Haven't written a short story since then, but nearly seven years ago I really got hooked on writing travel essays. Still enjoy writing them and they continue to help me improve my craft.


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