Short Story Problems!

Short stories have always proved problematic for me. The clue is in the word ‘short’. I’m not too good at ‘short’. But I am learning, and I am also learning how vital it is to master short stories.

Recently, an old friend was sorting out her attic and found something I had once given her. It was a short story I’d written when I was about fifteen. She brought it over and gave it to me and for a moment or two I was utterly flummoxed. Not only could I not recall writing it, but I couldn’t work out how I’d done it either. I mean, I struggle with short stories, I really do.

For a while, I gave up on them completely. I was too busy writing rather long novels, and didn’t see the point in pursuing something I didn’t think came naturally to me. Then one day someone suggested writing short stories related to my novels and releasing them as a kind of marketing tool. I have to admit, as cynical as it sounds, I liked the idea immediately. Not so much the marketing bit, but the writing short stories related to my novels bit. You see I am rather over attached to my novels, the current ones, the ones in progress, and the ones that are still just in my head. I rather see the characters as real people and it’s extremely hard to switch off from them. They kind of exist forever. They are always starting new stories, diving into new dramas and conflicts. So writing some short stories suddenly seemed like an extremely enticing and fun idea. And it was. And Bird People and Other Stories was born.

Now, I have to admit to being rather proud of this little book. I can’t say I have mastered the art of the short story, far from it. Many of the shorts in this book are character snapshots, or scenes from a different point of view than the one shown in the novel. But they were easy and fun to write, which was a massive revelation to me as a writer who had turned away from short stories for so long.

I’m now kind of addicted to them. In fact I write one once a month to be included in my author newsletter (click here if you want to sign up!)

My friend’s discovery reminded me that I had once embraced short stories before novels. Like a lot of young writers, I cut my teeth on short stories and little ‘books’ before I worked up the skills and patience to write an actual novel.

I’d just forgotten!

Reading through this particular story, I’m both embarrassed and impressed. Embarrassed by the younger me’s habit of repeating myself, a lot. I used to say the same thing in about three different ways, as if afraid of being misunderstood! But I’m impressed by my fearlessness, and that’s what young writers have in abundance. I didn’t fear the short story then, I just thought of one and got on with it. There was no ‘I can’t do this’, or ‘I’m not as good at shorts, so I won’t bother.’

If I am honest, I still find them a challenge. Some work instantly. Like magic. Others don’t. For as many finished shorts, I have unfinished, festering, niggling ones. I know what I want to say, but just can’t seem to say it.

I mean, what is the perfect short story anyway? The one that says something big in the shortest, sharpest way possible? Or is it really down to personal taste, as with novels?

The other problem I have with shorts is their annoying tendency to start developing into full blown novels! Give them an inch and they take a mile! I now have one epic novel, if not an entire series of books planned due to inspiration taken from the last two short stories I attached to my newsletter. Unexpected and brilliant, but you know, I don’t want this happening too often! There is already a backlog of books waiting to be written. (See Upcoming Books!)

So, what’s your opinion on short stories? Do you enjoy reading them? What makes the perfect short story in your opinion? And if you write them, how does the process work for you?

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8 thoughts on “Short Story Problems!

  1. I love reading about another author’s writing process. I have a most un-writerly process for short stories (and novel writing too, actually.) I set the word count before I write. My horror stories are all 3,000 wds each … my travel stories are 4,000 wds each. And rather than what you might think, the main benefit is that this stops me from cutting the story short. I am always more inclined to just relate the plot and be done with it. Having to add those extra 2500 wds. makes me THINK about the story and add the necessary scenes to reveal the story. I know this works, because when I finish I am always pleased at the end result. But if I just set out to tell the story, without a strict word count, it just would not develop well. But then, I also have this strange belief that the story actually already exists “out there”, and it is just my job to hear it accurately. A writer’s brain is a horrible thing to waste ….. I think.

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    1. Wow, that’s really interesting Joel! I’d never ever thought of tackling it that way. Maybe I will give it a try next time I have an idea and see what happens! You’re right; it’s so fascinating how different writers minds work!

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  2. Most of my stuff rarely gets beyond 60,000 words, which frustrates me. Yet, when I go back to them they seem to say all I had to say. But I still feel like a failure, untill someone reads what I have done and likes it. Am I alone.

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    1. No, not at all, I know lots of writers who have word counts like that. Mine are getting shorter actually. I think my first few books were possibly too long, and I’ve since learned how to sharpen them up and trim them down!

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  3. I’m still not sure I completely get short stories, either writing or reading them. They are a very different beast. I did write one I’m very happy with recently, but I have no idea how anyone else would react to it because there’s not really enough room for full context. Short stories seem to be about atmosphere, attitude/style, and (often) some sort of payoff or punchline at the end. I find it reasonably easy to imitate what I see as the format, but I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good…

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  4. James, I know exactly what you mean! There are a few people at my writing group who absolutely nail short stories, and their seem to follow an exact format, (in a brilliant way) in terms of a beginning, middle and like you say, a pay off or punchline or twist at the end. I struggle to write those! I wish I could. Mine seem to be more like snapshots in time, glimpses of characters or bigger stories, hence why they either morph into further novel ideas, or come from current novels! Not sure this is the best approach, but I have written a few that I am proud of and that seem to fit the standard format, if that exists!

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