I’m working on short fiction just now, and boy, is it difficult! I’m a novelist by profession, happiest when working on something in the range of 110-160,000 words. But I got an opportunity I couldn’t turn down: to have a collection of my short fiction published next year by a specialist small press, Ticonderoga Publications. As well as the best of my previously published short stories, the collection will feature some new work. So in the next few months, alongside writing the current novel and editing the just-completed novel, I’ll be producing a couple of short stories and a new novella.
A writer friend commented that it would be hard to come up with enough ideas. For me, the challenge is not finding the ideas, it’s crafting them into the exacting form of the short story. The story I’m currently working on came to me in a dream while I was back in New Zealand earlier this year; it was a real gift. Somehow my dreaming mind put together elements from my NZ past with themes and ideas from more recent times, and wrapped them up in a cloak derived from my years of reading mythology to create something brimful with enchantment. Now I’m struggling for the perfect form and the perfect voice to capture that dream-magic in words.
Any kind of fiction presents its challenges, of course, but I find short stories especially hard. You can’t afford to waste words. The prose needs paring down to the length that will fit your story most effectively; the language must be tailored precisely to the emotional resonance you want to convey to your reader; the ‘voice’ must be perfect. A short story is not just a story with fewer words, it’s a distillation of meaning into a small container. Open the bottle, reveal a whole world. For a novelist, writing short stories can be daunting. It’s like tackling a miniature after years of painting murals.
While preparing for some writing workshops I’m presenting later this month, I looked at some common craft problems likely to get in the way of crafting a great short story. Here’s what I came up with.
Number one is overwriting – the tendency to use three sentences where one could do the job. Instead of ‘Susan bolted out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her,’(11 words) we get ‘Susan could not contain her rage. Although she’d had the importance of good manners drummed into her as a child, this time she pushed the screen door wide and let it slam shut behind her. Never mind that her parents were probably wincing with embarrassment at the way their daughter had behaved. The crash satisfied a need within her.’ A hefty 59 words. That is an extreme example, written purely for illustration, but pruning excess verbiage improves pace and clarifies meaning. The strong verbs ‘bolt’ and ‘slam’ are enough to convey Susan’s mood.
Another manifestation of overwriting is being over-descriptive, larding your literary cake lavishly with adjectives and adverbs in particular. Let’s follow Susan and her bad mood outside:
‘Susan kicked the gravel violently as she marched down the long driveway, folding her arms angrily and blinking back furious tears. She swung her Slazenger tennis racquet randomly, coming close to swiping the blooms off a dozen assorted roses planted carefully in autumn by her elderly grandmother, whose green fingers were legendary in the market town of Midvale. A delicate aroma filled her nostrils, a dream-like, gorgeous scent that reminded her of…’ (73 words)
Enough already! What do we actually need from this wordy paragraph?
‘Susan marched down the driveway, kicking the gravel.’
One strong verb (marched) outweighs a bunch of adjectives. ‘Marched’ is strengthened by ‘kicking.’ 8 words convey where, what and how. Grandmother’s roses are extraneous.
Number two is crowding the story with too many characters and/or too complicated a story line. It’s all too common for inexperienced writers of short fiction to attempt to fit a novel-sized plot into 2000 words, or 4000, or 8000. A short story must achieve its aim – whether that’s to touch the heart, stimulate the mind, entertain, terrify, puzzle – within the confines of its form. It’s not a three-act epic; it’s an effective, concisely written piece with a distinctive voice. Stick to a small number of characters. Generally you’ll only use one point of view, perhaps two. Use dialogue only if it adds meaning or emotional heft to the story.
Number three is flying by the seat of the pants. You can’t write a great short story without a good framework. Structure is key to creating a satisfying story within a limited word count, and forward planning is a must even for the most died-in-the-wool pantser. Unless you really want to write thirty drafts.
Apply the same principles to long fiction and you’ll write a much better novel.
Do you write both short and long fiction? Do you have a different approach for each? Any great tips?