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Why write short stories?

Thoughts on writing short stories

They can be smoke-long

One alternative nomenclature given to flash fiction: the smoke-long. Short stories are, if not bite-sized, then certainly coffee-break sized or cigarette-break sized, or they’re good for tube and train journeys. In one sitting, you can experience the arc of the story and the character’s encounter with life and the subsequent change that occurs. That’s the idea behind these short story dispensing machines where you can choose reading times of 1, 3 or 5 minutes. Of course, writing short stories is all tied up with reading short stories. If you delight in the idea of reading something cigarette-break, coffee-break, or tube journey-sized then it’s a delightful challenge to create your own.

They’re a challenge

So let’s take that idea of the delightful challenge a bit further then. Tobias Wolff argues that a short story is harder to write than a novel, because no word can be wasted.

I prefer to write imperfect short stories, each new story expressing the themes I want to get across slightly more clearly. These two opposing points of view beg the question: can I cut my teeth on short stories before writing a novel? Does the one lead to the other, as it were? Tobias Wolff makes a compelling argument that it’s the other way round. Watch Tobias Wolff talking about why writing a novel is a stepping stone to writing a short story here.

A story involves a simple, singular thread (of course it’s possible to break this rule) and a novel involves intertwining threads. However, a short story has one big advantage over a novel: it’s short, so you can practise by writing several, and perhaps polishing and submitting one or two, without committing to a longer project. If you want to see the singular thread in action (while, at the same time, the rule is broken) take a look at Tobias Wolff’s story ‘Bullet in the Brain‘ or Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill‘.

How not to write and submit a short story

When it comes to selling stories, this is the wrong way of going about it:

  • Write a short story but don’t do a final edit.
  • Send it out to the first opportunity you see as if catching a tweet about an imminent deadline were ‘fate’.
  • Get despondent when that opportunity doesn’t go your way or elated when it does (and repeat).

Here’s an alternative:

This is ongoing work and it depends on the type of stories you are writing, but here’s some general advice:

  • Research opportunities to publish short stories in internationally, narrowing down to a few target publications. Do this by learning from other writers, finding websites that list opportunities for writers (I list a few here) and reading the calls for submissions carefully. In terms of research, I promise you that the bigger danger is getting overwhelmed by opportunities, rather than a dearth of information.
  • Also ongoing work: read short stories and discover what you like.
  • Separate the submission of the story from the writing of it, by giving each the time they need. Some people can write for an opportunity, but not everyone can do so decide whether you’d rather write to a brief or write your own stuff and then see where it fits.

Is there a guidebook I could use to get started?

There are so many books out there about writing short stories, it’s difficult to know which one to choose. The answer is to ask for recommendations. I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for a number of years and I’ve come across some good ones. Write to me if you need suggestions or drop a comment below.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

You can buy Unusual Places from the Cultured Llama website, as a paperback or ebook.

View all six posts on writing, place and short stories from 2018 here.

 

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