Fun with short stories

800px-Skrifmaskin,_Smith_Premier-maskin,_Nordisk_familjebokI’ve been writing short stories again recently – it’s something I come back to every now and again and always with pleasure and surprise. I thought I’d share a little of what I get out of it, as opposed to writing a novel.

One thing I suppose is that it brings as near as you can get in writing to instant gratification. A story is short enough so that you can pretty much do a first draft of the thing in one, or perhaps two sittings. After which you have the whole story ready, admittedly in a very rough form.

They are also compact enough so you can physically see the whole thing in front of you – spread the pages out on the kitchen table if you want – the start through to the ending.

I tend to get to the point of having this first draft printed out in front of me, then scribble rewrites all over it so you can hardly see the original type. If you are learning to write then short stories are a great way to practice rewriting which is a key and crucial element in the writing process.

A story for me captures a moment in time and place, it also has to tell you something about the person or people in the story – and it has to take the reader on a journey from the start to the finish. Often the characters in the story change or grow too during its course, though the business of character development is obviously less of an issue in a story a couple of thousand words long than it is an 80,000 word novel.

800px-Nile_blue_05Another thing I like about short stories is that they can be a laboratory in which to experiment. It’s perhaps not something I am using them for right now, as my aim is to add to a cohesive collection of stories with a similar theme and feel which I would eventually hope to see published. But in the past I have used them a lot for that. While you are growing and developing as a writer (and I sincerely hope I am still doing this) you need to try out various types of work.

You might want to write a little science-fiction say or try a ghost story. These genres may not turn out to be your life’s work but with short stories that doesn’t matter – you can give them a go.

Jorge_Luis_Borges_1951,_by_Grete_SternIn the past I’ve also used the story form to explore my interest in different writing styles. I remember doing a story in the style of Jorge Louis Borges for example, as I was very taken with his work at the time. In fact it won a competition for surrealist style writing. It’s not something I’ve pursued since but it was great to give I a go, and to get it out of my system if you like.

I would compare experimenting in this way to the way fine art students can be found sitting in front of old masters in galleries copying the brush strokes.

A more recent interest I’ve had with my short stories is exploring how they might sit together in a collection. When you go about this you start just compiling a list and you finish wondering how you can make them work together so they become more than the sum of their parts – so the work as a whole takes on a character.

That’s one reason I’ve come back to writing more stories, to try to develop and enhance this collection.

But I would have come back to them eventually anyway because sooner or later I always do. And, in just the same way, I know that the time will come when I will feel the urge to be writing something longer and more complex – something I can’t turn round in just a day or two. Then I’ll start on another novel.

Do you write short stories and what draws to the form? Let me know in the comments!

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32 thoughts on “Fun with short stories”

  1. I write short stories as well. I think what draws me to the form remains its limitations: having to tell a story within a limited word count. It’s like a challenge.

  2. Very interesting piece, Chris. I’m always fascinated by what draws people to their chosen oeuvre. To answer your question, I started writing short stories because I loved reading them. Later, when running writing classes, I was amazed to find so many students trying to write shorts who never read them or even liked them. I guess that’s not as bad as trying to write a novel without having read one – have come across that too 🙂

    1. Very true – never trust a writer who doesn’t read. Though stories might have fallen out of fashion a little in the publishing world of late I can see them having a renaissance thanks to downloads and Kindle – but maybe that’s the subject of another blog!

  3. Your thoughts on considering the collection as a whole point to some curious possibilities.
    The short story has been a kind of literary orphan, at least since the major magazines stopped publishing them. They rather following cartooning into the shadows. Yet it can be a powerful platform, especially given the time constraints of many would-be readers.
    I’ve wondered, for instance, about having a central character or characters or even locale running through all of the stories, yet each story is distinct and self-contained. Rather than an overarching plot line, then, the “chapters” can be read casually at random. This approach would also allow the writer to keep returning to some core material, the way I do when I’m writing poetry serially, with each new piece exposing something fresh. You can even advance “parallel” versions of the same plot, something that would be more difficult in a novel.
    One another question might even ask how a short story differs from a good chapter in a novel, and if one might work more like the other.

    1. Very interesting points – and I know this is an area which some writers do explore. My fellow Skylight Press author Garry Powell, for example, does a similar thing to what you are suggesting in his book Stoning the Devil which is a collection of short stories set in the United Arab Emirates. The same characters appear throughout what is essentially a collection of short stories and, though they can be read in isolation, you definitely get more out of reading them as a group.

    1. It has to be a good way of dipping your toe in the water doesn’t it? And of course, there are many types of fiction, maybe you could do something close to the type of non-fiction you usually write?

  4. I started writing short stories..and graduated to writing books. But I still return to them…usually in between books as they’re a good way of easing back into writing. Sometimes when you finish a novel, the prospect of starting again at the beginning of a new book can seen like climbing Everest. A short story eases you back in.AND YOU CAN ENTER THEM IN COMPETITIONS ANS WIN PRIZES!!!

  5. I’m a bit nervous of writing short stories, Chris. I love reading them because they encapsulate so much and can be so complete in themselves. But I question whether I could write them well myself. I’ve written a few and would love to do more. Maybe I’ll follow what you have suggested here. It’s something a skirt around, so using them as experiments into different genres or styles might help me feel more comfortable with them. Thanks for this!

    1. And you know as well as I do Val that it’s all about practice and you get better as you go. I think I have improved as a writer over the years in part because I tried out various things through stories, but they are also an end in themselves.

  6. Agreed- I often take breaks from working on my novel to write some flash fiction. I find I can play with genres/POV/style without losing too much time if it doesn’t turn out to my liking.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever written anything short enough to be called flash fiction – very little under a thousand words say. But it’s very popular I know, has it’s own competitions and so on. Yes – I think the fact you can afford to make mistakes without wasting months of your life is a big plus as well!

      1. Oh yes, flash fiction is getting quite popular. I post it weekly at my blog – Flash definitely has it’s own perks and challenges, but for some reason I find it easier than writing short stories. I think, personally, it’s just comes down to me having short attention span. 🙂

  7. I love to write short stories. Telling a good, brief story compels me to write them. And they’re mostly about young adults. I think it’s a great idea to try various types so I will give it a try.

  8. Good post, Chris. I LOVE short stories. For me, they are a means of using ‘other’ voices. I enjoy writing women’s fiction for magazines’ Fiction Specials, but I also have an interest in the darker side of comedy. You know, why is it that we sometimes find other people’s misfortunes so damned funny?
    I like themed anthologies, too.
    A good short story is like a quality cognac. It has to have enough legs to linger on the glass. It isn’t like a chapter in a novel which encourages you to turn the page to the next one. Like the good cognac, a short story should leave the reader feeling satisfied.

  9. I love short stories – the pithiness of them, the way they make you search for exactly the right word as you have so few to play with. I envy the writers who can make it look easy!

  10. Lately, I’ve been sort of grouping my short works into collections too. I love writing short stories, there’s just something wonderful about the economy of — as Jo Carrol said above– finding just the right words to paint a fleeting picture….

    1. Yes – I’m finding they take on a different aspect when you group them together. You write them individually at different times but when you put them together you find they kind of mean something collectively even if that something is just an impression or a feeling.

    1. That’s very true, and confidence is an important thing to have in writing I think. So much of what we do is sitting on our own in a room – we have to get to a place where we have faith that what we are writing is worthwhile 🙂

  11. Thanks for your blog Chris it’s so good to read about the short story. I write short stories and find inspiration all the time in daily events – and it is that which draws me in – that one small idea can become a clever little tale. But it’s taking the time to craft the words which is so important in the end – and the end of the story… that is so hard to judge. It would be good to know which competitions were worth entering – do you enter any?

    1. Thanks Elf. I have entered lots in the past and I used to win some too – including the Bridport Prize which is one of the big ones in the UK. There are lots of places online where the story prizes are listed. I’m not sure whether you are UK or US based but one of the sites I’ve always looked at is this one I have linked which lists a lot of the competitions and is written in quite a friendly, amusing way.

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