For most writers starting out, the best way to gain your chops is with the short story. In fact, that’s almost always how a writer gets into this passion. You have to start small and work your way up to the novel form, and very few go the other way around.
Think about it. You’re pretty much forced to write short stories in school. To the majority of people, this is torture. However, to those of us who consider writing fun, maybe not right then, but somewhere down the line, a switch clicks on…a trigger pulls and we discover we have an inclination for telling (or…gag…showing stories). There you go.
WHAT IS A SHORT STORY?
Hah! More like what isn’t a short story? Obviously a novel isn’t. That’s about it. In many ways, a novelette and novella are short stories, but not by the definitions in Wikipedia. If we go by that standard, a short story is, by word count, 7,500 words or less.
Personally, anything less than a novel (under 50,000 words – by Wikipedia, it’s 40,000 words) is a short story, despite what is called novellas and novelettes. Why complicate things? Then again, we as well as publishers have to put everything into a category for marketing purposes, so I suppose I should also, since I’m trying to keep accurate information going here.
A novel is over 40,000 words.
A novella is 17,500 – 40,000 words.
A novelette is 7,500 to 17,500 words.
A short story is under 7,500 words (this includes flash fiction which is much less than that, down to 50 words or even 140 characters).
Most of that I copped right out of Wikipedia, who copped that out of various other sources. Some of you will probably disagree with those numbers and I don’t blame you.
All I can say is it’s like the Pirate Code – “Guidelines.” “Arrrgh!”
So…back to the short story. To put it in a nutshell, the short story has just enough beef to get out a thought, but it doesn’t let you ramble. Got it?
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The difference between a short story and flash fiction is that you have a bit more room to develop the plot, so to speak. However, you don’t have that much more room. You have time for a single basic plot but you have to keep one thing in mind, above all others, and this is something I’ve preached over and over again…
It must have a beginning.
It must have a middle.
It must have an end.
Without those three things, you have a mess.
The short story is a format to get out a thought, something you have a little space to develop quickly. Within that word limit, you have time for a bit of description, a bit of narration and a lot of movement. The key is movement. You have to move from A to B with no waste, no muss and no fuss. If you hesitate to ramble, you’ve just busted your word count.
I’ve written dozens upon dozens of short stories. Many of them are in print right now. How do I do it? Probably the key to my technique is that the first thing I do is figure out A to B right off. Before I even type (I don’t write with a pen or pencil, my writing sucks) a single letter on screen, I hash out in my mind where I want to start and where I want to end. The same as I do with my novels. I have to have a goal (by definition here, the plot) in mind or I’ll end up nowhere. I have to have the plot up front or I’ll be typing random thoughts and end up with a mess. Notice how I just repeated the same basic thing twice? I want to emphasize that point because it’s key to the short story or even a novel.
You have to know where you’re going, you have to know the whole point of what you’re doing or you’re wasting your time.
Once I know A to B I wonder if it’s worth going for something bigger. If not, then I go for the short format. I must mention right here that when I first started this passion seriously back in 1995 (not counting my first stab back in 1972 in Spain), I actually wrote a novel first. While I was writing that novel, I did a few short stories in the meantime. I did it sort of backward-simultaneously.
Anyway, with a short story, when I know A to B, I have an idea in my head where I want to go and what I want to do, so I just start writing. Since I can write almost as fast as I think (which is actually pretty slow), I can whip out a 5K short story in about an hour to an hour and a half, depending if I get interrupted.
Now, depending on what the word count is required (most short stories I’ve submitted are around 4K to 5K, mostly 4K), by the time I’m done, I’m usually fat.
The key on the first blush is to get the story out. Don’t worry so much about writing it perfect the first shot, just get the idea down. Worry about cleaning it up later. Especially when you’re starting out, you aren’t going to get it done well anyway. You’ll learn so much during the editing, those techniques will come the more you write and edit.
Knowing the story is fat, I go back through and make changes, tweak this, take out that.
Then, since I’m in a writer’s group, I’ll read it to them. I usually get some great feedback. I don’t always take their advice, but I always take their advice seriously whether I use it or not. I do take seriously the forest-through-the-trees mentality. In other words, I’m too close to the story to see what I’m doing wrong.
While the original might be 6,500 words and the limit might be 4K, by the time I’m done I’ll have it trimmed within the limit even if I have to cut some sacred cows to make it fit. By sacred cows, I mean stuff I just wanted in there that in the end, won’t really impact the story. Okay folks, we all like to throw stuff in a story “juss cuz” we think it’s cool. However, when you look at it from a distance and a fresh set of eyes, well…that cool stuff may not be all that critical. This is when the chopping block is necessary.
The key elements are: Have I said what I wanted to say? Is the story improved or have I cut the nuts off what I was trying to accomplish?
This technique hasn’t failed me yet.
Give it a try.