Sunday, 2 February 2014

Starting to Write Short Stories

Short strories can be read on any medium;
 book, magazine or electronically

In a previous blogpost on the short story, I looked at how the short story works today and wondered at its level of popularity. I do sometimes worry that the only people who read the short story are people who write, or want to write short stories. Even worse, some people start writing short stories only as a practice run for writing a novel. But the short story is a form of literature in its own right, able to strike directly into the heart and mind without preamble. The compulsion to tell stories is a very powerful and ancient one which continues to have a place in our modern culture. Commuters on the New York subway still read the latest short fiction, as they did a hundred years ago, proving just how strong a means of expression it is.
There’s nothing wrong with getting on and putting pen to paper if you have a story in your head, but at some point, it makes sense to define what a short story is. Of course it should entertain, engage, provoke empathy and possibly inform or even inspire, but that doesn’t set it apart from other forms of creative writing – a play, for instance.  And the modern short story as it’s been developed since the beginning of the 19th century is also very different to the stories we tell over a dinner table…or the retelling of a legend, for instance. 

Short stories can demonstrate how diverse, joyful, outrageous comic, sad, illogical, cruel, and mysterious the human experience is – it should be a snapshot; a moment of illumination – enclosed in a capsule, entire to itself, drawing its being from a single point of emotion or wonder. Or, to quote Isobelle Carmody, a microcosm and a magnification

One thing that I really love about writing short stories is that there are not many fixed rules. You have carte blanche to create something original every time. If you read through the Unchained Anthology, you’ll see that diversity proved with every new story. 

Of course there are guidelines. The main ones are;
  • use a small cast of characters
  • keep the timeline as short as possible
  • have, a single theme
  • resolve your story satisfactorily
  • every word has to count

Having sorted out a single theme, never wander away from the central point, as, for instance an anecdote might do. A short story is never an anecdote (which is an account of a probably true, often humorous, possibly exaggerated incident), while a modern short story has a narrative arc which builds tension throughout or towards the end and finishes with a resolution. The narrative must demonstrate a coherent progression towards the satisfying conclusion which, by definition, is never far away.

Even so, many a fine short story has successfully handled a bevy of characters, an extended timeline, or an ending that lacks closure. It might even appear, at first glance, to be a collection of vivid but disjointed impressions. But the story still has to be rigorous in its construction…it must be a whole.

There is only one rule that can never be broken, and that is length. A short story has to be short. But how short? Are there minimum or maximum word counts that short fiction must sit between? The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms describes the short story thus: “A fictional tale of no specified length, but too short to be published as a volume of its own, as novellas sometimes and novels usually are. A short story will normally concentrate on a single event with only one or two characters, more economically than a novel’s sustained exploration of social background. This isn’t just a good definition, it’s great advice: concentrate on a single event with only one or two characters. Doing this, at least to begin with, will prevent you from falling into many of the concealed pits that have been dug across the short story writer’s path.

The blank page or screen can represent a terror to many writers, not just writing students. But there are strategies you can employ to overcome any problems with writer’s block. What I love about creating short stories, is the opportunity it gives me to conjure small moments out of my own imagination. Although, like everyone else, I sometimes chew my pen and wonder what the heck to write about, the fact is, ideas for short fiction are everywhere – look out the window for inspiration – look around the room. 
When we were asked to write on a specific theme – that of library – for the Unchained Anthology, every single member of  Bristol Women Writers came up with an amazing story. For me, almost immediately I heard about the theme, the idea of writing about the library at Alexandria came into my mind because I’m interested in the tarot and wanted to investigate the legend of it being created to represent the books lost in the fire, but also because Hypatia was an amazing, but rather forgotten, female role model and writing about her was appealing.   
So finding the clue to starting your story can be as simple as being ‘told’ what to write about, or choosing one random word, or, as writers often do in a workshop environment, choose a picture or photo and allowing the story it tells you to develop into a piece of short fiction.

The anthology can be ordered from Amazon
 or from the Unchained website (details below) 
One way I get started, which I recommend, is by sifting through a shoe box full of a miscellany of clippings, photos and picture cuttings. Every so often, I add things to this box; a quote I liked, a newspaper story, a postcard from a friend or any other material that may be of later interest in your writing. 
For my story The Library at Alexandria, from the Unchained Anthology celebrating 400 years of Bristol Libraries, I took out a cutting I'd saved from a magazine about the historic facts about the ancient library at Alexandria in northern Egypt. As I read it, I looked at the wonderful photo of a bust of Hypatia which inspired me to think about how a woman in my own world might be engender such an aura of charisma. I try to get ‘a moment of illumination’, and some part of a narrative arc revolving in my head before I open my notebook and write. Then I often start with notes which, given chance, build like a lego structure into the beginnings of an narrative arc. I like to be ‘bursting to write’ before I properly begin – then I freewrite for as long as I can without stopping, even to think too much.
If you’re desperate to write a short story, I recommend you try this method. \

A shorter version of this post can be seen at 
http://writersunchained.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/short-stories-how-long-and-where-from/

3 comments:

  1. Good points here. I'm working on flash fiction now and remind myself of certain things often.

    Learning brevity assists in longer projects down the road. It keeps the "fat" down.

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  3. flash fiction is quite the hardest sort to get right. Keeping the fat down is as hard in writing as it is in dieting!

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