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Thursday, March 28, 2013

MAGIC THURSDAY - The power of the short story


By Nicole Murphy

Most of the writers here on Darkside Downunder are primarily novel writers, but some of us dabble in the shorter form and have achieved some success too.

Eleni Konstantine has had multiple short stories published. Erica Hayes uses them as part of her promotional process, writing shorts that tie in with her novels. Jenny Schwartz writes at the shorter length. I'm sure there is a few more that I haven't mentioned.

I've had dozens of short stories published around the globe, and I've been lucky enough to edit three short story collections.

I love short stories. Science fiction/fantasy/horror are to a large extent built on the short story. I think crime may be the only genre that comes close - unless you count Literary as a genre in which case, it's big on them too.

Anyway - a lot of the speculative fiction novelists that you love built their chops writing short stories, and some still write them even after they've achieved success at novel-length? Why? Because writing short stories offers challenges and opportunities that novels don't.

Writing a short story is different to writing a novel. Different things are important - words for example have an even greater impact on success in a short story than in a novel. Things like mood and atmosphere are vital in a short story. Plot works differently, as does the pacing. And the story that you tell in a short isn't just shorter than that of a novel - it often has a different reason for existing.

Short stories are a great place to experiment, to try new things and to develop the craft. Because they're shorter, you can take chances without risking too much. A novel can take months to write. A short story, depending on how short it is, can sometimes take only hours. So if you try something and find it doesn't work, you've not lost too much. Do that in a novel and weeks of work can be down the drain.

Short stories are also great when you're finding you're time poor but you want to get some work done. Only have a day to dedicate? You could well get a short story drafted in a day and you've got that sense of achievement that yes, you are a writer. See? You've just finished a story.

Editing is something that I've found has taught me a lot about short story - what works, what doesn't. My latest editing project was In Fabula-divino (latin for The Tale-tellers). I took some newbie writers and pushed them through the equivalent of a professional editing process such as a novel would undergo - edit letter, copy edit, line edit, proofs. It was hard work, for them and for me.

Here's a couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to tackle a short story:

a) Detail is KING. And I'm not talking lots of details - I'm talking surreptitious use of the RIGHT detail. A couple of words can say a whole lot more than a ream of words if they are the right ones. The classic example - 'Martini, shaken not stirrred'. Not only does the word 'martini' denote class, taste and style (which James Bond has in droves) but the fact it's 'shaken not stirred' (which is NOT how you make a proper martini) shows Bond is a man who knows his own mind, will go after what he wants and doesn't care what other people think. All that about that character in those four words.

b) Know your characters. You need to understand everything about every character that performs an action on the page - something you wouldn't dream of doing in a novel but something important in a short story because that's how you get those all important details.

c) Backstory must be dealt with carefully. A short story is a moment in a character's life. It's fleeting, yet the character was brought to this place by a number of circumstances, some of which need to be laid out for the reader's understanding. But you don't have a multitude of words to get them up to speed. Again, having the right details helps, but also be clever with how you reveal backstory. Don't dump it at the beginning of the story because short stories must slam right into the action, but layer it through the story and be clever about it - don't dump the information in big chunks but use it to pace the story out eg if it's an action packed story, maybe a few short flashbacks will give readers a break and heighten tension.

d) Make every word sing. Think about every word, every sentence, every structure. Is it building the plot? Is it adding to the atmosphere? Is it working as hard as it can? If not - find a better way.

I'm still a long way from being a great short story writer, but the challenge is something I can't resist.

I've got a copy of the Aurealis Award nominated anthology 'Bloodstones' (with my latest short story publication 'Euryale', a re-telling of the gorgon myth) and a copy of 'In Fabula-divino' to give away to an Australian. To enter, let me know in the comments below.

And tell me - do you read or write short stories? Why/why not?

5 comments:

  1. Nice post, Nicole, couldn't agree more about the use of detail. I've written and like to read 'shorties', and I love the focus on detail over plot. Charlotte Stein has an anthology of shorties (The things that make me give in) which I absolutely love. Go the shortie!

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    1. Thanks Rhyll - there's something very special about a short story to me :)

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  2. Wonderful post. Thank you for your insights. :)

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  3. Very late to the party. Sorry, Nicole. As you've noted (thanks), I do write short stories and totally agree with what you have said above. Short stories are a great way to experiment. Congrats on being in Bloodstones!

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