Working up to the Short Story

Word counts be damned! Yes, I know I said that last week. I meant it. These days I have been kicking the tires on short stories, finding out what makes them tick.  I’ve been on a few test drives having penned about 6 shorts and I think I am getting a little better with each one.  Practice makes perfect.

watercolor of our cat Fern by Candice Black

A watercolor of our cat Fern by my wife, Candice Black

I don’t have any research to back this up but my hunch is that people look at short stories much like they look at watercolors—as an entry level stepping stone to bigger and better things.  They would be wrong in that assumption.

Watercolors are affordable and readily accessible. Anyone with the time can put paint brush to paper. The clean up is easy and the art of watercolor can be practiced on the kitchen table. Once you get a few paintings under your belt you can graduate to something more difficult like oils.  Right? Wrong. Being proficient at watercolors is very difficult.

Every brush stroke and drop of paint are permanent. There is no room for mistakes, no going back. You have a very short window of time to blend colors before the paint dries, and because watercolor paints are transparent you can’t cover your mistakes. You have to plan ahead because any white area such as highlights are created by leaving the paper untouched to show through.  White paint will not effectively cover other pigments to give you a true white.

Oils on the other hand take days to dry so that you can come in later and still blend colors or because they are opaque once they have dried you can paint over anything you want to correct your mistakes.  My advice to budding artists is to start with oils and graduate to watercolors.

The same goes for short stories. My experience is that you should cut your teeth on the longer form of writing before graduating to short stories. A novel gives you ample room to develop characters, scenes, and plot. A short story has to be tight, to the point, the writing more precise, fewer twists and turns, a single idea with a strong ending.

boat interiorThe short story takes more planning (some what of a challenge for a “pantser” like me). I know that every word should count whether you are aiming for 100,000 or just 3,000 words, but that seems even truer for the short story author.  The short story is like a fully equipped boat.  All the important things are there, but space has been more efficiently thought out. Galley kitchen, tiny bathroom (or head if you prefer), a sleeping loft or maybe a dining room that converts into a bed all packed into a hundred square feet more or less. Much thought and planning have gone into maximizing the space.

I have been enjoying the short story form. In some ways it is liberating. In other ways it is challenging. Go ahead, kick the tires on a few short stories. Take a few test drives.  But don’t look at short stories as entry level, it is some serious stuff.


13 comments on “Working up to the Short Story

  1. Great post! I agree that writing shorts stories is hard. I’m getting back into it after writing a few novels, and you have to be concise. I entered a flash fiction contest a few months ago with a story consisting of no more than 100 words. That was difficult but I learned a lot from the experience.

  2. I think short stories are an art people try to ignore. I think practicing that art makes you a better writer. It helps to start with the tightest constraint possible, like 100 words (which I’m hit or miss on), then work up to larger word counts. It teaches you to be concise and choose only the words that will tell the story. I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer because of the practice, but it’s hard to tell. It stretches my creativity if nothing else.

    • Great tip. I might try the other way around starting big and getting shorter. focusing more and more. Either way though, I agree, writing shorter pieces are a way to improve your writing.

  3. […] The long and short of it… (andyswordsandpictures.wordpress.com) […]

  4. For the April A to Z challenge I’ve been doing a daily flash fiction with the theme of 10×10 or a maximum of 10 sentences with a minimum of 100 words. I love writing flash fiction and it will be a difficult transition back to my WIP novels. LOL!

  5. Donna, that sounds intriguing. I/m on my way….

  6. Extremely well put! Good to hear more love for shorter fiction!

  7. Oh and if you’re so inclined, the Inspiration Monday one that I’ve been partaking off these last couple of weeks gives some great writer prompts.

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