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THE LONG & SHORT OF THE SHORT & SWEET

I first met Sherry Isaac at Margie Lawson’s Immersion Master Class where 7 writers were corralled at Margie’s mountside home in Colorado for a week of 10+ hour days of writing and critiquing and learning.  It was an amazing experience and I recommend Margie’s classes to everyone! I hope to find an Immersion Master Class II to attend soon.

Within a few hours of meeting Sherry I adored her. She is one of those easy-going, fun-loving, warm individuals who can make you feel like you’ve known them forever. Within a day of meeting her I was awed by the breadth of her writing ability.

Sherry is an amazing author and an even better friend. Her first collection of shorts, STORYTELLER, debuted last month, July 2011.

Welcome, Sherry!!

*****

THE LONG & SHORT OF THE SHORT & SWEET
Sherry Isaac

My introduction to short stories was typical: high school English. No, I will not tell you how long ago that was, except to say that it wasn’t so long ago that I can’t remember my inaugural short, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe’s beat-by-beat unravelling of a guilty man’s mind is still my favorite. And what kind of a Canadian would I be if I’d never read Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro? (Gasp!)

Not once did I ever think I’d write short stories.

Novels were my love. When I admitted out loud that I was a writer and gave in to the craft, novels were my goal.

Lots and lots and lots of novels. Novels were what I read, novels were what I loved. Novels! I didn’t read short stories, not by choice anyway (exception: Poe, above). If I didn’t read them, why would I write them? First of all, my experience was limited–a twist on the old, write what you know advice. Second, short stories were, well, short.

For someone like me, who doesn’t know when to shut up, short story writing isn’t a very appealing venue.

Plus, I like to ramble.

Tom Hank’s character in A League of Their Own said ‘There’s no crying in baseball’.

And there is no rambling in short stories.

Why?

Because there’s no room.

Obvious, I know, but there you have it. Short stories are, by definition, short. And as Brian Henry, Editor and Creative Writing instructor teaches, “the length imposes certain restrictions”.

Shorter story, lesser word count. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong.

There is a quote, several versions, actually, attributed to Voltaire, Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I’ve written a long one instead.”

Ask any advertising executive. Telling a full and compelling story in few words is a challenge.

If a novel is a cross-country trip on The Partridge Family bus, then a short story is a hop to the next town in a Mini Cooper. A short story, like a novel, has a starting point, a destination, and if you’re a plotter rather than a pantster, a map in the glovebox telling you how to get there–or a destination plugged into the GPS.

When the venue for your tale is a short story, you don’t have a lot of time. Or a lot of trunk space. You can’t pack all your favorite plots and subplots. One change of underwear, one clean shirt, one crisp dollar bill for the toll.

You can’t stop along the way to pick up friends. Extra characters complicate things. They can’t help it, that’s what they do. The “aim” of a short story is “to achieve”–once again I channel Brian Henry–”a single, concentrated effect”.

Throw a few friends in the Cooper and someone will want to drive. Someone will want to stop for souvenirs, another will need a bathroom break. The guy in the back seat will get queasy and ask you to pull over. All these complications are great in a novel but in a short story they take up space. Space you don’t have.

Just as you can’t stop and pick up friends on the way to your destination, you can’t stop for Kodak moments or take the scenic route. Grand descriptions take up word count. The prose has to be tight. Get on the highway. Get in the fast lane. Get to the end in 10,000 words, 5,000 words, 3,000 words. Or less.

One plot, often one character, not a lot of description to slow the story down. All of this means focus.

Short word count, short description, short list of characters. What else?

In novels, the author may slow down time in order to accommodate or enrich all of the layers in a story. A couple from different cultures need to fall in love, and that doesn’t happen over night. An ordinary housewife vows to save the world from rising gas prices, but first she must overcome her fear public transit. Who amongst us hasn’t rounded the corner on time only to watch the black plume of exhaust because the bus showed up early? There won’t be another #12 to the city for 17 more minutes.

To avoid these pitfalls in a short story, it’s best to keep the plot’s time frame short as well as focused.

Clamp down on the description, the build up, the gas. Does this mean a short story should be fast paced? Not at all, and most are not.

Short stories tend to be character driven. A choice, a trial, a internal change the character needs to make.

One plot, one character, one turning point.

Tell your short story right, and you just might be on the short list for literary greatness.

Winner of The Alice Munro Short Story Award, Sherry Isaac’s tales of life, love and forgiveness that transcend all things, including the grave, appear online and in print. Her first collection of shorts, Storyteller, debuts July 2011. For more information, or to order an autographed copy, click HERE.

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