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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.

30 responses to “THE LONG & SHORT OF THE SHORT & SWEET”

  1. Hello! (Wave from fellow IMC’r) As I continually tell people one of my unexpected benefits from my stay up at Margie’s was meeting amazing authors like Joan and Sherry. When Sherry read one of her short stories I was floored. And now I get to read more! Very excited to see what exactly you packed into the small spaces of each tale. Fluid concise writing. That’s Sherry Isaac!

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    • Sherry says:

      Jessica,

      Here, here! A year later, contact with and support from you, Joan, Gloria, Babs and Margie keep me challenged, motivated, inspired. Love you guys!

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  2. liz talley says:

    Fascinating stuff, Sherry.

    I love a good short story, and as a former English teacher, I’ve read many of them. There is an artistry and a beauty to writing short and powerful. I always think of a short story as a slice of life, or a single intent to prove a point. Poe does this brilliantly because he had something to say…just not a lot of it.

    I’ve written exactly one short story, or novella, of 15,000 words. I really like it and I’ve been thinking about using it in self-publishing if I can ever slow down enough to learn how to self-publish. Thanks for your well-told advice on writing short and tight.

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  3. Sherry says:

    Liz,

    Good things come in small packages. My fabulous critique partner and friend Sharon Clare is looking to self e-publishing for her novella, an excellent option when building an audience.

    Let us know when (not if) your novella is released.

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  4. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I agree. Margie Lawson’s classes are amazing. And you are so right, Sherry. Writing a short story can be harder than writing a full-length novel. Congrats and good luck on your release!

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  5. Vivi Andrews says:

    I’ll never give up my Partridge family cross country trips, but I’ve learned to love a mini-cooper jaunt. Most of my stuff is novellas these days and with ebooks there’s actually a market for them!

    Best wishes with your release, Sherry!

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  6. Hi Sherry! Thank you so much for being here today!

    Shorts are such a challenge for me. I’ve written many over the years, but to get a full story with an arc, character arc, and actual plot in just a few words is never easy. I love your analogies. They are so accurate.

    Congrats and good luck with your release!
    ~D~

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  7. Gloria Richard says:

    KUDOS, Sherry, on ANOTHER wonderful, well-written article. You know (a lesson painfully learned with much rolling of eyes)why I find it impossible to write a compelling short story. But, I have had the honoUr of reading and commenting on some of the gems in the STORYTELLER collection and can’t wait to get my hands on my copy. They hit the “slice of life” mark Liz described. Fun, compelling, emotive, nostalgic. You name it. There’s a story that covers it.

    I, too, am a Margie-fan-atic. Sherry and I met through an on-line course, became fast friends and writing buddies. She wasn’t a stranger when I met her in person for the first time at Denver Airport on my way to an incredible experience and what I hope will be life-long friendships with Joan, Jessica Aspen, and Babs Mountjoy. SO excited for Sherry I could just…hmm…best leave that thought unfinished.

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    • Sherry says:

      Gloria, I set aside the second book off the press for you. I know you asked for the first one, but I’d kinda like to keep it for myself, if you don’t mind.
      Shall respond in kind when Colour My World is released.
      Love ya!

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  8. Hope Ramsay says:

    Hi Sherry,

    I’m so glad you’re here today. I am writing my first ever short story. And while I admit to reading a few in the past (mostly Isaac Asimov’s robot stories), I have to say that I am a novel person. I wouldn’t be writing this story unless my editor wanted it.

    I have a question. You say one character and one turning point, do you mean that even in a romance with a hero an heroine? I’ve recently read a few short romances — most were longer than the 10K budget I have for my story, and they all seemed to have the usual romance arc. I’m really struggling with that in this short. There doesn’t seem to be room for a real black moment, as there is in a novel. Just a little twist at the end — O’Henry style. Your thoughts on this?

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    • Sherry says:

      Hello, Hope.

      Great question. I haven’t read a lot of romance shorts, but I would say the same rule applies in a short as in a novel when it comes to romance. When writing romance you are often writing in two points of view.
      That said, you could write a romantic short from one POV. A heroine who needs to go through her character arc in order to accept her Prince Charming, or to accept that she deserves him.
      You’re right about the seemingly absent black moment, the format does lend itself to twists, but not always. You can build in a black moment. Again, it comes down to the word count, and being really tight with the prose.
      My advice would be to continue reading shorts, particularly in the romance genre, see how those authors handle the arc(s). Then, follow your instincts, and trust your characters.
      I like CJ Lyons’ motto, ‘No Rules, Just Write’. I attended a workshop facilitated by Allison Brennan at the Dreamin’ in Dallas Conference this spring. The message of the workshop? There are no rules.

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  9. Kim Law says:

    Hi Sherry! Welcome to the Rubies!

    Loved your post. I’ve been playing around with the idea of working on some shorts. I’ve never even tried one before (well, I did do a have a 5 pager for a creative writing class), so it pretty much terrifies me. Great points you’ve made. I’ll definitely keep them in mind when I finally sit down and give it a try!

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  10. Andrea Northcote says:

    Hey Sherry – I AM “stopping by” – always excited to read your stories. They have so much descriptive detail. The plot engrosses me everytime !
    Andrea

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  11. Elisa Beatty says:

    Congrats on STORYTELLER, Sherry! (I’m a big Alice Munro fan…how cool you won the Alice Munro Short Story award!!)

    I’ve been playing with some shorts myself–for the first time in years–and actually find it a very liberating form. It’s much easier to keep the whole plot arc in my head at one time…

    Thanks for joining us today!!

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    • Sherry says:

      Thanks for having me, Elisa. I like shorts, too. But that could be my impatience gene and that need for instant gratification. I can write a short story faster than a novel, so I feel like I’ve accomplished something sooner.

      Hm. Why don’t I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I complete a chapter or a scene. Must reorganize my thinking pattern.

      Looking forward to reading your shorts!

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  12. Great post, Sherry. As a short story writer, usually under 3K, I find your comparisons amazing and very helpful.

    Thank you. I wish you much success with your collection.

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    • Sherry says:

      Pat,

      Love the author quotes on your site. ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.’ (Muriel Rukeyser) I have to remember that one.

      My motto: What doesn’t kill us, makes us writers!

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  13. Welcome, Sherry! Thanks for sharing your story story secrets. I used to write a lot of them when I was younger. I like the discpline — it really teaches you to write tight.

    Congrats on the release of Storyteller!

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  14. Addison Fox says:

    Sherry:

    Welcome! I’m so glad you’re here with us today.

    I think you make some wonderful points and it couldn’t be more timely for me – I’m working on a novella right now!

    Addison

    PS
    I am laughing at your bus example….VERY timely as that was me this morning, watching the bus pull away… 🙂

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    • Sherry says:

      Addison,

      So glad to be here – so many comments! Wow.

      Can you tell I am the proud new owner of a Mini Cooper? I call her MiMi.

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  15. Sherry, (Waving madly) I’m so happy to see you here at the Rubies.

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience in writing short and offering up awesome advice. I’m looking foward to reading Storyteller.

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    • Sherry says:

      Autumn!!!!!!!

      We lost touch after class. But I see your name popping up all over the place. I puff up with pride and think, yeah, I cyber-know her!

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