A Lost Art?

Short stories seem to be a thing that not a lot of writers tackle anymore. What used to be the sure-fire way for beginners to practice and hone their craft has become something only seasoned writers do, writers who enjoy the challenge of fitting the basic elements of a story into a few thousand words. And many don’t consider that many authors make a living, and pay their bills, writing only short stories. Wow, amazing, eh?

Stephen King has stated in interviews that writers have a tendency in recent years to think of only the novel. Once your mind is set to that, focusing all of your efforts on longer pieces, it’s easy to lose the trick, or the technique that is key to writing really good short fiction. Young (or new) writers get trapped into what King calls a ‘quagmire’ because of the attitude that longer is better. (which we all know is not true) The problem, he feels, is that many of them are not ready to go there yet, not skilled enough to write 300+ pages of prose because they don’t understand the nuts and bolts of great storytelling. He’s absolutely right. (of course)

So there they sit, numerous manuscripts under their belt, and not one even remotely appealing to publishers. They’re frustrated and angry, wondering why they thought they could ever write, or hating the industry for not recognizing their obvious brilliance. Some give up, never write again and others self publish, never rising above the mediocrity that is their work.

Ouch! Mediocrity? Yep. I said it. When you self publish out of frustration and out of resentment to the ‘system’ of traditional publishing, you will never rise above that hated position of ‘amateur’. Why? You’re not taking the time to hone your skills, to learn why these novels you so diligently and painstakingly poured your heart and soul into aren’t getting the rave reviews and positive responses you hoped for.

I have seventeen short stories in my hard drive right now, a disgustingly small number. Some are crap and some are damn good (IMHO). Did I begin with short stories, as many publisher authors and writing gurus advise? Sort of. For many years all I wrote were short stories, but I did get sucked into the novel vortex a couple of years ago. I believed ‘serious’ writers only bothered with novels. Boy was I wrong. This year I’ve gone back to the short story, first because I absolutely love writing them, and second because I find that they give me a challenge and they teach, or remind me of several key things that are important to good writing.

Recently I joined a site called Thinking Ten – A Writer’s Playground and I’m so glad that Blake invited me to this awesome little corner of the internet. Basically, you get a daily prompt and ten minutes to do what you will with that prompt. So the challenge I’ve given myself is to write a piece of flash fiction, complete with beginning, middle, and end, in that timeframe. This has helped me first, to learn to only write what is needed, and second, it has given me so many ideas for other projects. It also puts me in the perfect frame of mind to work on larger projects. My daily ten minutes focuses my creativity and I find that my WIP is benefitting from this little challenge.

Just so you can see the absolute awesomeness of attempting short fiction, and why I think you’ll love it once you try, here is my first attempt at the Thinking Ten Challenge and also my first flash fiction piece. It’s not great, but it has potential:

By Renee Miller

A light mist fell over the cobblestone path, dusting the azaleas that lined the edges. Julie pulled the hood of her battered black raincoat over her head and sighed. Nowhere to go, no one who cared, just the squirrels who eyed her from the oak tree that loomed over the bench where she sat, waiting for her to toss a treat. If she’d been smart, she’d have made friends by now, tried to be that person she used to be. Outgoing, intelligent, pretty; when did she change?

Staring at the puddle forming around her feet, noting the way it darkened the pale yellow of her canvas shoes, Julie ruminated over the past few months. She had a room, a place to call her own, and it suited her well enough. She had family, although they hadn’t bothered to call or visit since she’d moved. John would have told them, given them what-for and made them feel bad for how they treated her. John wouldn’t have stood for it, not for one minute. But John couldn’t do anything, he left long ago and he wasn’t coming back. He couldn’t share her room, his absence being the reason she occupied the tiny space rather than their family home in the country. The moment John left, they’d pounced, convincing Julie she couldn’t care for the land or the house alone, and that she’d be far better off in the city, with people around her and things to do.

Julie snorted and stood, grasping the handle of her cane to support her left side. Damn stairs. If only she hadn’t tripped, if she hadn’t been pushing John’s chair when it happened…if only didn’t change anything.

Limping her way along the cobblestones, her eyes blurred and she felt the warmth of her tears as they slipped down her weathered cheeks. Back to her room, to her loneliness, and back to her dreams of what used to be. Perhaps she’d check on John before she went to bed. Maybe this would be the day he came back to her, the day his eyes might turn to her and she’d see her husband once more in their faded blue depths. She knew she hoped for the impossible, but at least no one could take that from her; her dreams were hers alone.

Just under 400 words, written in ten minutes, the only edit was to remove one cliché line that a writer friend pointed out to me. I was so ashamed…but that’s what I came up with using the prompt; a picture of a park bench. Yes, I am addicted to flash fiction.

So, for those of you who haven’t attempted a short story, shame on you. If you’re afraid to, worried you can’t write an entire story in a thousand words or so, I’ll explain the process, some ‘tricks’ to a well written short story. It’s easier than you think.

1. Plot: Instead of telling the character’s whole life story, take one critical moment and tell that story. But take the time to make note of his or her background (character sketch). This won’t be used but it helps you as the writer to keep it in mind while writing.
2. Conflict: Keep the conflicts that your characters may face to a minimum. Remember, the story is short and therefore you don’t really have the luxury of several subplots…that is, unless you’re very good at it, and then I suppose it is possible. But for beginners, and those of us without the ‘knack’ for fabulous short story writing, (which really is most of us) the entire story should introduce the main conflict and resolve it by the conclusion. To make it deeper and more rewarding for the reader, you can utilize both internal and external conflicts.
3. Themes: Make every line, every word, count. Don’t use pointless scenes that do nothing to further the plot or that don’t make a thematic statement. Objects, memories, or phrases repeated in the story can gain importance and make more of an impact. This can help show meaning not only on the surface, but also make a statement about the characters, their situation or the plot. Think carefully about what you are going to focus on, because in a short story, the reader will be looking for these themes to understand the story.
4. Show don’t Tell: The difference between showing and telling is in the writing. “Joe is angry,” is telling. “Joe’s cheeks warmed and his gut tightened. Clenching his fists, he counted back from ten in his mind, as the counsellor told him to do when he felt like this. He made it all the way to one, but still, he couldn’t let go of the fury that enveloped his body like a warm blanket.” This is showing. Using the senses helps to differentiate between showing and telling. Often writers forget this little trick.

These are great guides, but all you really need to remember is that writing a good short story means you need to keep things smaller, shorter and punchier. I think the most important thing to remember in terms of writing is to just keep doing it. Things will get messed up, stories will run off course, publishers will ignore your efforts and you will get frustrated, depressed even. But if you don’t keep writing, if you don’t continue to try, then you can’t call yourself a writer.

Now, I challenge you to take ten minutes and write something. If you want to share, please do, I would love to see what you come up with. If you want a prompt, I can give you one. Go write.

10 thoughts on “A Lost Art?

  1. Great tips Renee. Writing short pieces helps you hone your skills and learn how to apply it to longer works. More writers should realize this.

  2. "A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger." Stephen King. Very nice post, Ms. Miller. Short stories, and flash fiction in particular, are a beautiful art form. They have helped me grown tremendously as a writer. That sounds like an awesome site. I am still so…unused to the idea of somebody giving me a prompt instead of me coming up with one. I should try it.

  3. I think that even without the 'prompt', the ten minutes each day is a good way to 'focus'. Some may prefer a longer amount of time and to use their own prompt. Either way, I think it works for me. Plus not giving myself time to get wordy has made is clear I waste way too much of both (time and words) when I get carried away.

  4. Nice and thought provoking post, Renee. Yes, I fell into that trap, I'm still there–sort of. But having recently wrote my first short story, I see where you are coming from and I want to write more. I'm not sure I could do it in ten minutes, but still, I will write more. Thanks.

  5. "Ouch! Mediocrity? Yep. I said it. When you self publish out of frustration and out of resentment to the ‘system’ of traditional publishing, you will never rise above that hated position of ‘amateur’. Why? You’re not taking the time to hone your skills, to learn why these novels you so diligently and painstakingly poured your heart and soul into aren’t getting the rave reviews and positive responses you hoped for."Renee, I'm sure you've been warned to never use the word never. It can come back and bit you in the butt.Ouch is right. I can't believe you're bashing the novelist. What if I said folks who linger with short stories don't stretch, feel, learn, and get into the psyche–yours and the readers? I don't think you'd like that. I guess it all depends on what you're looking for in writing. I don't write for rave reviews. If I did my work would be an also-run, if you get my point. I write to pass on information about life and to learn about life.I'm glad I'm not among the mediocre. To me writing a novel as opposed to a short story is easier and produces a better piece of work. You have time to flesh out your story–you're not rushing through. There's more room to prove your theory. I love writing novels–I write, I think, I feel and mostly, I learn that I know what I think I didn't know What a discovery that is! Feel me?Pardon me, I must get back to my soon-to-be self-published MS.

  6. You misunderstood what I wrote there, Minnie. I did not say novelists, who never wrote a single short story would remain mediocre. I said said when you don't learn, don't grow, and publish those novels that keep getting rejected on your own out of frustration and anger, rather than figure out WHY they aren't being published, you will stay in the ranks of amateur. I said that short stories help us to learn these skills because we can play on a smaller scale before tackling those bigger projects. I have had many 'epiphanies' about my writing because of messing around with short stories. First, that I say too much, I need to tighten my sentences, pare down my scenes, unpurple my prose, and I did. I wouldn't have learned that if I'd given into the disappointment and growing resentment that I felt when my first book didn't get the response I wanted. If I'd gone to Lulu or Createspace and published it as-is, I'd never have learned why no one wanted it, and I'd still be writing the same drivel I was two years ago.A novel is in some ways easier, of course. you have the pages and words you need to convey what you want, which is exactly why writing shorts is a good tool for improvement. I'm sorry that you read a certain little bit here and got upset, because you missed the whole point of this post.

  7. I didn't get that Renee was bashing the novelist. I walked away from this post with the thought of using short stories as a way to improve my own skills. I don't believe that every author that self-plublishes does so out of frustration. Some writers just write and want to share what they've written. There's nothing wrong with that.

  8. Renee said, "…out of frustration and out of resentment to the ‘system’ of traditional publishing, you will never rise above that hated position of ‘amateur’."It's a truth of life that when you do anything out of frustration and resentment, things aren't going to go your way. Short stories and flash fiction are wonderful tools to learn so much about writing. I really think Renee is right on this point.

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