Early in my writing journey I threw a lot of short stories into competitions, encouraged by other people saying how nice they were. They got nowhere. I thought about not bothering because – for me – a short story takes a lot of creative effort. I’m not one of these people with a thousand ideas for stories rattling around in my head (a thousand ideas for other things, yes!), so simply coming up with the story itself is the first hurdle. And I was busy with my novels, and it seemed I would be better off spending my energies there.
And then, pretty much about this time last year, my story The Moon’s Silver Path was runner-up in Graffiti Magazine’s annual short story competition. Runner-up?? I was the Cheshire Cat for days. And during 2020 I had a handful more successes (out of a good number of entries) and suddenly, it was all worthwhile.
Now, having just been shortlisted for a quarterly themed competition (yay!), I decided to sit down and think about why novel writers could do worse than spend some of their precious writing time on short stories – and competitions. What do they teach us? And do for us?
This is what I came up with:
ONE: MAKING EVERY WORD COUNT
Word limits, even generous ones, teach you to make every word count. That’s a good thing to be aware of in novels too, not to repeat yourself, or get carried away with excess verbiage.
This is a hard one for me, as I tend to be a start at the beginning and move forward story teller. But that can be dull unless you’re writing a very short piece of flash fiction, essentially one short scene. The advice is to start as close to the end as possible and move forward. Okayyy… I’m still learning that one. Short stories let you play with structure in bite-size pieces, so you can see how it works, or doesn’t.
The shorter the pieces, the fewer POV characters, the fewer characters generally, the fewer sub-plots, or divergency from the main story.
FOUR: RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN
A mantra shared with my novel critique partners, and it’s as important in a novel as it is in a short story. Let the reader work! They like to feel clever.
I recently watched a short video which talked about endings (much short story advice has a lot to say about beginnings, less about endings). After reading it, I suggested to a writer friend that she cut most of her last paragraph in a story, as the paragraph explained how what had happened brought the emotionally estranged couple in the story together again. The action itself ended with ‘They hugged.’ To me, those two words told me everything I needed to know.
Play with POV, with tense, with style , with themes. Mix it up, see what makes you comfortable. It might even help you find your ‘voice’ – that elusive thing agents (and readers) cherish.
SIX: GROW IN CONFIDENCE
There’s nothing quite like the joy of that first longlist/shortlist/commendation or straight out prize to say: Gosh, other people think you’re a writer!