Short Stuff: Learn ’em and love ’em


Just thirty years ago, Stephen King got his start writing—and selling—short stories. Short stories used to be a place to start writing; as a writer learned and advanced then he or she moved on to the novel. But in the past decade, the short story market has virtually disappeared, and many writers get the sense—from workshops, from agents, from publishers—that they should proceed directly to the more demanding work of a full-length novel.

I think this mindset is dead wrong. Here’s why:

Writing short stories is a terrific way to learn how to craft fiction. I think they can be good places to learn, to experiment, and just for a change-up if you’re working on longer material. Short stories still require all the crucial elements of good fiction writing: scene, POV, dialogue, action, emotional beats, characterization, and these elements have to be compressed to be effective.

Short stories are, um, short. They begin and end quickly. They’re finite yet infinitely tweakable. Say you’ve written 5,000 words from a submissive’s point-of-view (POV), and you realize after finishing that it could work better from the dom’s POV. Fixing 5,000 words of that is much easier than trying to fix 75,000 words of a novel. (Trust me on this. Really.)

Short stories are a safe place to experiment with a different voice, a different tone. A quirky, first-person, hillbilly voice that’s fun in a short story might get wearing in a novel—for you and your readers. A stern, formal tone for a Victorian-era piece might bore you to tears in a novel-length work but could work perfectly for an erotic short piece. You can play with second-person POV, so prevalent in fiction based on chatroom encounters. Think of short stories as a way to stretch your writing muscles.
Short stories can give you the sense of having finished something. Completing a piece (and sending it out on submission) can help create energy with your writing. You may get good comments from beta readers. You get that little zing of positive feedback just from typing The End. And because there are hundreds of potential markets for a short story you may even have the satisfaction of selling something while you’re still slogging away at that novel.

Here are some guidelines to help you craft a short story that works.

1. Think in terms of one to four scenes. Short stories tend to focus on one major incident, one inciting event. Whether it’s an erotic encounter or the painful smash-up of a love affair, a short story can keep the focus on one afternoon, one conversation, one sexual encounter. Of course, there are exceptions to these guidelines. Brokeback Mountain broke a lot of rules, but Annie Proulx was already an established author with numerous solid credentials before she sold that novella-length story that spanned nearly 30 years. You probably can’t get away with that. Sketch out your major event(s) and action then think about compressing, compressing, compressing.

Here’s part of the original prologue to Brokeback Mountain; look at how much it tells about Ennis. His life, his world, and further on, his prospects, which are uniformly dismal:

“Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder in the draft. He gets up, scratching the gray wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on…”

2. Get an immediate conflict or question on the page, in the first paragraph if you can. Remember, most markets wants short stories of 7,000 words or fewer (some erotica markets even specify 2,000 words or fewer); that doesn’t give you a lot of room for backstory and flashbacks and memories and blah blah blah. You need to get the story going, right now. I tried to do this with “Holding the Reins” (from my collection, Diamond Chips: Horse Tales) when I started this way:

“It shouldn’t have felt like walking towards a prison. Barn Five was painted crisp white with forest green accents on the shutters and doors, and a classic red rooster weathervane sat atop the cupola. All of his life, he had run towards horses and into happiness: manure-scented walkways, hay-filled stalls, a life awash with gleaming horseflesh. No longer.”

An opening paragraph that introduces the main character, his or her conflict, and raises a question for readers can provide a hook that grabs readers from the start. Again, compress for effect.

3. If you’re writing to sell, keep in mind that short story markets have changed radically in the past five years and will continue to change. When I began working professionally as a writer in 2004, many markets would take stories up to 7,500 words; now, most top out at 5,000 words. For you this may mean deleting a scene, compressing two others down, and slicing out all that elegant description you labored over. If you’re writing for the exercise and stretch then, of course, don’t worry about word count. If you’re writing to sell though you’ll have to take into account the realities of the marketplace. Save anything you delete in a file; you may be able to revise it and use it later in another piece or a continuation of the story. (And check back; next month’s column will focus on selling short stories.)

4. Every word counts so eliminate useless ones. Most adverbs should probably go, qualifiers (seemed, really, kind of), and many dialogue tags can be omitted. Consider how your words sound: sad stories about mourning can use sad sounding words: nouns and verbs with the “ow” tone in them, colors that evoke mourning: blue, gray, black, bruised violet. Consider very carefully your setting; where a scene takes place can help readers evoke the mood you intend.

Here’s an exercise to help you think about how words and setting affect a storyline. Try this and see how different the scene feels. Write 12-20 lines of dialogue between two characters. Make it an emotional moment: a marriage proposal, news of a loved one’s death, or perhaps a pregnancy. Now use that dialogue and put those characters in a setting that provides subtext (or counter-subtext) for the scene. For example, a marriage proposal that takes place in a garden with a bubbling fountain, blooming flowers, and birds flittering about will read quite differently than the very same dialogue spoken after a funeral at a graveside in winter with snow on the ground, bare trees, and gray skies. Or, dialogue that takes place over the bellows and chaos of a cattle herd being loaded onto a slaughter truck will read differently than the same words being spoken over the quiet birth of a foal in a hay-filled stall. Do you see how subtext and word choice is crucial here?

So, short stories are a quick, safe, often fun way of stretching your writing muscles and getting a piece finished and out the door. Whether they’re an adjunct to your novel writing or your way to learn the craft, give them some thought And have fun! (Briefly, that is.)

Vincent Diamond
March 2010

“Serious about Smut” © 2010 Vincent Diamond. All rights reserved.

Pin It on Pinterest