Listen, I’m gonna be honest here: this one wasn’t that interesting to talk about. Sixteen is a collection of–you guessed it–sixteen short stories by young adult authors from the 80s. It had some good ones, it had some not-so-good ones. I enjoyed reading it but it also brought back a lot of… interesting memories about my experiences with short story writing.
And that is the majority of what I ranted about in this video.
But allow me to summarize my main points.
1. Short story writing should be fun
I have a love/hate relationship with short stories. This is mostly because I allowed all the fun to get sucked out of it when I took creative writing workshops in college. Not only was the pressure on because it was for a grade, but I was forced to write in a genre that I didn’t really like: contemporary.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with contemporary short fiction, and it was probably a good exercise to have to write outside my genre of choice. But it was still a drag. And when I got out of college and started writing for myself again, I realized that short stories could be–and should be–a fun time.
Not only are they much less of a time commitment than a novel, they give you the chance to play with new ideas, characters, and situations. You can test things out, see what works and what doesn’t. And who knows? It might lead you to a bigger project later on.
But although there is still a wide audience for short stories, part of what makes them so fun is that they are first and foremost for you, the writer. They’re for your benefit. They’re so you can practice your craft and hone your skills. They’re easier to write (kind of), easier to revise, and easier to ask for feedback on.
People are way more likely to read your 2,000 word short story than they are to read your 80,000 word novel. Trust me.
2. Every word counts… kind of
I kind of contradicted myself in the video with this one because I said this was confusing and then proceeded to offer it as advice. Well, you know, I did say I was a hypocrite…
Just kidding. What I meant was, you do have less words to work with because it’s a shorter format. But you shouldn’t let that scare you. All that means is that you have to choose which details are the most important and leave everything out. It’s great practice and makes you realize just how much you don’t need.
It also gives you the ability to be really deliberate and intentional with the kind of words you choose. (Even though I guess we should all be deliberate and intentional anyway.) Since it’s shorter, you have to convey your tone and atmosphere without all the trappings of a regular story. So maybe you stick with very specific metaphors or imagery. Could be pretty poetic.
3. Don’t hamfist your themes
Here’s another one that I simultaneously refuted and then later affirmed. Ugh. Let me try to make this more direct: don’t come right out and say what your theme is. Maybe this goes for any type of writing, but in a short story there’s just nowhere to hide.
When you write, you’re probably going to have a theme in mind–love, friendship, self-discovery, courage, death (oh please, anything but death)–but keep it on the back burner as you write. Focus on the characters and what they’re doing to convey that theme rather than whether it’s evident or not. Trust your reader.
4. There are no rules!
One of the most annoying things about my experience taking those short fiction classes was that I felt like there were these unwritten rules that I was supposed to follow, but no one would tell me what they were.
And then I realized that it was because really, there are no rules. There are only guidelines.
And these guidelines tend to change depending on who you ask, what genre you’re writing, etc. Kind of like, oh, I don’t know… writing in general? Short stories are no different. They can be a challenge. They can force you to focus in and think creatively. But there is no one right way, no magic formula, no secret ingredient. Which brings me back to my first point: good or bad, short stories should be fun.
Have you tried your hand at short format? What are your thoughts? Share ’em with the class!