“Short stories help you learn your craft.” – George R.R. Martin
These days writers think they need to start with a novel length work, or even design a series. I call it the gospel according to Amazon.com. Well if you are an up-and-coming writer, I want you to take a moment. Yes I know you are in an all fired hurry to get out there. You must be the next Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Rowling, but bare with me for a second.
Have you ever written a short story? Have you ever taken a short story and made it better than your original? If not, I want you try. Not because umteen million writers like Gaiman, Poe, Bradbury, or Welty will tell you to start with shorter works, but because you owe it to yourself. Your readers deserve to be enchanted by a true wordsmith.
A friend and fellow writer once told me that they need at minimum 5,000 words to just get started. I thought if it takes that long to set the bait then the reader will have already swam past. You see my friend had never written a complete short story. Her writing suffered for it.
“Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.” – Ali Smith
The reason most new writers back away from short form literature is because it is hard to do right. It all comes down to brevity, as Ali Smith said. Taking that a bit further, we all know King’s famous ‘kill your darlings’ quote, and you have to be willing to bleed. Non-writers say that is a dumb way of looking at things, and a bit morbid to boot. They are so wrong.
Take a Project Manager for example. The PM has to cut away any unnecessary steps or process that slow production. There isn’t a PM on Earth that hasn’t heard the lament of older management saying, “But we have always done it that way!” So what! There is a better way. A clearer approach.
Story writing, short or long form, has much in common with a production schedule. The first thing on the block is extraneous words. If a word can be left out and you retain the meaning, cut it. If a paragraph has no plot moving element, remove it. If you can skip a whole chapter and the plot still works, get rid of it. Yes, this sucks! Just try. Short stories a worth their weight in gold. Often they create in us new pathways of looking at the world and how we, writers, fit into it.
“A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, ‘Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can’t forget me, there’s still more to write!’ Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect inside me in a very natural, organic way.” – Haruki Murakami
Try your hand at short stories. Truly trim them down to the barest essentials of storytelling, you will find in you new depths, and your words with literally leap off the page!
Want an example of my personal journey with short stories? Read this story written September 23, 2010. After nearly 4 and half years I hope that you see improvement. Yes, I am putting myself out there, but I’m not one of those ‘do what I say not what I do’ people. I try to practice what I preach.
Unlatched by Lisa M. Collins (Revised from Bridget)
Bridget felt a hand cover her nose and mouth. Acrid fumes assailed her. She lost consciousness.
Awaking, Bridget held her head in her hands. The pounding was so intense she heaved into a wastebasket. Sunlight streaming into her window made her focus fuzzy. Her bedroom was just as she remembered, even the glass of water by the bed. Reaching for the it, she drank deeply, but remained thirsty.
Images of yesterday flashed before Bridget’s eyes, and her heart started to pound. The last thing remembered was waking up. Hearing the window creak open in the dark. She thought her imagination was running wild, but a cool breeze slid across her bared shoulders. Then nothing—she could not remember anything else.
Running her hands over her body Bridget checked for signs of pain or abuse. It must have been a dream. She got up and walked over to the window, and reached to unhitch the latch. It was not in the locked position.
“Shake it off, Bridget,” she said aloud.
“Honey!” her mom yelled from downstairs. “Get up, you are going to be late for practice!”
Bridget sprinted through her morning routine and grabbed her gym bag on the way down stairs.
“I thought I was going to have to come up there and get you.” Her mom fussed.
“I slept late, but I can still catch the 8:15.” Bridget took a banana from her mom, and ran out the door. She jogged down the block to the bus stop. The 8:15 arrived at 8:17. Bridget hopped on the bus and slid her pass for the fare. Finding a seat near the rear she relaxed and ate her breakfast.
At the next stop a familiar looking boy got on the bus. Bridge smiled. The boy reciprocated. She couldn’t remember where she had seen him before. He sat a few rows ahead, and she could not see his face. He was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt obscuring his features.
The next stop was the softball field as Bridget got up, the boy did as well. In her haste to get off the bus she bumped him in the back, but he didn’t look back.
“Sorry!” Bridget said.
“It’s not a problem,” the boy said looking over his shoulder. His voice was like music.
Her breath caught in her throat. She wanted…No needed to see his face.
He stepped down to the sidewalk and headed away from the ballfield. Bridget paused. She wanted to follow him, but the team was expecting her. She was paralyzed by indecision. At the corner he looked back over his shoulder. Bridget’s feet turned to follow him. At first he maintained at a leisurely pace, but as Bridget got closer he sped up. Soon the two were running down the street. Losing track of where she was going. Her only concern was catching up to him. At a fork in the road the boy ran left and ducked into a warehouse.
Bridget followed him inside, creeping into the darkness. She strained to see into the gloom. She dropped her bag and inched forward, engulfed by shadows.
“Why are you following me, Bridget?” His voice said in the dark
She froze. The voice was close, she felt a drop of sweat skitter down her spine. She shivered. “Why are you running from me?” She did not receive an answer.
Coming to her senses Bridget realized she needed to get out. What was she doing?! Bridget slowly backed toward the door.
Right by her ear the boy whispered, “I am the one who asks questions here.”
Bridget screamed and tried to bolt. She was caught in vice like grip.
“Stop. Struggling. Bridget!” He commanded and clamped her arms tighter.
Bridget felt faint. Sick. Desperate. Fear stunned her still.
“There now, isn’t that better,” his whisper nuzzled her ear. “You are shaking, Bridget. I am not going to hurt you.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” She asked.
“No questions. I do not like to repeat myself.”
“I just want to know what is going on.” Bridget asked
“Nothing is happening, Bridget. This is not real. I am the one you want, but cannot have. I am your dream, your wish, your desire.”
“No! No! No!” Bridget yelled.
“Honey are you OK?” Bridget’s mom ran into her bedroom and flicked on the light.
Bridget sat bolt upright in her bed, sweat streaming down her face.
“It’s fine, Honey. It was just a nightmare.” Her mom hugged her tight.
Bridget relaxed into the embrace, “I’m OK, Mom. Go back to bed.”
Her mom looked her right in the eye. “You sure, Honey.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Bridget leaned back on her pillow.
Once her mom was down the hall, Bridget hopped out of bed and walked to the window. It was unlatched. Her hands shook as she fiddled with the lock. Looking down in the backyard next to the oak was a boy dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt. All she could see was his Cheshire smile.