Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thinking up a (short) story

I was asked to contribute a short story for an anthology, and I agreed with great enthusiasm. That was last night after a couple of margaritas. I would most likely have said yes anyway, but the margaritas didn’t help my impulse control. In the cold light of dawn, I woke up and thought, “Idiot! You have no idea how to write a short story.“

I suspect that plenty of people think that because I write novels, writing a short story should be a snap. Hey, it’s just a short novel, right?. And instead of weaving together lots of ideas, you only have one central idea. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I think in novel length stories. My plot ideas spin out in big loops that come back to include another idea, and before I know it, I’m embroiled in a mass of story lines. Sticking to one story feels to me like trying to sit on a cat. It scoots out from under you before you can pin it down.

Also, the best short stories I’ve read have a clever twist. That means I pretty much have to know what the twist is when I start the story—exactly the opposite of the way I usually work. In a novel I get to meander around and get to know the characters, one of whom eventually reveal himself to be capable of some kind of mayhem. No meandering allowed in a short story.

The one thing I do have going for me is that I like to be concise in my word usage. You can’t waste words when you write a short story. Every word has to count.

Questions I’m asking myself: Should I start with a plot idea or a character? Or should I first determine what kind of story I’m going to write—humorous or dark; amateur or professional; historical or modern? Should I outline it or just write? Should I use a character from my series, or a fresh new one? Most crime novels have murder at the core. Is that true of short stories as well?

I’ve written short stories, but they have usually come to me in bursts of inspiration. The idea of sitting down to “think up” a short story flummoxes me. One technique I’ve used when I start looking for a novel plot is to write down ten ideas, no matter how crazy they may seem, and then start thinking about them. That’s what I’ll probably do, unless…hmmm. I think of someone like Pat Morin who churns out one clever short story after another. Maybe I need to follow her around for a few days and hope she discards a stray idea.

Book Recommendation:  At BookPeople l I had the privilege of reading with two fine writers. One was Josh Stallings, whose book Young Americans I read and blurbed in the fall and recommended in an earlier post. The other writer was Scott Frank, a long-time screenwriter of note (Dead Again, Marley and Me, A Walk Among the Tombstones among many, many others), whose first novel has just come out. Shaker is a dynamite novel. It’s a bit Elmore Leonard and a bit Raymond Chandler. It’s a novel with heart and humor sprinkled into a fine noir sensibility. Read it!

1 comment:

Kathy McIntosh said...

Your post was so reassuring to me! I also write novels, but have a terrible time with short stories, and when I do, they're nothing terrific.
My friend Conda Douglas just published a little book called Write Short to Succeed. She came to Tucson and gave a workshop on writing short that was well-received by Arizona Mystery Writers. I recommend it (available on Amazon, print only so far). Lots of ideas. She, of course, has had well over 100 short stories published, so I hate her! And yet, she has some good ideas. Like your novel brainstorming idea.
I think going with one of your characters, even a minor one, helps for a short story. (And is good publicity, as well.)
Good luck, and thank you again for sharing your anxiety! :)