Writing Short Fiction: An Uncertain Guide

First, did you read yesterday’s post? Operation: Your First Motherfucking Sale? Go there. Read that. Come back. Okay. You back now? Good. Let’s rock.

Yesterday, in the comments, 8dnail said: “You’re a diseased crotch-goblin who failed to provide us with truly awesome short story tips.” Or something like that. He may have been nicer about it, but don’t you worry: I heard “diseased crotch-goblin.” I hear that all the time, actually. “Paper or plastic, you diseased crotch-goblin?” “Would you like fries with that, Mister Diseased Crotch-Goblin?” “I want to make love to your diseased crotch, goblin.”

So, here am, kicking down the door and riding into your living room on my snorting white mare, ready to deliver a hot steaming fist-full of spectacular short-story-writing tips to your eyes and mouth.

Except, ehhh, I don’t know that I really have any.

I haven’t given this a shit-ton of thought.

Writing short is not something I do all too often, largely because as a market it’s hard to make the scratch necessary to pay the mortgage new and old.

Still, I love writing short fiction.

So, you want tips? I’ll offer tips. I’ll offer whatever tips come a-tumbling out of my head.

Then, you — you — come and add your own. Or disagree with me. Or throw things at my diseased goblin-flavored crotch. So many options! That’s just how we do it here at terribleminds.

Ten Tips (In No Particular Order)

• It’s unlikely that you’ll feel constrained by the novel form — the novel is a sprawling beast, multi-headed, a stomach of many chambers. You might have 60,000 or 120,000 words or more. In a novel, what’s daunting can be the space — it’s like moving from a studio apartment to a mansion. Short fiction requires thinking about storytelling in a new way: spare, light, elegant. Quick on its feet. A lot with a little. You only have 3,000 words. Or maybe 5,000. In that space we need all the things we want from a novel — or from any story — though in a more compacted form. We want conflict. Character. Theme. Mood. All that jazz. The short story is still a story. Microcosm, yes, but a proper one: it contains all the necessary elements.

• That means, get to the goddamn point already. Don’t fritter away time. Don’t dick around. What’s there must be necessary. Your language doesn’t have to be blank, or cold, or Spartan. But it must not waste.

• All the more reason to look for junk language and kill it. Not that you want it in a novel, but let’s be honest: you read enough novels, you find plenty of junk. Short fiction is less forgiving.

• In a novel, escalation happens chapter to chapter. In a short story, it may happen paragraph to paragraph. Sentence to sentence. We want to feel that rise and fall swiftly: not much time, not much time at all.

• So many of the rules for writing large apply to writing small. One that’s important for me, and maybe not you: write a kick-ass opening sentence (or paragraph). You’re still trying to hook ’em.

• That said, short fiction allows you to experiment more boldly — the reader is only going to be with you for 3,000 words. If ever there’s a time to play, it’s with shorter works to see what flies, and what lies.

• Doubly important to start the story as late as you can. Exposition is the uncaring murderer of good short fiction. Start after the exposition. Arrive to the party late when the wine’s already gone and the glass table is smashed and the hooker is already dead in the upstairs bathroom.

• Shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences will give the story greater urgency.

• A lot of short stories have to do with “the twist.” This is fine, but don’t let the story be the twist. The story has to be there for the first 2500 words, remember. It still needs all the stuff to make a story great. Do you know who these characters are? Do you know what the story is about? Have you identified what you’re trying to say, and why you’re trying to say it? Remember: the twist is not necessary.

• Because the short fiction market is not a robust one and won’t be a career-maker, above all else have fun and stay true to your own voice. You can and should still write for markets (unless you’re self-publishing or publishing only on your blog or site), but with short work there’s less on the line.

• Okay, fine, an eleventh tip — don’t spend a ton of time writing short. Writing short work can be exhilarating and liberating, but it can also be a slow-growing pit. You step into it thinking, “Okay, here goes a few hours of my life,” and suddenly it’s a week later and you’re still spinning your tires, sinking deeper and deeper without being done. Further, I’ve seen plenty of people who Should Be Writing Other Things get caught in the short story trap — “Oooh, just had a great idea for a short, going to stop what I’m doing and work on that for a while.” Mm-hmm. Good luck with that. You’re like an ant in the pit of an ant-lion, now.

What else?

Whatchoo got?

Agree? Disagree?

Deliver unto all your wisdom.