I don’t know about you, but my writing career began with writing stories that were 75,000 to over 100,000 words. That allows for vivid descriptions, too much (so editors tell me) character introspection, secondary plot lines and…well, lots of fun things. When I was in college and professors didn’t want to see anything longer than maybe ten pages for our fiction spinning, I sorta doubted that it was possible.
Let’s face it. Short stuff is harder to write than something long…
at least for someone whose entire career has been built around novel lengths.
In fact, even novella length was too short for me. An editor told me that the characters weren’t well developed. Well, of course they weren’t! There wasn’t enough word count in their guidelines to do that as well as have a complete story!
I preferred reading novel length stories, so I just went back to writing novel length stories.
And then paper costs went up and even e-book publishers were looking for things that were shorter than they’d been in the 1990s when I got my start.
Historical guidelines dropped from 90,000 to 100,000 words to a maximum of 75,000 words at Harlequin. My other historical publisher went out of business. I was too “category” or my characters had too much introspection time, I was told. That last really didn’t seem sensible to me in the least. Most of my characters had a lot of “alone time” so of course they were going to use it for introspection. I’m a loner and my whole life has far more introspection than…er…outerspection?
Oddly enough, I never mind stories where characters do a lot of thinking on their own. Bet other readers don’t mind either, but editors seem to be death on that.
Actually, that’s an aside to my topic here, which is “keeping things short.” Have probably qualified that I find this difficult to do.
Oddly enough, in 2019 I began writing short stories.
Lots of short stories! Well, short to me. Some have been less than 5,000 words long while others have gone just over 30,000, which some would say is a novelette but I’d consider a longer short story.
The reason I began doing this is two part:
- I saw an anthology posting looking for holiday stories the fall of 2018 and decided to try my luck as I was looking for ways to make a few bucks, and
- I was looking for a way to spread my fantasy name abroad.
When Tell-Tale Press jumped on the first Nick Claus, North Pole Security story (“A Parcel of Pups”) for their CASE FILES mystery anthology, not only where both the goals reached, I landed an editor who was nuts about Nick Claus. So, when the call went up for a Spring anthology, I put Nick back into play with “The Prime Crone’s Legacy”, which, while it takes place at the North Pole, isn’t a holiday story. The anthology required there be a creature, so I invented one and began rewriting the Claus family history…oh, that of Santa’s elves, too. This Fall the call went out for another Spring edition of the CASE FILES anthology, this time the theme was some sort of festival. I headed back to the North Pole and worked in the global warming problem of the ice sheets breaking up – and Santa Corp is based on an ice sheet. The magnetic North Pole is on land, but the top of the world is an ice sheet. Nick ended up with another case to solve when everyone had to evacuate the Pole for repairs to the ice sheet.
What I discovered was that I was focusing differently on these short stories than I did with a novel.
Weirdly, I began doing the same for The Raven Tales. I had a contract at Burns and Lea for the first three books of this urban fantasy series but thought, “why not write some prequel shorter stories where Bram has cases to solve and can throw magic around. POOF! The 30,000-word Prequel tales were born!
And then my eyes drifted to the Steampunk trilogy (one that is only a single completed book at this point) and started writing 30,000-word adventures from the Allegory Society’s case files.
So, what was the thing that suddenly made it easier to write a short story?
My mindset and a journey into a different genre: mystery and adventure.
Oh, I didn’t totally forget that romance is a way of life. Nick began a previously suspended romance with the dark elf beauty who runs the only tavern at the North Pole. The Covert Cogs in the Steampunk tales pair a male and a female agent on the case, though the romance element isn’t necessarily between them and is little more than what might develop into something more, but not in this story. With the Raven Tales Bram has had clients who are female, and he’s attracted to them, but there’s no romance on the horizon. Saving that for the novels.
Each of the short stories has had an interior clock that keeps everything from start to finish within just a day or so, too, which doesn’t leave much beyond the job at hand to be dealt with.
I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and president of my local chapter. Our speaker in November was an award-winning Flash fiction writer. She’s written entire stories that are told in 500 words or less.
For someone still working her way down from high word counts, that is mind-boggling! What she told us was not only eye-opening, it was what should have been common sense. Only it wasn’t since I was reading longer things.
What she told us was:
- Choose the perfect word. Poets do this. One that tells more than a line up of words might convey
- Keep description to the very minimum. For instance, say “the one-armed man” and then let the reader fill in what else he might look like. Same goes for the surroundings. Simply say “Sonoran Desert” or “Arizona desert” and don’t wax poetic on the various types of cacti, arroyos, etc.
- Pacing and cadence – short sentences read fast. I can remember telling one of my college freshmen in English Comp to rewrite his essay about a football game to reflect the game itself. When the whistle blows, the action is short, quick – a series of hits. This is the same thing.
- Limit the characters. Not everyone needs to have a name if they can have a designation (man, girl, mother, coach, boss, driver)
- Use contractions. They turn two words into one
- Limit dialogue tags
- And the toughest one: keep editing. She said for a 500-word story she goes over it 20 to 30 times to hone those words – either out or to a single word that says/implies more
To this list I’d add, limit the time within the story. When characters are on the clock, they can’t think about things. This is pure action, but the word choices give us the sense that more has been said. There are also no secondary storylines. It’s just a beginning, a middle, and an end…and the end still must have a satisfying conclusion.
Care to put your hand, mind, muse to the test with short stories? Well, it just so happens that there’s a workshop on writing them coming up here at Savvy: WRITING SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS: THE GLUE THAT MAKES THEM WORK, November 25th through December 22nd. Yes, I know it’s the holiday season, but joining the workshop gives you two things:
- Needed downtime to sit and contemplate more than what you still need to do and…
- Get your muse considering ways to either blend short stories you’ve already written into a collection or come up with a concept that you can use to tell different types of genre stories or stories set in a world you’ve already built. Waste not, want not, right? It is time to decide what to work on in 2020.
I hope you’ll join me.
Book 1 of The Raven Tales
The moon is inching toward a full Hunter’s designation and PI Bram Farrell is in full hunter mode though the trails are cold ones and the victims nowhere near human
#urbanfantasy #PI #mystery #comedy set in #Detroit