A mini workshop in multiple parts.
Do you guys remember when I did “May you write interesting books?” Well, this is the same thing. I will do a mini-workshop over ten or twelve weeks (depending on how tightly I need to explain some things) maybe longer if you ask questions I have to answer.
Then I’ll collect the posts, edit them, and put them up for sale on Amazon as a book called something like the title.
So, to begin with, why write short stories at all?
Well, I – a natural novelist (my first work in English was 40k words, but only because half of it was in my head) – learned to write short stories because everyone who “knew” assured me this was the way to break in.
“But Sarah,” you say, “we’re no longer constrained to the magazines as a way to break in. If you were a beginner now, you could start putting your novels up until one sold enough to get you noticed.”
Um… yes, and no. To be fair, I was misinformed. The short stories as a means of breaking in, weren’t effective even back in the eighties. But I’m glad I learned to write them quickly and well, anyway.
First, because at several tight spots in my life, they’ve provided the money needed to pay the rent. This usually comes of someone with an anthology asking “can you write a story for me in two hours?” because they had a hole in their anthology. And I can. So I get money. The biggest instance of it was in 2003 when nothing else was selling, but I made 5k from short stories, at an average of $300 a piece.
But since even the anthology market isn’t what it was, it behooves me to tell you the greatest use I’ve found for my short stories, both those published and those in the drawer is to put them up for free on Amazon. Whenever I run a short story for free my income for the month doubles from its baseline at the time. People are more willing to invest in your novels if they know they like your writing. This is why writers used to write for magazines, so people would buy their novels, and that mechanic is the same again.
Having taken short stories apart, to learn how to put one together quickly, I have the advantage of not just over 100 short stories published, but also the ability to write short stories very quickly.
“But Sarah,” you say. (My, aren’t you the talkative one?) “Why do we need to learn to write short stories as a separate thing? Aren’t they the same thing as novels? Good writing is good writing, right?”
Yes, good writing is good writing, but if you’re not a short story writer, I often find that what you end up producing is a good first chapter onto which you tacked an ending more or less willy nilly. Some people who do this are bestselling authors, but only write novels.
You’re not a bestselling author (if you are, why are you reading my ramblings?) and particularly if you’re indie, the shorts can help you sell your novel. But for that, you need to be good at it, and you need to be fast. Both proceed from understanding the structure thoroughly.
Short stories differ from novels because you have to pack more into a much shorter length. The only way to do this is to leave a lot more under the rug. But for this not to have a feel of being just an incomplete story, you need to know how to suggest and hint details.
Which brings us to the first element of a successful short story:
You should have a strong voice for everything, if you can. But for short stories you have to have a strong voice, one authoritative enough to cover a multitude of sins.
We shall explore short story voice in the next post.
The second element is plot. Again, you should have a strong plot in everything you write, but a short story must be tightly plotted, and it must make every line count. I’ll teach you a few structures to accomplish this.
The third element is emotional punch. Again, yep, your novels should affect readers emotionally. Readers don’t read fiction for facts. They read non-fiction for that. But your short stories should pack a disproportionate emotional punch. Or at least they should if you’re going to use them as loss leaders to attract people to your blogs.
Emotional punch is tied in with the two previous elements, but it also depends on a third one: theme.
In a novel you can wander about in search of a theme, have many themes in one book, or have a theme that sneaks up on you, or a theme you didn’t even know was there.
In a plot, to perfect voice, plot and emotional punch you must have a theme in mind.
The theme CAN be something universal “Be kind to cats” or something personal “How Mary learned not to fear cats” but it must be strong and emphasized by every part of the story.
Yes, I know, your head hurts now. Next week I shall guide you on your tour of the underworld short story writing.
Meanwhile if you have doubts or questions, please comment below.