Saturday, April 21, 2012

Writing Short Stories

After all the frivolity yesterday, it's time to get back to business. And the business here is writing. Well, I admit I get distracted easily, so sometimes it's vampires, and occasionally pirates, but on Saturdays, writing is the priority.

Today I want to talk about writing short stories. At the risk of blowing my own horn a little too loud, since December of last year I've had something appear in publication every month. That's five pieces pub'ed, and the longest was my 40k word novella, A Vampire's Deadly Delight. All the other pieces were in the 5 to 10k word range. I don't have some grand underlying strategy; it's just how things worked out. 

Right now seems like a pretty good time to write short stories. In January of 2011, Amazon opened its Kindle Singles store. Since then, they’ve sold more than two million singles*, or shorter stories between 5,000 and 30,000 words. Singles sell for between $0.99 to $4.99, and, as you can see from the numbers, they are selling like crazy. I don’t tell you this to advocate for Amazon or the Kindle, but to explain one of the reasons I think short stories are cool.

IMHO, the key to writing a good short story is to remember your limits. You’ve got 5,000 words, not 500 pages. That makes it essential that you start strong and make every word count. The first sentence or two needs to sell your voice, hint at conflict, and show some heart. You don’t have the luxury of a whole chapter to do that.

As an example, here are the first couple sentences from my short story ”Tangled Dreams”, from the anthology Bites – Ten Tales of Vampires:

I am an unapologetic choir geek. That’s probably not the sexiest thing you can imagine, but it usually doesn’t get me into trouble. Except the one time it did.

Right off you’ve got those three elements – a quirky voice, conflict, and an element of self-deprecation that suggests that this is a person you can care about. One reviewer even included this quote in their review because it made such an impression on them.  You need to start off with a strong hook, because you can’t waste time – or words – gradually acclimating the reader to what’s going on.

Another limit to keep in mind has to do with the scope of the action. I’ve read good short stories that covered long stretches of time, but those were the exceptions. I think it’s more effective to limit your plot to one episode where a spark is lit, it bursts into flame, and then the fire goes out. The main action in “Tangled Dreams” happens over the course of one evening and involves one conflict, and there aren’t a bunch of sub-plots that need to be resolved before everybody can go home. You can (and should) drop hints that there’s more involved, but keeping your focus on one event will make for a really tight piece.

The third limit I wanted to talk about has to do with your characters. You don’t have the space to really develop more than three or four, and if you try, you run the risk of confusing the reader. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of keeping a tight leash on the action.  A streamlined plot with just a few essential characters will make for a stronger piece. If you’ve got a bigger crowd in your head, you’re going to have to aim your work towards novella-land, or else maybe you need to have a little ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment with your characters and see if they really want to be a novel.

It takes discipline to write a good short story. Every word is important, and you need to start strong, limit the scope of the action, and keep the number of characters to a manageable level. I find it really satisfying, though, to be able to create entire worlds in the space of twenty pages. It takes work, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Of course, this may also have something to do with my short attention span.
If all of this has intrigued you, Bites – Ten Tales of Vampires is available from Amazon. So is Cutlass - Ten Tales of Pirates. You can also check out my story “Temptation’s Touch” in the newly released anthology Spellbound Hearts from Still Moments Publishing. And for those of you with a longer attention span, there’s my novella, A Vampire’s Deadly Delight, available from Amazon and Black Opal Books.


Christine Ashworth said...

All excellent points in short story writing! Thanks, Liv...I'll be sure to use them in my next one.


Tami Clayton said...

Just the other day I was thinking about writing short stories so the timing of your post is really helpful. And hooray for you on publishing so frequently! You are a rock star. :)

Liv said...

Thanks Christine! I hope a couple of these ideas are helpful to you.

Liv said...

You know, Tami, it's kind of all been accidental. And the rock star thing was my previous incarnation.

Cora said...

I'm so glad you did a post on short stories. There is an art to them that is so different than the novel. I love writing short.

I've been trying to get my butt in motion to put my stories up for sale on Amazon or Smashwords but need to revise and make them a little longer-they are 3000 words. Do you have a preference? or have you tried Smashwords? BTW, loved your short in Bites.

Liv said...

So far all my stories have come out in anthologies, Cora. Haven't tried to post any on my own (but I might be gearing up for it!). They're all available through both Amazon & Smashwords. Maybe what I should do is introduce you to Rayne Hall, the editor who compiled Bites & Cutlass, so you can get her take on which is easier to use. The biggest plus I see to Smashwords is that it sells in all different formats. And I'm so glad you liked Tangled Dreams.

Denise Moncrief said...

All three are excellent points, Liv. Great post!

Debbie Christiana said...

Hi Liv. Good points that I'll remember. I liked writing short stories, I just haven't had time right now. Hopefully this summer. I have a couple of ideas.

Good luck with Cutlass. It's on my Kindle and I hope start reading it next week.


Liv said...

Thanks Denise! And you too, Debbie! I hope you find something useful here.

Mike Schulenberg said...

Great post, Liv. I have a few ideas for some short fiction kicking around. Maybe one of these days I should write one of them and see how it does on Amazon :)

Margaret Miller said...

Love your post Liv. It's wonderful that short stories seem to be returning with the rise of digital readers. I've never particularly enjoyed the classic ones but I'm thoroughly enjoying a lot of new authors. This is where I am working and so your post is great. Well done on your success.

Liv said...

There's an instant-gratification factor, Mike, that is very appealing. Good luck!

Liv said...

Thanks Margaret. I hope you have fun with your projects.