Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing a Short Story


When the call went out to writers in the Carolinas for short story submissions from the North Carolina Triad Chapter of Sisters in Crime, I thought, no, I write ninety-thousand-word novels, not short stories. The theme was lust, love, and longing, and naturally, there had to be a crime. Then I thought, oh, come on. Give it a try. The worst that could happen was my story wouldn’t be accepted.

I had published three erotic romances along with my six mystery/suspense/thriller novels. I could write lust, and I sure could incorporate a crime. My first lesson, or teaching moment, was to read a bunch of short stories. Good ones from good writers. The commonality was each one had a twist ending.

Undaunted, and with some idea of what I was doing, I devised my plot—a multi-award-winning director/writer/producer who discovers his beautiful, much younger Oscar-winning actress wife is having an affair with his son from his first marriage. He’d taken this young model with a little talent and made her a star, and she betrayed him. How would he seek his revenge?

The plot had been done many times before in different variations―older man, younger woman who cheats with a man more her age. Her reason might be lust or maybe greed. Of course the older man is always rich. Sometimes there’s a murder, but there’s always a comeuppance. The movies have had a field day tweaking this scenario. Think Unfaithful with Diane Lane, Body Heat with Kathleen Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice, with Lana Turner, or the two versions of Dial M for Murder. And those are only a few.

I wrote the story and kept it within the four-thousand-word limit.

Yay, I made the cut. The story was accepted.

My second lesson came in the first edit. The editor cut the beginning. This is backstory, she said. We don’t have to know how you got here, just that you’re here. She was right. Did the reader really have to read about my director’s conversation with his hired detective when the latter delivered the dreaded information? No. The reader only needed to know the information. That gave me more time for my character’s visceral reaction to his cheating wife.

I had written the beginning to a ninety-thousand-word novel, not a short story. Scratch the detective. Scratch the banter. I was catching on.

After incorporating more edits and along with my “aha” moments, I finished the story. The end result was five hundred words shorter but with a tighter, more concentrated story. I was quite pleased that I had taken on a new challenge, and I liked the final result. Moreover, I learned a few things.

At the book launch last weekend, a writer friend asked me how I learned to write a short story. She had tried many times but was never successful. I was hardly one to give advice but my answer was simple―to me, anyway. The first part applied to every story, long or short. Create a beginning, middle, and end. What differed was detail. Writing short concentrates on the main characters and one plot instead of going off on tangents with subplots and extraneous characters, which is what I do in my novels. I learned to ask myself, Do you really need this? Does it move the story along?

In short, trim, trim; cut, cut.

I put my lessons to good use and wrote a second short story for the latest Sisters in Crime Guppy anthology. (For those who don’t know what GUPpies stands for, it’s the Great UnPublished. Many now in the group are published authors.) I was thrilled to have that story accepted, and I await edits to learn more about how to master the craft.

My advice to all writers is to stretch yourselves. Try new things even if you fail. Remember, James Lee Burke’s first book was rejected one hundred and eleven times. Think of all the great writing we would have missed if he’d quit trying.

Carolina Crime : 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing, edited by Karen Pullen, is published and sold by Wildside Press and available on Amazon.


Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

20 comments :

  1. Great info here, Polly. Learning the parallels and the differences between novels and short stories is a must if one wishes to write in both genres. As you point out, a short story is NOT a highly condensed novel; it stands alone with its own set of rules that make it work for the reader. A perk for the writer: keeping it simple teaches new skills that may, one day, be transferable to another genre.

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    1. It was a learning experience, Linda. Not sure if I'm a natural short story writer, but I liked stretching my writing skills.

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  2. I cut my writing teeth on short fiction in the science fiction genre, Polly, so my experience was almost the opposite of yours. A novel is not an expanded short story. It took me decades to be ready to write full-length fiction, with many lessons learned by critically reading novels from successful writers. I think what I most like about writing novels is the architectural richness of plot and subplot, a larger cast of characters, and a more leisurely and nuanced approach to character development.

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    1. I do agree with Larry about novel writing. Stories with multiple layers and numerous characters with varying degrees of depth hold more appeal for me than short stories, although I've read a few shorts that were quite compelling.

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    2. Larry, I'm a novel writer. I prefer all the intricacies in a long work. I didn't look at writing a novel as an expanded short story. Both are unique.

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  3. I have considered short stories, but never taken the time. I started out with poetry as a teen. When I started writing books at middle-age, I stopped reading and writing poetry. In fact, they rarely sprout in my head now. I guess you grow what you feed.

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    1. I don't think I would have written a short story if the call didn't go out with an interesting theme. Same with the second anthology. The theme helped me craft the story.

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  4. I'll keep trying, Polly ... even if it kills me. The James Burke analogy reminded me of the guy who marketed the soft drinks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 Up ... and then quit ... one product short of marketing nirvana.

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    1. As I said earlier, Christopher, the theme helped me write the story. Without it I doubt I could have come up with an idea.

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  5. I'll keep trying, Polly ... even if it kills me. The James Burke analogy reminded me of the guy who tried marketing the soft drinks 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 Up ... then quit ... one product from marketing nirvana.

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  6. Good tips for tightening the writing, Polly. And I loved the James Burke bit of inspiration. I have always thought a writer needs as much tenacity as talent.

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    1. Absolutely, Maryann. I wrote a screenplay this year just to see if I could. I entered it in a contest and doubt it will go anywhere, but I do believe in stretching yourself.

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  7. Polly, this is great advice on short story writing. Congratulations on your success and may you find more as you continue to "stretch."

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  8. Thanks, Paula. You're one of the short story writers who wins awards, so you're a roll model. More continued success to you.

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  9. Great advice, Polly. And congratulations on CAROLINA CRIMES! For me, writing short stories is a struggle because I have to write to an ending, something I never do with novels. There are no surprises, which is the aspect of novel writing I love most. IMO, well-crafted short fiction requires far more discipline than novel writing. Probably because of the need to think structure first. I'm not good with either discipline or structure. :)

    VR Barkowski

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    1. Thanks, VR. Writing short stories is a struggle for me too. It's not a natural fit, but I'm one of those people who will try anything I don't think I can do just to see if I can do it. Everything except anything athletic. I take no challenges there. I'm not sure short story writing has no surprises, especially in the mystery category. There's always a twist, which in itself should be a surprise to the reader. Finding that twist is the struggle for me. Thanks for commenting.

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  10. Great post Polly. Writing short is much harder than writing long (OK, to me). You've cut to the chase with your post. Now I need to get the book :)

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    1. It's harder for me too, Kait. Having a theme helped; otherwise, I doubt I'd have tried. Thanks for the comment.

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  11. Thanks, Polly. Great post. Shorts are always a challenge and you've made me want to revisit one of mine (I think the limit was 2000 words) that received an honorable mention and maybe even try another one.

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  12. Do it, Peg. I wish I had the creativity to write a flash fiction, but I don't. Getting from 90K to 4K was a struggle enough.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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