Monday, 22 February 2010


I am no expert on the short story form, having had little success with it myself. Having said that, a) I was short-listed for the Ian St James Awards many years ago and b) I don't actually write short stories, let alone send them off, so success is somewhat unlikely.

However, I keep hearing that the short story is on for a revival and so it should be: in this busy world, surely they are perfect reading material? And, if I don't know about it, I know people who do. So, I asked them.

Actually, first, I didn't. First I saw Nik Perring's post about short stories a while ago and asked his permission to link to it for your benefit. So, go there first. Nik is an excellent and hard-working writer, and knows of what he speaks.

Then I asked Sally Zigmond to chip in. And she did - coming up in a minute. I also asked Vanessa Gebbie and she would have loved to help except that she's frantically completing a novel. However, all is very much not lost, because Vanessa did two very useful things:
  1. She pointed us all towards a book she edited, called Short Circuit - a Guide to the Art of the Short Story, which is highly recommended by many people, including Sally.
  2. In a moment of madness, she offered a copy as a prize to the person with the "most creative/engaging way of telling me why they want to write a short story that is more than just a yarn". Hooray! Please email your entry to before March 12th. Please put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line. 50 words max.
 So, what did Sally add to Nik's advice?
  • First, she agreed with it, though would like to emphasise that actually we should think "a great deal" about the reader. I'd agree - I'm always banging on about thinking of the reader.
  • Sally also thinks that Nik's video clip of Kurt Vonnegut contains superb advice.
And now, I can do no better than quote Sally directly:
"A short story is very condensed but exactly like a novel in that it needs an overall shape, narrative arc as it were, although other shapes are available. It has to have a theme and it has to have strong characterisation. Every image, every word, every phrase must match that mood and whilst I'm not advocating uniformity to the point of dullness, a short story is less tolerant than a novel of any change in mood or tone. It cannot cope with multiple plot strands and multiple themes. And each aspect must help create a story that is greater than a sum of its parts--what I call the Tardis Effect and have mentioned on my blog."
"Moment of change: To me every short story needs one and again I've blogged about this. It doesn't have to be as clunky and obvious as a bad character changing his ways, confessing his sins or a poor person suddenly becoming rich or realising that 'money isn't everything,' but something small and subtle. It can even be in the mind of the reader. The most obvious version of this is the 'twist in the tale story' which is frowned on by more literary types, slightly out of fashion now, but still popular in commercial magazines. But again it can be subtle. The reader can end up seeing another side to a character they felt they were certain about at the start.
"The reader must have experienced something when they finish reading--I call it resonance. Beautiful prose is not enough; there has to be progression of some kind to avoid that feeling that he or she has just wasted their time or, as editors call it, that SFW (so f***ing what)  reaction.

"Concentrate on one character--or no more than two.  Go for depth, not width.

"Keep the duration short, too--you can't stretch a story over years, unless you're very skilled. Concentrate on one 'moment in time'. If a novel is a full-length film, then a short story is a still photo.

"Don't go for sensation to make a story 'exciting.'  Most down-trodden wives or hen-pecked husbands don't end up putting poison in their spouse's tea or blowing up the garden shed (yes, I know it does happen but it rarely works in fiction--but still such stories turn up again and again). Stories about the minutiae of life work best in short fiction--but they must have depth of emotion and intelligence of thought. Too often minutiae ends up as dull as ditch water--which is why some writers are tempted to add sensation to 'spice things up.' They're going about it the wrong way.

"Avoid stereotypes. Obviously one should rid the text of clichés but don't have cliched characters or reactions either. Avoid the hard-bitten business women or nasty bosses out to crush the workers. Most tarts do not have hearts. Avoid the school story where the bullied eventually trounces the bullies. Too many stories are about young anorectics, self-harmers etc. All harrowing subjects but often handled in such a meaningless way they become wallpaper. All these stereotypes can work but only if handled with care.

"Learn to distinguish the differences between so-called literary and commercial fiction. Neither is 'better' -merely that the requirements of both are different. I write both but I have to wear a different head when I write each one. (I actually find writing commercial fiction much much harder.)"

Finally, as well as Short Circuit, the book about literary fiction writing, Sally recommends for commercial genres, Della Galton's How to Write and Sell Short Stories.

Next week(ish) I'll be bringing you Tania Hershman talking about very, very short stories - flash fiction.

Don't forget to enter Vanessa Gebbie's competition now... When you email me, remember to put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line.
Meanwhile, it gives me the hugest pleasure to tell you, if you didn't already know, that Sally's long-awaited NOVEL, Hope Against Hope, is published on April 4th. Hooray for hoping against hope! Do go and visit the special blog that Sally has set up to tell you all the background stuff. She'll be signing books in Watersone's in Harrogate on April 9th, early afternoon - do go if you can! And here is the lovely book itself:
Edited to add: I'd also like to plug Nik Perring's forthcoming flash fiction collection. Go here and click the In the fridge link. I'll plug it again when I properly talk about flash fiction. Or, in fact, when Tania Hershman does.


womagwriter said...

Great post! Funny, I was reading Short Circuit in the bath last night and turned down a page corner meaning to write a blog post about it - along the lines of what makes a short story! You have beaten me to it. But I'll write the post anyway.

thevanishinglake said...

Thanks for this post - your advice is really useful. On the Mslexia website ( they have a constant flow of exercises to get you writing short stories.

Colette said...

I'm looking forward to the discussion on flash fiction next week. I find this genre (if you can call it that) fascinating.

Jo Treggiari said...

I posted a short story (based on my MG characters) on my blog to celebrate 2 years or something. I wrote it in three parts and posted them up every two days. I hadn't actually written more than the first section when I announced it and then was honor bound to finish. Found it unbelievably difficult to write and it took many more hours than I had decided to spend. I think of writing short stories as an art-form which I can safely admire from a distance, not having the chops to do it well.

Xuxana said...

I don't like writing short stories, but should I start writing and submitting them if it's going to help me get my manuscript published?

HelenMHunt said...

Great post. I would say that for anyone who wants to write short stories for the commercial market, Della Galton's book is essential reading. She also runs some fabulous courses on various aspects of short story (and other) writing.

Nicola Morgan said...

Xuxana - NO! If you don't like writing them, you shouldn't write them. Excuse me for what I'm about to say but it's hard to imagine that you'll be good enough, if you don't enjoy them. It's very hard to get short stories published (except online / self-published) and it's an enormous skill in itself. Of course, if you were good at them and got some published, that will look good when you offer your full-length novel, but the idea of starting to write short stories especially to make you publishable as a novelist would be a waste of time.

womagwriter - look forward to reading it!

Xuxana said...

Thank you, Nicola. Right now I don't like reading short stories, so I'm sure I wouldn't like writing them either. And you are completely right, I wouldn't be good at writing short stories. I'm rubbish at condensing tales. It takes great talent to write short stories where the endings don't seem abrupt.

Col Bury said...

Top notch advice as always, Nicola. The short story is very much alive, aided massively by the growing amount of Webzines and new writers trying their hands. It's great fun, too, and a break from novel writing IMHO.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Helloooo (from a tea break -) Nicola, this is such a great post, and I'm delighted to send a copy of Short Circuit (so long as its not to Timbuktu...) to someone who wants to write good short stories and can make me grin/understand/something.

And for me, that emphasis is on GOOD short stories. Forget the genre. Good writing is good writing. One of the chapters is about creating a world, and is applicable to 'futuristic' work, or 'historical', or 'contemporary', or anything. Any genre. A good setting is a good setting.

I'm currently judging a short story comp, and have the shortlist on me desk - and it looks to me like a genre story might well be in the top three...

Well knock me down with the proverbial. (I jest.) But it has a great setting. Great characters. Good writing. Something happens!!! And there is a real narrative pull-through.

One of my fave writers is Adam Marek, just longlisted in the Sunday Times. Sci-fi meets lad-lit meets comic opera...
And I'm delighted.

You can do what you want in a short story. Enjoy em, thats what I say!

Julia Bohanna said...

I could discuss the short story until I grow a beard (and I'm a woman). It is a fantastic form. A good one (to me) must have that resonance in which you are still mentally chewing it when you finish the last page.

I agree that you must be passionate about it to write a good one. It's a hard form....

Kate said...

I thoroughly enjoy writing short stories - they make a refreshing break from the novel. Sally's words are very wise.

In some genres there is quite a healthy market for them too - doesn't pay a huge amount, but it helps to build a writing CV. I write mainly SF and horror but the womens fiction market is meant to be a good one and I gather that erotica pays well.

Mind you, since my shorts are in a different genre from my novels having a writing CV is probably not going to be a lot of help for trying to find an agent :-)

Kelly said...

Fab post. I never really saw myself as a short story writer so have been surprised that this is what my writing 'leans' towards.

I haven't analysed it too much but after reading this post think it may have something to do with the 'one moment in time' thing. I mostly seem to write about situations that last less than 5 minutes. I enjoy the depth of character this lets me explore.

I have also only recently started reading short stories (which seems bit of a shame)...Really loving some of the collections I've read; try Kureishi's 'The Body'. Awesome!

Great advice from all involved.


catdownunder said...

I accidentally wrote a short story recently. I have never done it before. It just happened - scary. I think I broke every rule in the book. It was also the first and only draft but it got accepted - scarier still, even if it was for a good cause.
I should have read all this good advice first. It also reminded me of why I gave up on all those writing groups which insist you have to write short stories before you are allowed to start on a novel!

SF said...

I've grown fonder of the short story in the last year or so. I can't sit down and read a whole book of them (I suppose that's where I need the longer narrative of a novel to keep my nose in the book) but the best short stories keep you thinking about them for the rest of the day.

They're hard to write, but fun - I think you can play around with language and structure more than in longer stories.

Samantha Tonge said...

Great post, i've just started writing short stories, so this is very useful.

Interesting one about the SFW factor though. I mean, i've just started researching shorts by reading them in commerical magazines and i have to say some of them, you could say SFW at the end, in that they haven't particularly moved me or made me think, they have just been light chirpy, entertaining reads - and i think such stories have a place.

Or am i misinterpreting what is meant by SFW??

Great post.

Nik Perring said...

Ooh it's lovely to see such interest in short stories. Thanks, Nicola, for linking and for this excellent post.

Sam, yes I think those stories do have a place, but I'm always reminded of something Jenny Diski said. To paraphrase (badly) she said, of reading submissions for a mag I think, that very few of the stories were stories she felt HAD to be told. And I think that's the point (and possibly links with what I was saying about aiming to be brilliant; anyone can write a short story - the trick is to write a great one...


Nik Perring said...

Also must say that I agree 100% with Nicola: if you don't enjoy writing them, then don't. Writing, as hard work as it is (and gawd, it is!) should be enjoyable. Fun even. Every so often. Maybe... :)

Sally Zigmond said...

Samantha-- if I may butt in on Nicola's blog (thanks for the plug, by the way!), I would like to clarify the difference between 'commercial' and 'literary' fiction. Commercial fiction is pure entertainment. Not for nothing are they often called 'coffee-break stories.' They are written to pass the time--often in the coffee-break at work or at home, a break from changing nappies and collecting the kids from school. They are aimed at women, to provide a warm feeling, empathy or a laugh and perhaps even a small amount of further thought. They are written for a different purpose and a different readership than so-called serious or literary fiction. So I wouldn't suggest applying the SFW test to them. It's horses for courses.

David Griffin said...

Enjoyable post!

For interest: I loved reading short stories but with the caveat (is that the correct word?) that they fall within certain of my favourite genres: Magical Realism /Gothic /Science Fiction /Experimental /so-called Fantastic (which I think might be another genre term for Magical Realism, not sure). I really enjoyed a series of Sci-Fi short stories published donkey's years ago (by Corgi, if my memory serves me well). These volumes were published as Sci-Fi 1 up to about 22, I think. And have re-read quite a few times, both large volumes of short stories in the genre of Fantastic literature that I have. But I haven't read any short stories for a long time. I think this is due to the fact that they seem "out of favour" with publishers at the moment and haven't seen any that I like for sale, and also I'm not one to read magazine short stories.

As for writing short stories: I've only ever written four in my entire life. I would love to "have a bash" at writing a complete book of short stories one day; although I realise that a) to some degree they are even harder to write successfully than a novel and b) even established authors have a hard time trying to convince their publishers to publish a volume of short stories.

Finally, may I say a hearty congratulations to Sally Zigmond on publication of her novel Hope Against Hope.


sheilamcperry said...

This is very timely (again!) as I'm attempting to write a short story - however, I suspect there may be a novel inside it trying to get out. I find it's quite hard to work out whether something is 'big' enough for a novel or not - I often seem to fall in between the two.

rivergirlie said...

i'd love to read this book - it sounds fascinating!

Samantha Tonge said...

Hmm, i see your point, Nik. I have to admit, having only just started writing short stories, i didn't think they'd be necessarily easier than novel writing, but i didn't give them the same attention eg putting them away for a while and revisiting, or making sure i had a killer first line. I uploaded a couple to WW and soon realised that they were mediocre because of this.

Good clarification, Sally, i see what you mean.

Nik Perring said...

Samantha, I think writing short stories is no different to anything (other than their size) in that they need practise before you find out how you tell them best, and what you write about. Stick at them, I'd say!

rene volpi said...

Just the title got my interest, but when I read the actual blog my interest grew drastically.
Believe or not, my own little blog it's titled, "Tales from here and there" and have all the crazy adventures that I (we) experienced trying to stowaway our trip to the 'promise land' of Europe. Why?...simply because we all were 17/18 years old and virtually BROKE!
I hope you'll enjoy reading it, and please post a comment if you do.
and at Blogger @
Subscribing to it? Just click on the "subscribing to posts" in the white little box or also "follow" (this blog)
Best regards,