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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org before March 12th. Please put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line. 50 words max.
- 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.
"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.