In my writing life so far I’ve worn out at least a couple of computer keyboards — it’s always the ‘e’ and the ‘s’ that go first, with me. With only a single book of stories to show for it, I’m not sure tips on story writing from me will do you any great favours… but for what it’s worth here are a few of the things I picked up in the course of wearing out those keyboards.
Don’t over-think, just write and see what works
Since my book of stories came out, a lot of people who bought the book have told me they’d love to write but can’t. To which my usual response is, if you honestly want to write, you should give it a try. After all, you already tell stories all the time: little jokes, a daily run-down to your family of what you did at work, catch-ups with friends, posts on social media, text messages even. So storytelling is actually already part of your life. Try not to think of writing as a big thing. If you worry too much over what other people may think, or whether what you write is any good, you may never get around to it. Just give it a go.
Decide what your story is about
This can be the hardest thing. It may help to keep notes on possible ideas as they occur to you, and only start writing when you have a few to choose from. Your notes will probably include character and at least the essence of plot in a rudimentary way, such as, a philosophy lecturer’s wife of two years has just left him, and he decides to burn everything she has left behind… [we dont realise, bonfire in living room, sets apartment block on fire]. Or you may simply have a particular character based on someone you know, or a situation, and you need to “write it out” to see what happens. Choose an idea you will have fun with, one that you care about.
On a very practical note
If you do not own a computer, there’s always pen and paper. It has worked for lots of writers over the years. Or type into your phone, email it to yourself, and print out at work, or at the library. If you want to do this you will find a way.
Should you edit your own stuff?
Yes. Big Yes. But, not immediately. When you finish a story, put it away. Give it a few weeks and then print it out and see if you think it’s any good. There are also writing sites (public and ‘closed’) where some people like to post in-progress work. These are especially suited to posting complete short stories. ‘Closed’ sites are probably a better choice if there’s any chance that in future you may want to send out your stories for publication, but you may have to pay a membership fee. Occasionally there are short story workshops listed at Writing.ie or at the Irish Writers Centre.
How long can your story be… and still be short?
Short fiction can be surprisingly short. Many websites and not a few books are dedicated to fictions shorter than a thousand words (often called a flash). Well-known short story writer Anton Chekhov, a famous advocate of brevity, often wrote stories that went over the ten thousand words mark (rather long, by today’s standards).
If you’re looking to send out work for print publication, bear in mind that most full length stories in print magazines are below 3000 words; when reading online people often prefer even shorter lengths.
What we call short has clearly got shorter over time. Now it’s a tweet. Or a Lydia Davis story. Davis, winner of the Man Booker International prize for her stories in 2013, is known for writing stories often only a sentence long. Apparently she started to write single sentence stories while busy translating Proust, and has said (in The Guardian) that they were partly “a reaction to Proust’s very long sentences”.
At the top end of “short” story length, you start heading into novella territory. There is a lack of consensus about the length of a novella. Is it 12,000-40,000, or 15,000-50,000? I’d go for starting at 12,000 simply because it means I can say I have written one. But really it’s just numbers. The important thing about a story is not so much its length but is it worth reading? Does it have a good beginning and end? If it is only 2000 words, but reads long, then it’s time to rethink.
Titles are important, too
How will people remember your story or even find it among all the others? A good title helps sell a story to an editor. A really good title may also help people to remember the story, so it will relate to the content in some way, or perhaps be a line or a phrase from the story. But, and here’s where it gets tricky, you probably don’t want the title to give away too much about the story in advance. Here’s a title I like for just this reason, from a story by Danielle McLaughlin: ‘The Dinosaurs on Other Planets’. This suggests a few things that the story is not, but also some that it is, and it may well make a potential reader curious. (If you have to know more, find it at the New Yorker.)
You don’t have to have a plan (but if it helps, you can)
Many writers swear by story plans and many others just don’t like them. Which method suits you is something you have to find out by trial and error.
Personally I am the sort of writer for whom a ‘writing plan’ is rarely very effective. If I have plan for a story, then once I know the way things are ‘meant’ to go I tend to become less interested in writing that version of the story and veer off in a different direction, instead.
Two writers who fall on the opposite sides of the ‘writing plan’ debate are Haruki Murakami and Samuel R Delany. Perhaps like me you have read their work. But you’ll be doing better than me if reading their work helps you guess which of them likes to use a plan and which does not….
Will leave it there, for now. I will be back with more tips, and to continue this thing about plans. Not just to say which of those authors uses one, but more importantly what might go into such a plan, if you decide you want to use one.
(c) Lane Ashfeldt