To celebrate the halfway-mark of the Strictly Writing Award (see over there on the right for full Rules and Regs), we asked successful short story writer, Nik Perring what his advice would be to any aspiring writers out there who were thinking of turning one in to us, and here's what he had to say:
I’ve been writing short stories for a few years now, with reasonable success. I’ve also, over those few years, talked to a lot of people about short stories and it seems to me that a lot of those people are, somehow, scared of them. A bit like poetry. It’s as though there’s a secret you need to get them and an even bigger, magical, one you need to be able to write them. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Anybody can write and read short stories, and if they want to, they should. Or at least give them a try.
There’s no magic formula I can share with you that’ll make you write great short stories. I wish there was. If there was one it’d save me an awful lot of time. What I can tell you, though, are a few things that work for me.
Writing short stories, really, is no different to writing novels – the same principles apply. The only difference is that short stories are, well, simply shorter. And I think that can be daunting to some people – it really needn’t be.
Here are some thoughts and suggestions that, I hope, will help.
So. Where to begin? If you’d have asked the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut (whose short stories are brilliant), he’d have said ‘As close to the end as possible’. And I’d agree with that because it means we’ll be starting the story at a point where things are getting interesting.
Most importantly, you need to find something or someone interesting to write about. I often find that asking myself ‘What if?’ questions help: What if someone suffered from an illness that meant they couldn’t actually stop moving?; What if someone chose to decorate their walls with Post-it notes? What if the only way a woman could shut up her husband was by taking off her clothes? That kind of thing works for me and allows me to write the story to find out the answer. It could work for you too...
One of the most common worries I’ve found people have when they’re thinking about writing short stories (or not writing them!) is that of word count. ‘But how long is a short story?’ they’ll say. ‘How long should one be?’
And my answer to them. One: Stop Worrying! And two: It’ll be as long as it is.
I honestly never worry about word count. The important thing with any story (and I’d include novels here as they’re stories too) is that, as writers, we should allow them to become what they should be. We tell the story as best we can without giving a second thought to length. The moment we start to pad things out, or cut things, for the sake of the length is the moment when the story will stop working, where it’ll get bent out of shape. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. Don’t forget that once you’ve written a first draft, the parts that need more explanation or that need to go will become apparent and can be fixed – but that should only be for the story’s sake and not so it fits in with any imposed word count.
But, if you want some guide as to what sort of shape (or length) a short story should be, I’d point you in the direction of a collection of fairy tales.
What I also find really useful, and this probably a very obvious one, is reading good contemporary shorts to see what people are doing are how they’re doing it. (I’d recommend reading people like Aimee Bender (I interviewed her about this sort of thing here (http://nikperring.blogspot.com/2010/07/aimee-bender-interview.html) ), Etgar Keret, Sarah Salway, Michael Czyzniejewski, Mary Miller, and Amy Hempel.)
Likewise, read the greats: Carver, Hemingway, Checkhov, Kafka, Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, and so on. See why they’re greats.
And ENJOY it! Writing’s supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to enjoy it! Sure, edits and making something interesting into something great can be an awful lot of hard work – but that hard work’s much more enjoyable if it’s being done on something we enjoy and find interesting.
Which kinda leads me to my next point, and that’s one about content. A lot of people think that short stories are super-literary and/or overly worthy. Sure, some are. Some are boring. No different to novels. So it’s important that, as with novels, you write the story you want to write. A story doesn’t have to be anything other than good.
So, go on. Try writing one. Enjoy yourselves. You might find you actually quite like it!
Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. They’ve also been read at events and on radio, printed on fliers and used as part of a high school distance learning course in the US.