Tuesday, September 15, 2020

ON WRITING: Short stories -- grab 'em by the throat!


Short stories. You don't have much room to work with these; most submissions guidelines ask for nothing more than 5,000 words, but some will cut it to 3,000. So, you need to be concise, and you need to make all your words count. And most importantly, you need to start -- from word one -- at a dead sprint. 

Especially today, with all the distractions and the enhanced ability of people to process information quickly, you need a killer opening for your story, or it's just going to be tossed in the circular file with all the rest of the dreck. If you don't excite and engage your readers (and that initial reader, the editor of whatever publication you're submitting to, is the ultimate reader) from the very beginning, they are going to question why they should tag along for the rest of the narrative and probably just drop off and read or do something else. So, kick your story into high gear from sentence number one.

Which is easier said than done. The key is that you need to find the latest possible moment from which to begin your story. Throw readers right into the action, or present a compelling conundrum up front, do something to make readers take notice. They have put their trust in you, and it would be criminal to abuse that faith by plodding along for eight pages meandering through the luckless and boring history of characters they haven't had a chance to give a shit about, yet. Kick down the door with two semi-automatics and start firing (above their heads, because a dead audience is almost -- almost -- the worst audience you could ask for . . . a bored audience would be far worse, because they're going to tell you all about how they feel). 

Sometimes, that opening may come easy. Most of the time it won't. It's difficult. But, as always, all you have to do is start writing. Once I've gotten into the writing of most of my stories, I am able to go back to the opening and just slash out all the detritus keeping me from the actual opening of the story. It's not uncommon for me to have written a page-and-a-half or more, only to find out that the good opening, the proper opening to the story resides on page four, at which point I highlight and delete those opening three pages and find myself with an additional 750 words to work with. It's magic! 

Seriously though, don't get too caught up on crafting that perfect opening, the writing of the story will open up your mind to possibilities and realities of your narrative that wouldn't be there without the words you've gotten onto the page. That's what revising is all about. You go back and you make the rough words into something that sings (or at least something that doesn't sound as bad as that first pass did). As Harlan Ellison wrote in his essay How Do We Get Into This Mess?

"...go to the middle of a situation, go past the backstory material that got you interested in the first place, the stuff you can slide in as slivers of enlightenment throughout the first third of the story, the stuff that formed the original plot epiphany, when you said to yourself, 'hey, wouldn't it be interesting if...' It's what happens after that initial idea the world has come to call 'a story.'"

Now, get writing!


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