Thursday, January 3, 2013

Short Stories

Many people have a passion for going to the gym.  However, talk to several different gym rats, and you'll likely find several different ways of working out.  Some people will go in and do heavy weights, focusing on arms and chest, for 60 minutes.  Others will decide that cardio is the way to go and will spend 45 minutes on an elliptical machine.  Still more will do every machine they can on low weight to get an all over burn.

Like working out, writing has many different ways to flow.  Like that heavy weight gym rat, I prefer to write novels.  I like the depth I can achieve in a full format, and that it takes a long time isn't any impediment to me.  However, much like switching up your workout is good for your body, switching up your writing is similarly good for your mind.  I could try doing a novella(story under 40,000 words) or writing poetry to stretch myself, but I feel the best way to break out of my comfort zone is the short story.
(Being healthy requires a balanced meal)
Short stories are difficult for me because they're constrained.  Unlike a full length novel, you have to draw in a reader with a limited amount of words, and then find a satisfying way to end the story that doesn't leave the reader feeling frustrated.  Whereas it might take me the first 20,000 words to create the right mood, most short stories are less than 3,000, and some of the contests I've entered limit that by another half.

You can't meander in this format.  It's like stripping a car down to its bare essence - no leather seats, no air conditioning, even no doors - and seeing if it still works.  While I've liked lots of different short stories, I'd never really considered creating them until this writing thing became more than just a hobby.

In June of 2011, after returning from a business trip, I entered a Writers' Journal writing contest on a whim.  The magazine gave me the opening line, and I had to create a 1,500 word or less story around it.  I did the whole thing in 45 minutes and submitted it, promptly forgetting I did so.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out I placed!  You can read that entry here.

Honestly, had nothing happened, I probably wouldn't have done much afterwards, but placing drew my interest.  I decided to write a few more and see what happened, and to my amazement, I again did pretty well.

I approach writing a short story pretty much the same as a novel from the standpoint of mechanics.  I outline a general idea and then put it on paper.  However, unlike my first few attempts, I now accept that I will go over the word limit on the first draft.  That allows it a little more free flow and gives me a margin of error.  I then go back in twice more and remove unnecessary words and re-write those parts that are awkward.  Finally, I conduct one more read-through and it becomes complete.

I'm entering a couple more short story contests this January and even intend for the stories I write, whether they fare well in contests or not, will come out in a collection that will be my tenth released work in a few years.  I expect there to be between 25-30 stories in there, and I'll be interested to see what kind of response it gets(assuming I've built any kind of fan base at all).  There were several short stories I thought would do well in contests that have vanished into the ether, while others that I thought were throwaways have drawn more notice than I ever dreamed.  Goes to show that my tastes and those of others don't always match.

Short story writing will continue to be a different way for me to stretch my legs and try something new.  It lets me drill into the basics of a story and makes me a more focused writer.  Although I don't enjoy it as much as writing a full novel, I still get a thrill over finding out if I can do in a narrow format that which usually takes me four months to accomplish.

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