March 12, 2014

Writing Club Wednesday: Writing Short Stories, by Kayla Whaley



Hey, Misfiteers! Continuing the tradition we began last month, today's second-Wednesday-of-the-month guest post comes to you from the lovely Kayla Whaley!

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably a novelist. Maybe you’ve already been published, or are querying, or maybe you’re still chasing those two most elusive of words: “The End.” (I fall into that last group, by the way.) Regardless, most of us here write books. We write long stories made up of hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words.

But that’s certainly not the only form of storytelling. Today, I want to talk about short stories and the value in writing them as a novelist. Now, writing short stories is HARD. It’s as difficult to write them well as a novel (if not more so, frankly). Don’t expect it to be easy just because it’s short, but do realize that short stories provide a lot of opportunities for novelists to stretch themselves and improve their writing.

Below are just a few ways short stories can help you grow.

Focus on structure: There are many, many books and blogs and articles about a novel’s structure, but it can be hard to practice when writing something so long. Short stories require structure like any other story. There’s a beginning, middle, end. There is rising and falling action. Inciting incidents and complicating factors. A climax and a resolution.

But because a short story is by definition short, it can be a lot easier to focus on all of those storytelling conventions. To see how they work in practice and to identify where you both excel and struggle.

Buck tradition: Of course, once you’ve got a handle on the rules of storytelling, short stories are a great place to break them, too. This is particularly true if you feel like playing, if you’re in a rut or need a break from your novel. Why not spend some time on something short and mess around with convention? It can be incredibly fun and freeing to write something wrong. And who knows? It might turn out incredibly right.

Pay attention to details: For a lot of people, drafting a novel is a sprint. And even if you’re not a fast drafter, chances are you spend more energy on the “big picture” in a first draft than on the details.

Well, in a short story, literally every word matters. (Of course, I’d argue the same for a novel, but there’s not quite the same sense of weight attached to each word when you have, say, 80,000 instead of 5,000.) Writing a short story encourages you to pay attention to word choice, rhythm, connotation, images, etc. even during a first draft. Being forced into that level of consideration tends to spill over into longer works too.

Experiment: Similar to playing with structure and convention, short stories are a great place to experiment with genres, themes, characters, settings, etc. Maybe you’re intrigued by the idea of writing urban fantasy or contemporary or mystery but you aren’t sure you want to commit to a novel in that genre—write a short story. Again, the length here is your friend. You don’t have to steel yourself for months or years of drafting a novel you aren’t sure you want to write. Experiment. Maybe you’ll find you don’t want to write about the corruptible nature of power (or whatever) after all, or maybe you’ll find you’ve got a whole lot more to say about it than you thought.

Practice revising: This point is especially true if you haven’t had much opportunity to revise longer projects. Maybe you haven’t felt ready to share anything yet, or maybe you’re about to get to that point but the idea of revising a whole novel is super intimidating. Writing and revising a short story, especially with feedback from critique partners, is an excellent way of figuring out how you work. Do you like to tackle the major problems first or ease your way in with the small stuff? Do you like to revise on a screen or on a printed page? Do you prefer coffee or vodka while you edit? You know, THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS.

Experience submitting: So, you’ve written, revised, and polished a short story. First of all, GO YOU! Second of all, now what? Well, you can totally let it chill on your computer. I mean, if you were writing it for all the above benefits, then it’s probably done its job. But you could also submit it to magazines or other publications if you wanted. And while the obvious benefit here is the possibility of being published (WOO!), it also gives you experience you’ll appreciate when you start querying your novel.

For instance, you’ll have to research publications and submission guidelines. You’ll have to figure out which venues would be the best fit for your story. You’ll have to send out your submission. Then you’ll wait. And then you’ll (probably) get rejected before (hopefully) being accepted. You’ll get to experience it all, and I imagine that will come in handy once you’re in the query trenches.

And there you have it! Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to try your hand at writing some short stories. You should certainly not expect it to be easy (seriously—just don’t), but it’ll likely be a fun challenge. And hopefully you’ll see some benefits in your novel writing life too.

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Kayla is a co-moderator of Disability in Kidlit, Creative Media Director for the Atlanta Young Writer’s Institute, and a former intern for Entangled Publishing. She writes MG and YA, primarily fantastical in nature, and is a freelance editor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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