A New Challenge

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was envious when I read John’s post on Saturday about how easy he found writing a short story because I had just the opposite experience – I found it incredibly challenging. My main difficulty? Stopping myself from turning it into chapter one of a new novel.

I view a short story as having a single transformative story arc – one told in the most concise and most powerful terms possible. All fine and dandy in theory but no sooner do I start than I fall prey to an overabundance of backstory and plot complications – and these little buggers have an annoying habit of multiplying, so by the time I reach around 4,000 words I realize what I really have is, you guessed it, chapter one of a new novel. Characters have already started taking control, offering me a range of complexities that I can’t help but want to explore, the setting demands detailed description which I cannot resist providing and the story arc takes on a much grander scale that will inevitably fail as a short story.

With this particular short story (which I’m hoping will pass muster and be published in the Kill Zone collection you’ll be hearing much more about) this dilemma created both opportunities as well as challenges. I had to rise to the challenge of paring everything down so it would succeed as a short story and I realized I had the seeds for a new series set in Australia which was quite exciting (oddly enough I’ve never written anything actually set in the land I grew up in).

My first step to transforming my piece into a ‘proper’ short story was to think about structure. I focused on the four main elements I thought I needed:
  1. Establishment of setting
  2. A trigger for action
  3. A build up of suspense and conflict
  4. A critical choice
  5. Resolution

When I found I basically had all these elements (albeit muddied by too much dialogue, description and backstory!) I knew my main focus had to be on paring everything down to its essential elements. This included character, setting, as well as plot and once I started this process I also found that I could focus on what the story was really all about.

Last Friday I took my short story to my writing group for their critique and they helped me identify areas of improvement and further ‘pruning’ – hopefully I’m now close to the final product and, more importantly, I feel like I’ve grappled with a new challenge that has improved me as a writer.

I can’t say I like the short story as a medium – I am a novelist at heart – but I do appreciate the intensity and power it can bring. I may not have enjoyed the process but as compensation I do have a new (male) protagonist that intrigues me. So who knows, this particular challenge may spur me on to develop a whole new series of books!

My question for you all is what was the last challenge you tackled head-on in terms of your writing (or anything else for that matter). Did it yield any surprising results or have a silver lining? I confess for me, I didn’t love the process but in the end I think it’s made me a better writer (that or just a more delusional one!).

9 thoughts on “A New Challenge

  1. I was actually the reverse. When I started writing at the age of eight, I wanted to do a novel. Everyone told me to start small, with short stories, and I also heard repeatedly about “building credits” to help me get published. So I wrote short stories so well that when I did write my first novel, it failed because I was trying to write it like a long short story.

    It’s such an odd problem, it also took many years before I was able to stumble across what was the problem. I had to completely stop writing short stories and virtually learn how to write all over again to create a novel. I remember during the writing of it I was literally telling myself not to write short. Over the course of the last three books, I’ve continued to find more short story habits–some quite bad–that I’ve had to work through correcting. The hardest is subplots because they don’t develop naturally for them, and I can’t add them until I’m almost finished with the book.

    Any surprises? Two, actually. The first is that, as a solution to alleviating running short, I tend to add more and more plot. So I’ve become a plot-driven writer. I can also carry huge casts without a problem; other writers have 5-6 named characters, and I’m the one with 30. And one that’s not a surprise: Editing is easy for me. I wish I could have a novel run over. It’d be easy for me to take a weed whacker down and hit the right word count. I often laugh when I see people who say they can’t edit their story down further and I look and immediately find four or five things they could trim down.

  2. I’m like you, Clare–a novelist at heart. Writing a short story is as foreign to me as octopus pudding. I too am working on my contribution to the upcoming Kill Zone anthology. It’s tough. Thinking in terms of a complete story in only 4k words is against my nature. I’ve completed the first draft. Now if I can just revise it until it actually makes sense. That will be the surprising results you asked for.

  3. Interesting contrast Linda! Joe and I obviously have the reverse problem but I can see how your short story skills would make it hard to do a novel – and it’s great that your managed to get the best of both worlds in the end. I also envy your ability to edit!

  4. Interesting. I will be delighted to read this anthology. I am sure you folks will come up with some very good stuff.

    My own first novel came about as a result of a short story I had written. I had never written anything longer than 10k words. Most of my writing to that point had been stories for my kids or 30 stage shows for church audiences.

    Someone read this particular short story about a crash landed astronaut and asked what happened next. In attempting to answer that it became my first attempt at a novel. An early version of which is now available in free audio format on my website, http://www.basilsands.com

  5. I’m in the same boat, Clare. Basically a novelist, I’ve written short stories, but only when a complete idea comes to me. Then I can put it down pretty quickly.

    When I have to start from scratch, with no ideas, or maybe just a title or an opening line, then like it or not, it’s novel time. My last 2 novels started off as short stories and, like yours, morphed into fully fleshed-out novels.

    Once I thought I was writing a novel and it turned out to be a short story, albeit one of 11,000-words. Now, I just write and let the idea take me wherever it wants.

  6. I’m finding the short story challenge to be equal parts engaging and frustrating. The biggest challenge for me so far–I haven’t finished the damn thing yet–was to nail down the idea of the story I wanted to write.

    At first, I thought that I would write a slice from my recurring character Jonathan Grave’s past, but then I decided not to. Those are the short stories that I want to make part of my website.

    In early December, a distraught guy committed suicide in the elevator lobby of my day-job office, and for a while I thought that would be the subject, until I realized that that just felt disrespectful. Too soon.

    But I fell in love with the idea of a third person being drawn into someone else’s suicide drama. An idea is a giant step away from a story, however, and I found myself chasing my tail trying to come up with a premise that hadn’t been done a thousand times before.

    Then it hit me out of nowhere, fully formed at dinner one night. I’ve found that inspriation never slaps me when I want it to. It only arrives when I’m thinking of something else entirely.

    As for the actual writing, I think this is one area where my screenwriting background helps. Of course, I haven’t read it yet, so maybe I should jinx anything.



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