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:
- Establishment of setting
- A trigger for action
- A build up of suspense and conflict
- A critical choice
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!).