So You Want To Write A Short Story

Do you have what it takes to be a good writer? Do you have writer’s block? Are you not sure where to start? Simply start writing and you are one step closer to finishing. Here is the most welcome treat ‘or cheat’ to kick-start your writing career!

 

Toss out the belief that you either have writing talent or you don’t. Instead, approach getting published as requiring a set of skills that you can deliberately learn.

These skills include:

1. Sensitivity to the differences between words. A good dictionary can help with this, if you consult it to learn, for example, whether a “cauldron” is the same as a “kettle” or when a gang member would be said to have “bravery” and when “bravado.”

2. Recognizing that getting your message across has less to do with what you meant and more to do with how readers understand the words you put together. If no one “gets it,” you must write it differently. Often this lesson is harder for those who feel desperately called to write, than for those with a more matter-of-fact attitude toward writing.

3. Being willing to put a piece of writing aside, look at again in the cold light of the morning and rearrange, replace and revise the elements of the piece to tell the story more clearly and more artfully.

4. Having the discipline to learn and apply the rules of spelling, grammar and usage. Yes, when your work is accepted for publication you’ll usually have an editor who’ll save you from major mistakes. But editors prefer working with those who know and follow the standards of professional writing.

5. Being able to bounce back from disappointment. DON’T BE TOO PRECIOUS! In the writing business, the possibility of rejection never goes away. Successful writers, learn not to take it personally for more than an hour or so, then they simply go on to the next publication outlet or the next writing project.

From what I’ve observed, these five skills and attitudes matter much more for success as a writer than anything we’d generally label as talent. Resolve to develop yourself along those lines and you’re certain to get somewhere as a writer. Really!

I rarely suffer from what writer’s complain about the most, and that is: writer’s block. Oh, sure, if I must write on a subject that I am not familiar with, then a certain amount of trepidation and the occasional blankness, will set in. Still, if I accept a project, I do so, believing that I know enough about the topic, to produce a compelling piece. Writing isn’t difficult for most accomplished writers, but you must get started. Here are some things that help get me going:

When your fingers seize, and the brain freezes, and it nothing to do with icecream you probably have writers block. Stand up and make a cup of tea. If you have a dog, walk it. But, whatever you do, take your notebook with you and step outside your house, rain or shine. Clear the cobwebs, and think about a list.

You want to write a story, that will emotionally overwhelm the reader? A chart topping, show stopping story, that sizzles with intrigue and suspense in every sentence? Or, maybe a love story to touch the heart, and have us reaching for Kleenex. An adventure, with thrills and spills, where good overcomes evil? A fantasy spellbinder? Whatever your coming story wants to be, it will have to have, an outline.

If I am stuck, I write some sort of outline. Okay, maybe not a formal outline but something containing a topic sentence; 2, 3, or 4 main points; followed by a conclusion. As you can read there are three parts to any short story. An introduction, the body, and a conclusion.

Sometimes certain parts of the story I have more to write about than others. For example, I may have my main points for the body, but I don’t have the introductory part down just yet. No matter, I keep working on my outline until I get something solid.

Once I have all three pieces together, I start to write. Okay, I start to “type” as almost all of my writings are created from scratch via Microsoft Word. There was a time when I had to write on legal sized lined paper and then move it over to a word processor. No more. Today, I rarely “write” anything as I have gotten so accustomed to my laptop computer. Thanks, Dell!

So, here we go!

Getting Inspiration!

This is the where you have to use your imagination a little. Ok you are going to need some mental images.

What is the plot? Who are the characters? When is this all going to happen?

Talking about ‘plots’, one of my favourite methods of firing up the grey cells with imagery, is to walk around grave plots in cemeteries!  I’m not a weirdo nor do I deliberately try to freak out mourners paying their respects while they watch me skulking around like I have already ‘lost the plot’!

It’s a little macabre, I give you that, but the object of the exercise is to find characters for my/your compelling short story.

Look at the gravestones. Look at the epitaphs. Read the names of the deceased. (Don’t look at me like that! Hey, it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it!))

Imagine what these individuals were like. The time they lived in. The jobs they did. The type of people they were in daily contact with. There secret foibles. Dirty habits? Aspirations, worthy attributes, dress sense, anything you think that will make your character ‘quite a character’. Jot down your thoughts.

For example, if the headstone reads:

“Captain Cranberry son of Arthur Cranberry, beloved husband to Moira Cranberry and Father to Joan his loving daughter..”

“Set Sail and be hearty, Bon Voyage Skipper.”

What does this person and his kin conjure up in your mind’s eye?

Right away, we have a nautical feel for the character. Was he kindly? Was he a tyrant? Did he die at sea, or was he murdered in mutiny, or fall overboard during a drunken skirmish? How is his grieving widow Moira, coping? Is she free to love again? Is she suicidal? Does she turn to crime to survive? What will happen to her four year old child who has rickets?

(That was harsh! Ok, the legs are fine, I just put that in because a kid at school had it back in ‘62!!)

 

Try to be original. Get outlandish if you want. Life, can get bizarre and twist and turn. Go with it. A good ruthless edit, will save the heart of the story, so get ‘fleshy’ with ideas.

Already a picture emerges in your head. Write your thoughts down in question format, like above. Call them ‘plot posers’. The answers will come. The plot will evolve, when you imagine how circumstances will unravel.

Start with 2 or 3 characters and put them at a time, past, present or future. Climb mentally, inside their lives and their struggle. Psychoanalyse their personalities. Picture them, in detail. If you can’t quite do that, do this.

This is a great ‘cheat’ that will spice up your story.

Claim a character. Let’s take Moira, poor lass!

Look at her plight:

Now her seafaring husband was accidentally harpooned in a freak shipping accident off the coast of Alaska and now she has to fend for her daughter and herself. As a ship captain she expects to be left a dowry or mariners pension, but due to his secret gambling, and penchant for drinking, she has not a cent to bring up her child in a state of poverty. Picture how her husband was lost at sea.

Describe how she feels. The mounting debts. Landlords and bailiffs.

Good Old Google!

Next explore Wikipedia to see what living conditions were like for the poor where Moira lived.

If it was Portsmouth or Newfoundland just punch in your question:

What were living conditions like in……. during the 1850’s?

A host of info can be cherry-picked to add realism to your story.

 

Research Your Characters

Describe basic elements to your character.

Here is another great cheat, to stop you pulling your hair out!

Look at Moira!  Left a penniless widow with a starving child. Both living in a filthy slum in the 1850’s?

Now punch into Google images “widow with child”

Look! The people on the head stone!

Presto! Now you have something to work with on your story.

Put yourself in Moira’s shoes? (If, she can still afford them!)

She’s poor. The landlord is pestering her for rent. How does she pay? He blackmails her for sex, or she is out in the street with the kid in the dead of winter.

(The Landlord. I googled ‘creepy man’)

Soon to make ends meet (for want of a better expression) Moira turns to the oldest profession..

(err…can’t tell you what I Googled here!! Ahem!)

 

  She meets “Hugh” a wealthy dashing ‘client’!

( I googled, ‘dashing young man’)

They fall in love but Joan the daughter is confused! She cannot understand how this man comes around so much, and is so kind! He’s not a sailor, or drunk, or both? “This guy just wants to hang out more with Mom and me and brings food and flowers.”

All Joan can think about is missing her Father and how they played together, when he was back from sailing the seven seas. She misses her Daddy.

Moira and Hugh get married. Live in a big house, and have wild parties with famous people. Joan is getting closer and closer to her new daddy.

Everything is grand for a while. Uh-oh! Then the unthinkable happens!

One day a chimney sweep calls and he does such a good job Hugh offers to take him for a drink down at a bar he frequents. Hugh doesn’t come home until the morning.

Hugh disturbs Moira who wakes up and confronts him.

 

Moira finds soot on Hugh’s shirt collar and suspects her boyfriend is having a gay affair with the chimney sweep. Sure enough later that night she pretends to seduce a very drunk Hugh and she finds sooty finger prints all over his body!

There is a huge fight. Hugh pushes her, she falls, smashing her head on the dresser. Hugh flees, grabbing Joan. Moira is left unconscious, but is revived by the maid. The Police are called but only very sooty fingerprints remain, which is useless evidence, because that kind of forensic research hadn’t been invented yet.

Moira never saw her daughter again, or tried to trace her whereabouts. Emotionally she moved on and turned the big country house into a huge brothel and became a wealthy Madame.

Hugh meets up with ‘Jimmy the Brush’, his smutty lover, and they run away to London, where they live happily ever after, with Joan, who has never looked back. She now has two daddy’s!!

Meanwhile, Joan has learned the advantages of living as an adopted child in a civil partnership, during the Industrial revolution. (It happens!)

Here, is Joan following in her stepdads lover’s sooty footsteps.

Ok, I’ve not been drinking! I skipped a lot of stuff, to get to the point of what we are saying here. This is what I mean when ‘you can paint a picture with words’. You can go where you want with descriptive lyrics. Be shocking! Push the envelope. Don’t tell the reader anything, that gives them a damned clue about what is going on until the end!! Be unique with your storyline! Take the reader by the hand, and dance him or her around the room. Description and using it to set the scene, makes absolutely anything happen.

 

The boring bit..but important!!

When I am done writing, I check my work to see if it makes sense. Sometimes nothing I write is all that sensible, so I delete what I write and start over again. This is a rare occurrence, but it does happen.

After I come up with a reasonable draft, I scour it to check for misspellings, grammar usage, prose, etc. Many times I have the “bones” of the article, but it lacks “meat” or substance. In these particular cases I “flesh out” the article which usually involves refining sentence structure, clarifying a thought, swapping out words, or inserting or deleting entire sentences or paragraphs.

If I feel reasonably certain about what I wrote, I will do a final run through it to make sure it sits well with me. Occasionally, I put an article to the side and go do something else or I “sleep on it” and take a fresh look at the article the next day.

 

Now what about ‘word painting’ then…?

I wrote this. It’s an extract from a short story of mine called ‘Infinity’.

“Her car lurched into a curb, stopping abruptly with an effective stall, and Rosie scratched excitedly at the side window. Chloe, danced across the road, swinging her handbag wildly, as if part of some choreographic sequence, with the dog jumping and barking alongside, trying to bite it, like it was a promising tug-toy for a new game. Prancing like an excited pixie, avoiding oncoming vehicles with, somehow, perilous ease, she stopped at the shop looking across the array. Standing guard at the door was a platoon of fresh flowers. She smiled appreciatively. There she stooped to inhale the heady scents, and with her hair tossed back, sniffed each of the flora, in ritual greeting. She looked down at the pageant, with wonder. Anemones, bouncing in their pots and gossiping in the breeze. Bedding plants arranged in lines of colour, laughing at the last frost. Cornflowers, stirring with dusky blue pride, alongside a fleet of sword lilies. A tribe of narcissus and jonquils twiddled in buckets, tightly budded and huddled, seemingly, afraid they might be snatched from the safety of their family.”

Now OK. It’s not my best piece. There is always room for improvement. But, what I wanted to show you is that our eyes are little cine cameras. A continual movie, that should never run out of film. If you want to get somebody to read your story, you have to transfer that movie, from the ‘cutting room floor’ in your head and place it in your readers head. Your descriptive prose is more than just words. They are the colour of your imagination, being splashed on the blank canvas of the readers mind.

You have to get your reader to turn the page. You won’t do that without capturing his/her imagination.

Ok, in one paragraph, extracted randomly, from a short story we have a derived from the description of the circumstance ‘a young girl’. A flower shop. She drives a car, probably an old jalopy. Oh, she has a small dog. She prances like pixie, so she is probably petite and lithe. She loves flowers. She is carefree. So, probably a teenager. Already we know quite a lot from just ‘clues’ of description that only describe a single scene. So we don’t have to Da Vinci to be ‘put ourselves in the picture.’

You see, the power of description is what makes a short story.

Here is another example of mine. An extract from ‘Levon’

“The frosted window swing door pushed open in front of him, and true to the nightmare, his red-rimmed eyes took the full force of the low winter sun. He shielded his crunched up eyes and fumbled for his two halves of sunglasses. Head bowed, he ran weaving through a knotted line of cars. He yanked his tie off, and threw it behind him. His jacket soon followed. He didn’t cry. If he could, it would be an ocean. Instead he hung onto a streetlight, and threw up, outside A&E. A seemingly, convenient place to be ill.”

Right? Where is this guy? You got it. A hospital. He is upset. Sick? Panicking! Had some bad news? Some sort of eye problem? Photosensitive?  Had an eye op?

 

Very close. Well done. In fact, ‘Levon’ is an albino with a rare degenerative eye problem. See how it works now?

You see. Already we have summed up a huge piece of this story by reading a few dozen words, at complete random.

My offer:

I am going to ask you to write a short story that will get published inside a month on this website.

If you want my help, we could have some great fun with your idea.

You can contact me on this blog. Don’t be shy! You write it. I showcase it. The world sees it for the first time on here. All rights reserved. Are you game?

Keep writing!

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