Short fiction

I’ve posted 180+ blogs on my old site but, because of the new format and editing system, this feels like a fresh start. If you followed the old one, thanks for sticking with it here. If you didn’t, welcome And you can still find its archives here. My blogs are often tongue in cheek or just frankly bizarre, but for this first one, I’ll stay with the writing theme.

Several months ago, someone asked me what I thought of short stories and flash fiction and, in my habitual lazy way, I’m adapting my answer to make a blog out of it.

The short story seemed to have gone into decline and lots of publishers/agents still say explicitly ‘No short stories’. I think they’re wrong because I think it’s definitely a form which fits our times – and, perhaps more importantly, is popular on internet sites. There are plenty out there that accept submissions – although they don’t usually offer any sort of payment. What they do offer, though, is a forum in which you can get feedback on your work and also learn from reading the pieces that others post there.

The beauty of the short story form to me is that it can be so many things, some of them just an evocation of a mood, others a complete, self-contained ‘story’ with beginning, middle and end, others still a simple memory or a dream. If they’re written with care, they don’t need to have an ending. Some very good ones simply set the scene for what readers know will be a lifetime of misery or bliss for the characters. In terms of length, my own range from 6000 to 500. And then there are the mini ones like those on the sadly defunct Rammenas site, of which the best example in my opinion was one written by my brother Ron. It was called Lost and, in its entirety, it went:

“That ring you lost, was it your wedding ring?”
“Not really.”

That’s’ a good example of how short stories, however complete they are, often still leave you with echoes, aspects of the story you’d like to know more about.

As for where the ideas come from, or how I know a particular topic is a short story rather than a play or whatever, I don’t think there’s a rule. My short stories tend to come from times when I think ‘OK, I have x hours free and I want to write something so I’ll write a complete story’. There’s a satisfaction about giving yourself exclusively to a piece of writing that you know you’re going to complete – in terms of its first draft anyway – at one sitting. You may not, of course; complications may arise, other, unsuspected characters may barge in. And, anyway, it won’t be the finished article because you’ll be returning to edit the thing in a day or two (or longer, preferably).

If you’re not sure what sort of thing to do or where to start, have a look for sites which have competitions and enter them. There’s one called glimmertrain which does that but you can find plenty of others. Those sorts of sites mostly set a theme, provide the opening sentence or a title, so it’s left to your ingenuity to construct your take on it. It becomes an exercise. It’s the best way to find out about the form and how it suits you because faced with a subject which isn’t of your own choosing, you’re left to grapple with formal elements and find out how best they can help you to approach a topic in which you don’t necessarily have a vested interest (at least, to begin with). (And that’s a really horrible sentence, with far too many subordinate clauses.)

Description is OK if it’s necessary but be careful – readers want whatever you’re doing with the story to be set up early, then sustained. So if it’s horror, action, mood, regret, tragedy, whimsy, establish the things you need for that very early and make yourself stay within its ‘limits’. I think that, whatever you use the form for, there has to be an emotional charge of some sort.

In the end, trust your characters to take you where they need to go. Flash fiction (between 500 and 1000 words, and sometimes a bit more depending on the site you choose) is great for the single central thought, idea, belief, moan, mood, whatever, and I think a maximum of 3 characters is the norm. In the 2000+ bracket, you can have more characters, but most of them will be peripheral or at best secondary.

And whatever you think of the finished product, keep it. Put it aside if you like, but come back to it now and then. They have a way of stimulating the imagination and you may see how a quick rewrite, an approach from a different narrative perspective, a change of narrator or any amount of other things could make it a different, perhaps better story.

And the badger has absolutely nothing to do with the blog..

0 comments

  1. I got here instantly, Bill – and for people like me that is the first essential!
    I have pressed all the buttons and they work so now I’m filled with envy that you can operate and add things yourself. That is what I would like tobe able to do – so yes, full marks.

    1. I did the content, Gill, and most of the formatting, but I had guidance from Anneke for the tricky bits. In the end, it was easier than I’d anticipated.

  2. “And the badger has absolutely nothing to do with the blog.”
    No, but he is cute. 😉
    I find writing short stories and novels so different that it’s almost a different art form altogether. Short stories are much snappier and as you say, have to be more ‘impressionistic’ with fewer lengthy descriptions and more pictures painted with a single word. They’re great for all those times when you have 15 minutes and a cup of coffee and want to read something… but not ‘War & Peace’.

    1. Oh, I don’t know, Fiona. After all, Monty Python did do a ‘Summarise Proust’ routine. But you’re right, there’s not the same time available to get to know your characters. On the other hand, that potentially makes them more authentic – we only have glimpses of the things they’re capable of, just as with real people in everyday life.

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