I wrote my first short story in a day.
Not that I planned it that way. I’d always wanted to try my hand at short fiction so I signed up for a week-long class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, only to discover this wasn’t a series of lectures where I’d learn the fundamentals. No, it was an interactive workshop and I needed to submit a polished story to both my instructor and my classmates to read and critique before class began. I received this news on Saturday. My story was due on Monday.
It’s amazing how motivating a deadline can be. By the time the sun set that evening, I’d written “The Devil You Know”. Three thousand words. By the end of Sunday, I’d revised it and sent it off.*
I learned a lesson that weekend. Not every story needs to be long. Not every story should be long. The best short fiction can be read in less than an hour and describes a self-contained incident or linked incidents, with the express purpose of evoking a singular effect or mood. It requires many of the same skills I’d learned from novel writing, just applied to a different form. You still need a compelling inciting incident. You still have to create a memorable character or two. Your narrative still needs a distinct beginning, a rising action in the middle, and a satisfying ending. But within those parameters, writing shorter fiction gives you enormous freedom to just play.
Write yourself into a corner when it comes to plot? Throw those 15 pages away and start over. A secondary character suddenly takes center stage? See where that takes you. Notice a short news snippet in the paper that fascinates you? Use your plotting skills to imagine what happens next. Passionate about an issue? Frame it as fiction and make your argument. Love Agatha Christie? Try writing a locked-room mystery. Have small kids? Make up your own fairy tales. A fan of Outlander? Write a time travel romance story.
Right now, a lot of us are hunkered down in our houses, too off-kilter and distracted by the pandemic, the political protests, and the endless news cycle to launch a major project like a new novel. I suggest you try writing shorter. These short bursts of creativity offer a variety of benefits:
- They’ll keep your creative juices flowing
- They’ll give you a sense of accomplishment
- You can try out a different genre just for fun
- You can use your stories as giveaways to your readers
- You can submit them to publications to enhance your credentials
- You can enter on-line contests for greater visibility and prize money
I’m not implying writing short stories is easy. The best ones require every bit as much skill, talent, and perseverance as longer narratives. But they also offer an amazing opportunity for play. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to complete a serious work of fiction during a summer of uncertainly, why not let your imagination run wild and discover new ideas and new forms? Free up your writing and experience the fun of writing again. As Stephen King says, “A short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty exciting to me.
Oh, wait. I’m sorry. I’m wearing a mask. You’re wearing a mask. No kissing strangers in the dark for now. Go write a short story instead.
*”The Devil You Know” was published in 2018 in the RMFW’s anthology False Faces.