Why I’m writing (and reading) short stories

When I’m asked what I’m writing on my Creative Writing MA, a lot of people seem surprised to hear that my answer is short stories.

As many of you might know, I have written one (and a half) novels, and until I started on my Creative Writing course, I had never even considered the idea of writing a short story, and I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t read many either.

For me, the MA was a chance to refresh and reconsider my writing style, and to get away from my book which I was sick of and didn’t want to look at, or work on, anymore. I didn’t have any more ideas for new novels, but I did have have lots of fragments of characters and concepts and moments, so I merrily launched myself into writing short stories without really knowing what I was getting into.

Thankfully my university tutors and classmates are all appreciative and excited by short stories, even if that’s not what they write themselves, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the past year to hear their thoughts and recommendations, and to get useful feedback on my own short stories which have been varied and messy.

The form

Having only written long pieces before, it was difficult to get my ahead around the idea of condensing a whole story into 2-5,000 words. Writing novels gives you space to explore things in the long term and to be almost lazy in your approach. I’ll come back to that at some point, I would tell myself as I left things to be resolved later. I had space to use paragraphs to describe something, and no limits on how much I dwelled on something. In short stories, however, every single word counts. This definitely threw me at the beginning, but now I am obsessed with the idea of stories existing in these small spaces, and being just as important and compelling as novels of 80-90,000 words.

The first short story I wrote jumped around in time quite a bit which confused the reader and made it seem choppy and fragmented. I had the feedback that I was essentially trying to condense a novel into a short story which just didn’t work. By stripping it down and thinking about what I was trying to say in a different format, also by reading more short stories myself, I began to find the heart of my story – in its brevity – and it became a short story, as opposed to a novel in a few thousand words.

Also, side note: short stories are great places to explore your ideas and push the boundaries of the form. I spent a lot of time worrying that some of my short stories are quite atypical in form, but have since decided that the fun of a short story is that anything goes. If a short story feels too packed, however, it might mean that it will be better off in a longer form. In fact, many novels started as short stories as I have since discovered.

Why it’s made my writing better

My tutor once told me that each sentence of a short story is “the bones you must clean the gristle off” and this idea has really stuck with me. I’ve said before that less is more, but in a short story it’s so imperative that you say what you want to say in fewer words. The challenge of cutting everything down has done wonders for my writing style and, I believe, led to a spare, vivid style of prose that is different and more exciting to anything I’ve done before.

Challenging myself to write short stories has led me to pursue avenues of thought and strange ideas that I never would have been able to flesh out into novels. Not being pinned down by one thing, I feel a lot freer and able to experiment with my work and who I am as a writer.

That being said, it’s also exciting to be working on collections of short stories and I already have two very clear themes that I am writing about and exploring from different angles through my writing at the moment. I hope to one day be able to share these works (and also hope for a renaissance in short story literature so I can get them published!)

I haven’t abandoned my novel, or the idea of writing longer fiction in the future, but I know that when I get back to it I’ll have a renewed sense of purpose and an appreciation of how delicate language can be.

Recommendations

I’m aware that I’ve hardly scratched the surface that is the world of short stories, but I have been making an effort to read writers who have mastered the art. Here are a few of my favourites so far:

  • Attrib, Eley Williams – my tutor at university! The perfect short stories – sharp and thoughtful. The internalness of a moment inside the minds of different characters.
  • Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley – I need to read more of her! I went to talk with her last year and she spoke about writing short stories vs writing fiction – it was very insightful and I love this collection.
  • Anything by Grace Paley – my tutor won’t stop raving about her, she’s unique and great.
  • Things to Make and Break, May-Lay Tan – weird and wonderful, these stories in turn creeped me out and inspired me.
  • The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Jen Campbell – short review here. I read these before my MA and love the fairy tale inspired gothicness of Campbell’s writing. I think I’ve accidentally inherited some of her mannerisms!
  • How Much the Heart Can Hold, various – a collection of longer stories by different authors, this one was interesting to see how similar and different stories based on a theme can be.

Notice a trend? Turns out I don’t really read male writers anymore. Oh well!

I’m really enjoying writing about writing again, and digesting and dissecting my MA. I have two essays and four short stories due at the beginning of September so am currently full steam ahead to get those finished before taking a break to work on some (fun) writing again. Consider this blog post both a process and a procrastination!

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