Rummanah Aasi
  Today I'm excited to bring you a guest post from independent writer Joseph R. Lewis. I have always been curious as to the writing process of short stories, particularly how to fit everything in a few pages instead of a novel. I posed this question to Joseph while I read his current short story collection called the Tales of Asha, which I will review tomorrow. I hope you enjoy this post and return tomorrow for my review of Tales of Asha!


    Modern fiction breaks down into a lot of categories based on length: novel, novellette, novellini, novella, short story, flash fiction, personal ad, and so on. And these categories have evolved over time. Novels have grown from 50k words to 100k words and beyond. Many of these sizes or limits were created by print publishers who had certain spaces to fill in magazines columns or newspaper racks, so writers invented stories to fill those spaces.
   
 This post is supposed to be about short stories, but we could spend all day talking about the history of the modern short story just to define what it is. So let's all just agree for the next few minutes that a short story is a piece of writing between 2k words and 10k words, okay? Thanks.
  
 From an old fashioned literary point of view, a short story is a very specific creature. It's a story meant to hit the reader over the head with a powerful emotion or a clever idea. That's all. Just a BAM! and it's over. The purpose is to shock or inspire the reader, to plant the seeds of new ideas or personal experiences.
  
  A classic example from my high school reading list was "The Story of an Hour" in which a housewife learns her husband has died in a train wreck. She grieves, but then she experiences an intense euphoria as she realizes that she is free to live the rest of her life however she wants. A whole world of freedom and possibility blossoms in her imagination. Then her husband comes home (he took a different train that day) and she drops dead of a heart attack. Talk about hitting the reader over the head with an emotion!
  
  One of the great things about ebooks and indie publishing is that authors are more free to experiment with short fiction. But one problem with short stories today is that so many people prefer novels (it's notoriously hard to sell short fiction). Most folks still want one big story instead of lots of little ones. And I'm often in that same camp. I want to invest in complex characters and luxuriate in richly developed fantasy worlds. I don't want it to be over after just a few minutes. And yet. Short stories let us try out worlds and characters and ideas just like trying on clothes at the store. We're not sure if we like the color or the cut, so we try them on for a minute, walk around, sit down, and do some uncomfortable squats in the dressing room. And I don't just mean readers, but writers too.
  I write short stories for a couple of different reasons - some artistic and some business. The business reasons are simple. I can give short stories away for free as samples, or bundle them together for sale. I can use them as prologues to novels, or other supplements to draw attention to my longer fiction for sale. Short stories are a great way to expand your offerings to readers.  But the artistic reasons are more interesting.
  
 Sometimes a great idea just isn't big enough to support a whole book. Or sometimes you have a great image, or a real zinger of a line. Why write 100k words just to deliver that line or paint that image?
Sometimes you might want to experiment outside your comfort zone. For example, my first novel was a good old fashioned science fiction adventure, and my second novel was a fantasy thriller. I plan to write more of both, but I also want to write other types of stories. I want to try sentimental pieces, mysteries, and romances.But should I really try to write a whole novel in a new style or genre right away? What if readers don't like it? What if I don't like it? I'd hate to waste all those months on a dead-end project. That's a very expensive learning experience! So instead, I write a short story. I try it out. And I let readers try it out (usually for free).
  Some authors say that you should write short fiction to develop the skills to write long fiction. In general, I disagree with that advice. Yes, you can practice writing dialog and descriptions in short fiction. But short stories and novels are as different as dog houses and skyscrapers.  Here's a better metaphor. Writing a short story is like a building a bridge over a little creek using a log. All you need to do is get that one log into position and Ta Da! you have a bridge. But writing a novel is like building the Golden Gate bridge. You need very different materials in huge quantities, all carefully prepared and installed in sequence, and then tested and retested. And no amount of log-bridges will really prepare you for engineering a Golden Gate.
  
  So how do you write a good short story? What goes in, and what should be left out? First off, you probably don't need an outline. Second, you need a crystal clear vision of the focal point or climax of the story. Is it a sudden discovery or realization? Is it a bizarre image or turn of phrase? Is it the punchline to a joke? Understanding the climax is key. What do you want the reader to think or feel at that moment? Third, you need to set up the climax as cleanly as possible. Try to limit your characters to only those you absolutely need. Only give names to characters worth remembering (others can just be "the lady" or "the doctor"). Minimize the number of scenes or settings. Don't distract the reader with too many extra images or ideas if they don't build to your climax. But do use little hints and foreshadows throughout the story to help build to your climax.
Fourth, be prepared to toss these rules right out the window. (Sorry!) Different stories are meant to serve different purposes. You'll just have to decide for yourself what your story needs to be.
   
  In The Tale of Asha, the first story ("The Lotus Cave") is about world building, establishing setting and atmosphere, and providing character back stories. It's all about getting the reader in the mood for the series, which is very important because the series is much more about mood and setting than plot or action. It's about the journey, not the destination. To carry that notion forward, the story contains three flashbacks that describe very different personal experiences that led up to The Lotus Cave story itself. (In one sense, these flashbacks are tangents that seem to break my rule about focusing, but since the goal of the story is to paint a picture of this world, the flashbacks are important tools to reaching my goal!)  But critically, all of the stories can stand alone. You don't need to read The Lotus Cave to understand the rest of the series. It just adds more to the overall mythos and ambiance, the mystery and complexity of the world, as well as the relationships between the living and the dead.
  
  The second ("The Fever Mist") and third ("The Shining Scales") stories focus more narrowly on individuals suffering from strange or tragic circumstances and how Asha tries to help them. Again, these stories are about setting and mood and personal experiences. My goal is not to hit the reader over the head with a single emotion or idea, but to transport the reader to another time and place, just to have the experience of being there.  And the third story ends with the emotional climax for the complete Volume (which is subtitled "Death"), a climax I tried to build toward across all three stories. In one sense, this collection of stories is actually a novella built around a single line of dialog, the last line in the last story.
  
  So my best advice for writers, for writing short stories, is to figure out exactly what you want to accomplish with your story, and then bend all your efforts toward that one goal. Avoid distractions. Avoid tangents. The key is focus. And then step back and see if you like it. If you don't like it, well, at least you learned something about your writing without having to invest too much time. But if you do like it, great! Publish it and then go write some more!

Thank you, Joseph! Readers, if you would like to learn more about Joseph and The Tales of Asha be sure to visit his website.
3 Responses
  1. Jenny Says:

    "I want to invest in complex characters and luxuriate in richly developed fantasy worlds."

    That's pretty much me in a nutshell. I like knowing I'm going to spend a lot of time with the characters and really get to know them. That being said however, this post was really interesting and makes me think I shouldn't discount a story just because it's a bit shorter than I would prefer. Thanks so much for sharing Mr. Lewis!


  2. Thanks for this post, it was really helpful and full of infomation. I prefer novels, but sometimes short stories that "BAM" are brilliant too.
    Thank you Mr. Lewis!


  3. You're both very welcome. Happy reading!


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