Appropriate for January, nightmare foe Freddy Krueger has been hanging over me all month long on my wall calendar, but he hasn’t been my true nemesis. That title belongs to a short story I’ve been working on.
Short stories, they should be easy, right? Small cast of characters, a central setting, typically told through a single viewpoint, and only a few thousand words – sounds much less daunting than tackling a novel to most writers. But to me, short stories are a form of torture.
I’ll have a general concept, ready to pour words out in a torrent, and then I sit with my laptop staring at an unmoving, blinking cursor for hours. It’s maddening!
My relationship with short stories wasn’t always so frustrating. Like most writers, shorts are what I started with, and I used to churn out a couple decent stories a month. So, what changed?
This past month I’ve been struggling with a single story, which got me thinking about why they started vexing me and what I could do to conquer my nemesis.
My biggest obstacle is the temptation to edit as I go. When I get going on a novel, the editing side of my brain shuts off completely, allowing me to just write and see where the story goes. Unfortunately, that editor is on constant alert when I’m drafting a short story. I’ll get a few sentences in, and I hear her clearing her throat before she goes into a diatribe on how each word could be strengthened, why my opening line is the weakest thing she’s ever read, and that every detail I’ve included isn’t necessary to tell my story.
“Shut the hell up,” I scream at my internal editor, but she doesn’t listen. Damn she’s annoying and persistent! Thankfully, my creative side is equally tenacious and came up with a technique to circumvent Miss Know It All: writing longhand.
I don’t recall where I came across the idea to ditch the laptop and pick up a pen and paper, but it sure has helped. As soon as the ink starts flowing my creative side takes completely over, leaving no room for the editorial interruptions. The process removed the temptation to polish every word as I go, allowing me to focus on the heart of the story.
As wonderful as this technique has been, it hasn’t solved all my problems, and short stories still feel like an adversary. That left me no choice but to dig a little deeper and face something I’ve known for a while: I’m a novelist, not a short story writer.
Looking back at previous works I can see that’s always been the case. I can’t even tell you how many times my critique group has looked over a short story of mine and said, “Great concept, but it’s not a short story.”
This realization was discouraging at first until I framed it properly and thought about other professions. Runners are a great example. They find the distance that suits them best and specialize in it. You don’t see sprinters like Usain Bolt trying to become marathoners, and likewise you don’t see runners like “Canada’s Marathon Mom” Krista DuChene trying to compete in short distances. They accept their natural talents and stick with developing them. Now I’m sure Bolt has gone longer distances in training, and I know DuChene also does speedwork training, but that’s to develop skills needed in their specialty.
Writers aren’t all that different. Some people excel in flash fiction and short stories, while others, like me, find their natural rhythm in novels. Each category presents its own challenges, and I think the trick is accepting where your strength lies and leaning into it.
Does that mean I’ll completely give up trying my hand at short stories? Absolutely not! They teach me how to handle different obstacles, and as frustrating as they are, I’ll never admit complete defeat.
I’d encourage you to do the same. Find the story form that best suits your talents and give it all you’ve got, but always challenge yourself to try other forms too. And, to the magical unicorns out there who can master several forms, you have my utmost admiration.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me again next week when I talk about some of the fantastic books I’ve read in January.