Thoughts on Short Story From a Novice

[Insert introductory material reviewing how important the art of short story is to literature and the the craft of writing, and how aspiring writers should study it.]

Now, I am submitting a short story to a small writing contest this month, hosted by The Write Practice. In a dastardly rendition of the old bait and switch, this contest established a theme for the contest, so that most writers would need to write from scratch. Foiled! I was almost done with a short story which, sadly, did not fit into the theme.

So, as I've been writing and studying short stories, here are some of my observations. Keep in mind, of course, that I have no degree in English, journalism, or creative writing, so I am a relative short story virgin (ew).

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1. Short stories have A LOT more description than novels. 

It seems that everything is painstakingly described, down to the most minute detail. And yet, all the advice for writing novels leans in the opposite direction. "Just enough so the reader can run with it." "We don't need to know what everybody's wearing." "If you describe somebody's eyes one more time, I'll toss this manuscript in the composter!" 

Ok maybe that last one was from Editor Adair to me, and not writers at large.

I think the reason for this is that, in the case of the short story, the description itself is meaningful. Because the piece is truncated, each sentence reads more like a line of poetry than prose. Short stories are denser reads because so much subtext is packed into each word.

If I may: A novel is to a short story as a park is to a patio garden. In a park, the grand, old trees are pruned once a year, and the roads are regularly kept clear and smooth. But in a small garden, each spent flower is meticulously collected, and each delicate herb is carefully watered. It's a whole different ballgame (to mix metaphors).

2. To be able to see the little moments of daily life as epics all their own is truly a gift.

My mother recently recommended that I read "The Catbird Seat" by James Thurber. In it, the reader follows Mr. Martin on the very night he intends to kill a woman who dared disturb the order of his workplace. I'm always so humbled by a great writer's ability to weave an entire saga out of a mere hour of action, sometimes less! That is a true storyteller. 

3. There is a general distaste for happiness.

In my experience, if you want a bleak outlook on life, read a short story. 

4. To read a great short story is to read an exceptional character study.

As someone who dabbled in theatre, this is what most draws me to short stories. Like most actors, I delight in fascinating personalities. I love to observe them, to notice their tics, to note the inflection of their voices or the unusual way they walk. I like to try and boil a person's life motto down to one sentence. I like to describe people to other people, and point out subtle things to love about them. 

Next to manifesting such characters on stage or film, it seems like short stories are the best way to express this love of interesting people. How do people tick, and what decisions do they make as a result? So intriguing! 

5. Short stories feed on the element of surprise.

As you'll notice if you ever get into reading short stories, the one thing you can count on is a surprise ending. Short stories keep you off balance in a way that novels rarely can. This is so hard to do, as it is equally important to give the reader a reason to invest in the story. How to balance earning the reader's trust with keeping her on her toes? I don't know! Ask Thurber.

In general, I certainly prefer a great novel to a collection of short stories. But I think this could be attributed to my fondness for happy endings (see #2). One could also point out that I am a lover of children's literature, a genre which is bereft of the short story ... unless you want to count episodic series. 

At any rate, I want to be able to write a good one. And so, I reluctantly pull on my big girl pants and resume revision of this contest-winning short story. Wish me luck!