Marathon training

by Isabel Dennis-Muir

I have a novel to complete, but I’m busy writing short stories.  My apparent diversion has nothing to do writer’s block or disenchantment with my novel’s plot or characters.  I’m in training.  For me, short story writing is the equivalent of gym training for a marathon.  Not that I’ve ever considered a running a marathon – and I will admit that my visits to the gym are occasional at best.

But by writing short stories I feel as though I am stretching my creative muscles, practising my craft.  The final goal is achievable and I can pat myself on the back a little more frequently.

The stories I’m writing at present will be completed and entered for a couple of prestigious short story competitions.  The Bath short story competition invites national and international entries from published and unpublished writers, as does the Bristol short story competition.  Both publish the stories from twenty shortlisted authors in an annual anthology.

So, just as any focused athlete will prepare well, buying the right running shoes and ensuring their MP3 player spurs them on with well-chosen playlists, I have also prepared.  I’ve read the Bath and the Bristol 2015 anthologies and marvelled at the quality of the writing.  As you would expect from such a broad spectrum of entrants, the styles, plots and characters are many and varied.  Some I enjoyed, others slotted into a genre I wouldn’t usually choose to read, but I could still respect the writing skill.

Indeed, putting together the perfect short story requires great skill.  Just as with poetry, or scriptwriting, the rules employed for short story writing differ from those needed for the long form of a novella or novel.  Of course, a beginning, middle and end are essential, as are plot, characters and setting.  But the reader is not taken on the same type of journey as they enjoy with a novel.  They are thrown into a moment, with a chance to look at a snapshot of a life or lives.  They are often left knowing very little about the resolution of any drama or incident.  Perhaps this is the hardest part of short story writing – choosing where to start your story and where and when to end it.

If you do an internet search for ‘how to write a short story’ you will find thousands, if not millions of links giving you ‘top tips’.  ‘Write it in one sitting’, recommends one writer; ‘make sure you continually rewrite and edit’ says another.

Edgar Allen Poe suggested:

‘A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.’

Perhaps he’s right, but it may be that there are just as many contradictory approaches to short story writing as there are for that marathon training.

I’m far from an expert, but my feeling is that you should apply common sense to your short story writing and write what you enjoy reading.  A commonality among all the published short stories I have read is an ending that leaves the reader with many choices.  They are given a chance to dream about what might happen next.

Raymond Carver tells us:

“If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.” 

So, now it’s time for me to get back to the gym and stretch and tone those creative muscles…

Are short stories your favourite form – either to read or to write?  What would you say are the critical ingredients?  Let us know what you think by posting a reply below.

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5 thoughts on “Marathon training

  1. Great post! Short story writing is not my forte. I do write them as a way to focus my work, but I prefer writing a novel length story. I think a critical element for short story writing is capturing the mood of the story very quickly. The reader needs to be plunged into the story like getting into an ice bath – all at once.

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