Sentenced: Struggles with Short Stories

Stephen King must have a much more affectionate relationship with short stories than I do. The past two months I spent writing pieces for ASU’s cli-fi short story contest—submitting them just a few days shy of the deadline last Friday—didn’t feel like a passionate, mysterious encounter. More like a home invasion. Let’s review the charges:

  1. Breaking and entering. The contest’s word limit shattered my clean, crystallized vision of how storytelling works and proved just how fragile those constructs are. For a novelist, five thousand words feels like a single, alarming burst of prose, a boot through a glass pane. My usual approach is more analogous to lock-picking: aligning tumblers and prying open a story’s secrets. Ever cerebral and obsessive, I admit I sketched “plot outlines” for the short pieces. But even so, their abrupt nature left me a little stunned and helpless.
  2. Stealing my valuables. A lavish, descriptive vocabulary. Slow-smoldering character development. Seeding seemingly insignificant references that later explode into crucial details. I believe these are my greatest assets as a writer. And the short story format robs me of them. In fairness, such literary austerity proved a worthwhile exercise. I had to strip stories down to their essence, both in narrative and in language. Abbreviation forced innovation. Experimenting with new techniques gave me new perspectives on storytelling.
  3. Assault and battery. As if breaking into my mind palace and thieving my creative assets wasn’t bad enough, these bloody-minded short stories beat me up for good measure. They concentrate a few hundred pages worth of character psychology into mere paragraphs. The effect isn’t a kiss in the dark so much as a sucker punch with brass knuckles. After finishing my second story, I walked around in a mild daze. I’d submerged myself so deeply in the characters’ mental turmoil, I felt disconnected from the real world. Such emotional intensity should come with a health advisory.

That’s quite a rap sheet. I wrote a 71,000-word novel, but two short stories brought me weeks of agony. Still, I feel I attained a modicum of growth as a writer. I hadn’t written short stories since college (and I still associate them with inch-thick compendiums of desperate late-night fiction, hastily stapled by one of the work-study aides and featuring at least one classmate’s attempt to circumvent page limits with microscopic margins and an eight-point font). Writing them as an adult is a profoundly different experience. The stories were without question the most challenging writing I’d done in a long time. (Special thanks to my Laddie for reading, critiquing, and editing both pieces; without his effort, I probably wouldn’t have made the deadline or been satisfied with my entries.)

While I won’t be releasing a short story collection anytime soon, I have a new appreciation for how much work goes into short fiction. I might might dabble in the format again someday. The frustrations did ultimately yield some rewards, regardless of how my pieces fare in the contest. For now, however, I’m grateful to get back to my neglected novella. As of tonight, The Darksider Pt 1 contains about 35,000 words, and it’s a relief to know I can add as many more as I like!

Do you write short stories? Any advice for my next effort, or thoughts on how the experience compares to other narrative forms? Let’s chat in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Sentenced: Struggles with Short Stories

  1. Andrew R. Cameron says:

    I have similar struggles writing short pieces, due to many of the reasons you’ve outlined above. I just really want to explore every single detail of the text, but I don’t have enough space! Very frustrating!
    Whenever I have to write short form, I usually make an effort to read a lot of short stories in that same genre – an attempt to train my brain to think and feel in that mode. I’ve always found Roald Dahl or Kurt Vonnegut to work the best for me – they are masters of the form.

    Like

    • j.k.ullrich says:

      I didn’t know Roald Dahl wrote short stories! I loved his books when I was a kid. Thanks for the tip, I’ll look for them. Reading an impeccably crafted short story reveals the final reason why they intimidate me: there’s so little room for error! In a 300-page novel, I have some (bad pun) margins to compensate for flaws and still leave the reader satisfied with the overall story. Short fiction offers no such forgiveness. There’s nothing behind which to hide. It bares the fundamentals of a writer’s ability, and that’s an uncomfortable thing to face! I hope I’m courageous enough to keep exploring the format and strengthening those creative bones.

      Liked by 1 person

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