Fiction comes in many forms. And while we usually focus on novels, today, author Elizabeth A. Havey (who you might recognize as Beth) is here to share her thoughts on short story writing. For me, short stories started as a way to jump from non-fiction to fiction, and then as a way to enter contests, and now (though not as often as I’d like) to challenge myself to do something new. In short stories I explored writing in first person, a male POV, and using more than one narrator. I’ve been fortunate to have short stories published in literary journals — but never enough stories for an anthology of my own, like Beth’s A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE. Short stories are a cousin to novels, with different needs and outcomes. Do you write short stories? Do you read them? Share your thoughts in the comments, and please welcome Beth Havey to Women’s Fiction Writers. And don’t miss the photo at the end of the post!!!
Tips and Tales for Short Story Writing
by Elizabeth A. Havey Writing fiction has been my passion for decades and truly took hold when I was home raising my children. It was a time when women’s magazines, Redbook, McCall’s, were printing short stories written by women. I could do this! So I set my desk in a corner of the den, bought a decent electric typewriter and before my children awoke each morning, I squirreled away an hour to craft some stories. Not surprisingly, the strength of my stories increased when I rooted them in the emotions and conflicts of my own life–and my being a mother. I published some in little magazines, later moving on to novel writing. Retirement now allows me to make writing my life and to polish everything in my writer’s toolbox. Short stories stem from a reader’s desire to experience the rise and fall of the story arc in one sitting. Nathaniel Hawthorne published his collection of Twice Told Tales in 1837, probably the first known book of short stories—though not all of them were short! Prior to this, in 1836, Charles Dickens found great success with serializing in magazines and newspapers his novel The Pickwick Papers. Critics have said that at that time there was no insinuation that the work would lose quality when presented in so commercial a fashion—that came later. Dickens’ work was popular and thus must have affected the rise of shorter pieces of fiction. Then and today it can be very satisfying to experience a character’s struggle right through to the denouement in a short period of time. Our life styles—working women, tired at the end of the day, a list of to-dos drumming in one’s head—has added more credence to the experience of completing a story in one sitting—or rather, propped up on pillows in bed! Short work fills a need. Think shebooks. When creating a short story, the writer works with the same elements that make up a novel—but there is some tweaking. Characters, Point of View: your story will most often have one main characters who is also the POV character. I surveyed my stories and the average number of characters in them is three—most of the interaction in a story occurring between two of the three. My longer stories have four or five characters, the POV character encountering the others briefly. The longest story, Angel Hair, which is based on the old tale in Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper, is a missing child story and has as many as eight characters. A writer could create a short story simply using one character. Length: Writer’s Relief says that the short story can be as long as 30,000 words. Ginny Wiehardt on About Careers says no longer than 10,000 or about ten to twenty-five pages. Wikipedia says that for genre short fiction the highest word count is 7,500. Then there’s flash fiction and other newly created forms. Bottom line: if you enter a contest with a short piece of fiction, publications like Glimmer Train will be very specific about word count—so that’s the guide you might want to follow. How to Handle Time: Novels often span years, even decades, but the short story is more limited. My stories Pumpkins, Thaw, Windows and Making Change take place on the same day—though to enrich the content, there are references to the past. When Did My Mother Die? takes place over a year’s time—but the trajectory of the story moves in a straight line. Jumping back and forth in time can cause confusion, and because of your word limitation a tighter focus will better hold your readers. That said, writing is organic, so as you proceed, you might find the need to cut out a character or move away from a scene because your story is meandering and you’re losing your focus. Plot is essential even in short fiction, and focus must be endemic. Get in and get out. But regardless of its short length, writing the short story is not simple. I can speak directly to this dilemma as some of my stories were taken from novels in progress. Someday It Will Be December required lots of editing and rethinking of the material to create the emotional arc the story demands. For any work of fiction, you want a strong beginning to pull the reader in. Here is the first line from that story: In the depths of July, Claire Emmerling began to think about sex. Constantly. From Angel Hair: The coffee gathering at Liz Grimm’s house was the first time anyone had been out in the small New England town of Hamilton since Pia Piper was fired from the local preschool, accused of fondling a boy-child in her classroom. In Thaw, I use a quieter beginning that will build to the heartfelt emotions of the story: Her landlord said maybe she’d imagined it. She doesn’t think so. They argued about the age of the townhouse, the condition of the roof. She was late for her shift and had to hang up. “You’re the one with squirrels in your attic,” he had yelled at her. Endings? They tantalize, inspire or make you weep. Endings are part of the reason I fell in love with the short story form. In high school, I read J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. After college, it was Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver—they all published in The New Yorker Magazine. In a novel, lots of things happen—often because of a complicated plot structure with twists and turns the reader does not expect. In the short story, something has to happen, or at the very least you have to feel that something has happened, though often it’s a small movement, a brief change, a symbolic gesture. The brevity of the text reflects a smallness that in actual living is truly gigantic, monumental. Here is Beattie in Running Dreams, leading you into a world with few words—but at the end—wow! The soccer-punch. The narrator reflects on losing her father to cancer when she was only five. This is the last paragraph—the father is bending over in pain, to help put on her gloves. I remember standing with him in a room that seemed immense to me at the time, in sunlight as intense as the explosion from a flashbulb. If someone had taken that photograph, it would have been a picture of a little girl and her father about to go on a walk. I held my hands out to him, and he pushed the fingers of the gloves tightly down each of my fingers, patiently, pretending to have all the time in the world, saying, “This is the way we get ready for winter.” This is so lovely, the main character finding closure in this simple remembrance of her father’s love. I surveyed the endings in A Mother’s Time Capsule and discovered that I also often use a symbolic action to pull the story to its closure. In Someday It Will Be December, Claire is uncertain about being a single mother. The ending: But she raised her head and walked on. She would reorient herself. She would find her way. In Fragile, Tess is a fearful mother. The ending: Tess stops. She listens, the words(of her children) falling on her with their weight of wonder. And welcoming all of it, she holds them, keeps them like a charm her two have hung gently around her neck. In Song for Her Mother, Ana hungers for her mother Jolene’s love, yet denies her. The ending: She thought of the bread someone had set out on Jolene’s table—food for those who mourn, release from hunger. And in Making Change, Emily must accept her empty nest. The ending: At last I took off my damp brown suit. With a smile and a heave ho I flung it onto the Goodwill pile. I didn’t even hesitate. Endings must do so many things—complete the story arc, answer questions, bring closure to conflicts and tensions. But while novel endings are often muscular and dramatic, short stories often present the conclusion using a quieter voice. As mentioned above, you feel that something has truly happened. Graduating with a BA in English, Elizabeth A. Havey taught literature at the secondary level and later worked part time as a freelancer for McDougal Littell Publishing and a proofreader for Meredith Books. In her early forties, she earned her RN and worked as a labor and delivery nurse, health educator and author of CEUs for nursing. Summers found her studying at the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops at the University of Iowa. Her short stories have appeared in little magazines including THE NEBRASKA REVIEW and ZINKZINE. Havey’s blog, BOOMER HIGHWAY, http://boomerhighway.org, is devoted to health and navigating the third act. You can read more about her on www.elizabethahavey.com. Born, raised and educated in Chicago, Havey now lives in Southern California, but the spirit of the Midwest remains fresh in her fiction. She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.