When I look back on it, I’m amazed that I had the nerve to write a classic Big Thriller as my very first work of fiction.
If I had had any sense, I would have started with short stories and worked up from there. But the truth is that GAMES OF THE HANGMAN was my very first work of fiction—and it is about 16o,000 words long. In terms of pages, that depends upon the layout, but you are talking the bones of 500 printed pages.
Incidentally, WAR & PEACE—one of the longest novels ever written—has 560,000 words. First novels are generally supposed to have substantially less than 100,000 words. I broke the rules with a vengeance.
I must have been insane. Actually, I had several things going for me.
- I had no formal training in fiction writing. Though I believe in education, I feel very lucky to have escaped Creative Fiction 101. It might have helped me—and I would certainly have mastered technique sooner—but I didn’t want to be confined to a set of rules I felt were no more than arbitrary. I still feel that.
- I had no one to advise me and tell me it couldn’t be done. Mentors are a fine thing, but they can also be inhibiting.
- I was too ignorant to know I couldn’t do it. Ignorance is a much under-rated asset. The trouble with knowledge is that you know the risks—and have learned to fear them. Daring—which is what works—suffers. The SAS motto of He Who Dares Wins is not just bravado. Trust me on this. I know.
- I have always liked Big Thrillers so I was very familiar with the form. This was vastly important. I just felt comfortable.
- I had no experience of writing short stories—even at school—so wasn’t tempted to start with something I already knew something about. Also, I wasn’t confident that I could come up with the kinds of twists that short stories require. I didn’t then have that kind of mind. Do I now? I guess I’m going to find out.
- I had a story which I felt fitted the Big Thriller format in scale and scope. It did. It does. It is, in truth, a great story—and, of course, it is rooted in reality.
- I naturally “write long.” This not necessarily considered to be a good thing. All I can say is that it has worked for me—though I will admit that I have learned to write tighter. Blogging has helped in that regard. But, the core trouble is that the professionals have become prisoners of convention—but convention is rarely right. Almost by definition, it is a day late—and, all too often, just plain wrong.
Pause while I shudder.
Starting line after line with “I” is bad form—though hard to avoid when writing a blog of this nature within time limitations that really don’t permit re-writing.
Where short stories are concerned, what has changed?
- There is now a commercial need. Specifically, I need something which I can give away, or sell cheaply, to promote my name and help build up my mailing list.
- A combination of the trend towards reading on mobile devices and our lifestyles seems to point towards an increasing demand for the short.
- Blogging has made me quite enthusiastic about “writing short”—especially since I pretty much hated it initially. Working away at it has brought me around to the point where I seem to have developed a facility for it.
- Hitting my 70th birthday has made me realize that, if I am to achieve my ambitions, I had better get a move on. And one of those ambition has long been to be able to write short stories.
- Good stories seem to have wills of their own—and demand to be written whether the author will it or not. Yes, I know that sounds crazy—but it is no more than the truth.
- I have a number of short story ideas which I have been mulling over for years so I won’t quite be starting from scratch.
- The challenge attracts me.
But what is a short story? As always, I turn to Wiki—today’s Delphic oracle—and a great deal clearer.
A short story is a brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose. Emerging from earlier oral storytellingtraditions in the 17th century, the short story has grown to encompass a body of work so diverse as to defy easy characterization. At its most prototypical the short story features a small cast of named characters, and focuses on a self-contained incident with the intent of evoking a "single effect" or mood. In doing so, short stories make use of plot, resonance, and other dynamic components to a far greater degree than is typical of an anecdote, yet to a far lesser degree than a novel. While the short story is largely distinct from the novel, authors of both generally draw from a common pool of literary techniques.
Short stories have no set length. In terms of word count there is no official demarcation between an anecdote, a short story, and a novel. Rather, the form's parameters are given by the rhetorical and practical context in which a given story is produced and considered, so that what constitutes a short story may differ between genres, countries, eras, and commentators. Like the novel, the short story's predominant shape reflects the demands of the available markets for publication, and the evolution of the form seems closely tied to the evolution of the publishing industry and the submission guidelines of its constituent houses.
The short story has been considered both an apprenticeship form preceding more lengthy works, and a crafted form in its own right, collected together in books of similar length, price, and distribution as novels. Short story writers may define their works as part of the artistic and personal expression of the form. They may also attempt to resist categorization by genre and fixed form.
Determining what exactly separates a short story from longer fictional formats is problematic. A classic definition of a short story is that one should be able to read it in one sitting, a point most notably made in Edgar Allan Poe's essay "Thomas Le Moineau (Le Moile)" (1846). Interpreting this standard nowadays is problematic, since the expected length of "one sitting" may now be briefer than it was in Poe's era. Other definitions place the maximum word count of the short story at anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000. In contemporary usage, the term short story most often refers to a work of fiction no shorter than 1,000 and no longer than 20,000 words. Stories of fewer than 1,000 words are sometimes referred to as "short short stories", or "flash fiction."
As a point of reference for the genre writer, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define short story length in the Nebula Awards for science fiction submission guidelines as having a word count of fewer than 7,500.
Longer stories that cannot be called novels are sometimes considered "novellas" or novelettes and, like short stories, may be collected into the more marketable form of "collections", often containing previously unpublished stories. Sometimes, authors who do not have the time or money to write a novella or novel decide to write short stories instead, working out a deal with a popular website or magazine to publish them for profit.
So what are my standards going to be?
- No longer than 10,000 words—and probably much shorter.
- To be written within a week.
- To be very tightly written.
- Always to have a twist.
- To be multi genre.
- To incorporate humor as much as possible.
Do I have a favorite short story? I have two.
- ROLLERBALL by William Harrison
- LEININGEN VERSUS THE ANTS by Carl Stephenson
When it comes to short story writers, I tend to think of
- SAKI (H.H. Monroe)
- SOMERSET MAUGHN
- GIOVANNINO GUARESCHI (Don Camillo)
- G.K. CHESTERTON
The photo is of Saki. The text below is from Wiki.
Hector Hugh Munro (18 December 1870 – 13 November 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, and also frequently as H. H. Munro, was a British writer whose witty, mischievous and sometimes macabre stories satirize Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story, and often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, he himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward and P. G. Wodehouse.