There is a famous short story attributed to Ernest Hemingway. It is, all totaled, six words. Here it is:
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
That’s it. The beauty of this mind and soul searching short story is the stuff of literary legend. Every writer would like to write with that kind of clarity and depth. Alas, Hemingway probably didn’t write it (or at least so says the experts–click here for more) but I like to think he did. It certainly represents his minimalist styling and why let truth get in the way of a good story.
Last week I worked on a short story which I wrote for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. The maximum length for the story was 1,500 words. That’s not many words, friends, but I wrote it for the challenge.
It has been hard to get back into the short story genre since I spent so much time on my novel in the past six months. The novel format allows for exploration, character development, side-bars, sub-plots and greater description. The short story requires laser-like focus. In that regard a short story is more like a sermon, which is why I may have been driven to short stories when I first began writing. For comparison, this particular short story I wrote would be about a 7 minute sermon.
I think it is a good story, though. I really only have one main character and his conflict is within himself, so there are no bad guys. He is contemplating suicide in my story but I had to get him to that point quickly. Then I have to introduce means quickly and the resolution has to be very brisk. Whenever I write something for publication or potential publication, I am usually working on some specific skills to improve my skill set. Here is what I was working on for this particular story:
Point of View–It is mostly an internal monologue of the main character (who is nameless).
Pacing–If one only has 1500 words to work with, then the pacing must be swift and certain. I found word choice and strong verbs to be my best ally here. Hemingway would have been proud, maybe?
Proportion–I can’t spend 500 words describing the gun or how it feels in his hand or the back story of why he has his father’s 1911 in the nightstand to begin with or why he shot it two decades ago. Instead, by keeping it tight in the narrative, hopefully the reader’s mind will create his or her own back story. The weapon is not the story, so it must be shrunk to fit, even though it might be interesting.
Humor–Writing a story about suicide is not hard. Writing a story about suicide that has humor is hard. I was very pleased when one of the beta-readers, for all of whom I am so thankful, reported back that she liked what she called “the dark comedy” feel. I knew then that I hit at least one target.
I can’t tell you much more about it, other than the name of it is The Rug and until the competition is over it belongs to Writer’s Digest. Afterward, I will likely release it for purchase or if I win (he crosses fingers) you can buy it from them. I may submit another one for the competition as I have a half-finished story about a geriatric murder. In the meantime, I am starting this week my long promised origins story for the Deep Cove Monster series. Because my publishing group wants longer entries, my main working goal for this story is to write it at 15,000 words. If I do that, then I will not need to bundle it with anything else. Once we creep up to 15 or 20,000 words it is less a short story and more of a novella. I hate novellas.
8 responses to “WORKING THE REALLY SHORT SHORT STORY”
And yet “The Old Man and the Sea”…
I thought of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde myself.
Do you mean, Pastor Greening, that you hate to work on novellas? or do you actually have a problem with the structure of the finished product?
virgil—both. a novella seems a lack of commitment on the part of the writer. go the extra mile and get at least 50-60k words in it. its short, but still a novel. but 25-30k words is just, i don’t know, wishy washy. its like a good idea you didn’t spend enough time on, or a good idea for a short story that the writer didn’t discipline himself/herself enough to whittle it down to a one sitting reading.
but this is just my opinion. i know lots of people love novellas. i’m just not one of them. i don’t like asparagus either.
During one of his “Lake Wobegon” episodes, Garrison Keillor told the ideal story in 12 words. It was epic. Not sure if I can post it here, but let’s just say THAT guy is an epic story-teller.
As for you, Greenbean, I’m a big fan of your stuff as well! Keep on writing. Mighty proud of you.
thanks david, and yes, you can publish that here as a comment or, better yet, i invite you to work it up as a guest post–and we’ll post it that way.
[…] was immediately hooked. I like a writing challenge. I have written before on this blog about the greatest and shortest story ever written, and have always been intrigued by brevity. My feeling is that most […]
[…] the first release, I grant that. This demonstrates Tolkien’s perfectionist tendencies. Shorter is better because it skips all that blasted elfin poetry. Second, its more playful. The Hobbit is really […]
[…] Hemingway didn’t really write this book as one sits down to write it. This guy named Phillips sifted […]