Little Stories — Big Challenges

Vicki Doudera here. I’ve been thinking lots about short stories lately: what makes me want to read them, how they can satisfy us, and how they work in general. Most likely this is because I really enjoyed writing one over the winter, and spent some of those cold nights reading a collection of Andre Dubus’ that I found in a used bookstore in Boston, but also because right now I’m serving as a judge for a short story competition. When my work with the contest is through — in a week or so — I will have read and critiqued close to fifty short stories. So, needless to say, this form of fiction is top of mind.

A few years ago I took my first stab since college at writing one. Truthfully, I found it hard to begin. At that point in my writing life at least two Darby Farr Mysteries had been published, I’d penned three non-fiction books and countless magazine articles, and yet this form of writing eluded me. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around just how to do it. At a Sisters in Crime event that I helped put together in Portland, I peppered some of the writers there with questions. I recall Leslie Wheeler, author of the Miranda Lewis “living history” mysteries, explaining that the world of a short story needs to be very small. Only a few characters, she said, one or two settings, and limited points of view.

I started to think in that vein and one day a tiny experience I had with a mean real estate client prompted me to pick up my pen. “A Neighbor’s Story,” the tale of an elderly woman with a chilling past, was the resulting story. I was absolutely thrilled when it was chosen for inclusion in Mystery Writers of America’s anthology, ICE COLD, and more determined than ever to continue my struggle with short fiction.

V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” I like that explanation, because it implies noticing something very telling, just barely, and then exploring it. An interesting nugget is certainly a great start to fiction — long or short — but it can work especially well when crafting a tale that will be brief.

What are some of the challenges presented by short fiction? Outside of the usual — injecting enough tension to keep the reader guessing, keeping the point of view consistent, and crafting compelling, believable characters, the use of clear and specific language is probably the most important point. Without precise words, the details won’t come to life on the page. There simply isn’t enough time in a short story for vagueness, a truism I encountered while reading some of the contest entries. Brevity means each word has to count — something a poet knows all too well.

We all write for different reasons. Some of us are paying bills with our work; some of us are looking to make a name for ourselves. When the idea for a short story takes hold of me, I’m doing it for the pure love of the challenge. Like putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, the joy’s in the process of getting all the details right so that the result will be a finished whole. Unlike a puzzle, the final story will be my unique way of looking at the world — in 5000 words or less.

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3 Responses to Little Stories — Big Challenges

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Great post, Vicki. Makes me want to go and write a short story. Although I have found that if I took as long to write each 5000 words in my novels as I do to write a 5000 word short story, I’d still be on my first book. It’s the challenge of making each word count. I love the image of writing about something glimpsed from the corner of the eye.


    • karla says:

      Yes, Vicki, Good take on comparisons of how and why of short stories. And it is so true (what Kate points out here) – 5000 (ish) words takes longer to write in a short story than novel.

  2. Best of luck with your short story writing,Vicki. One thing I’ll add for all those trying this form, in addition to the advice given in our Agatha short story finalists’ blog tour (see Archives for April), is that although the 5000 word maximum seems to be the standard for contests and anthologies, the two premier mystery short story periodicals, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, do not have that limit. I’ve sold short stories to AHMM that were well over 7000 words.


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