When I was younger, short stories were beyond me. Every idea I had was for an epic adventure, spanning hundreds of pages if not several books. Few of those were ever completed, however, and most of them never even outlined. Why? Because I had difficulty writing such a long project when I hadn’t yet mastered the smaller section.
Whether it’s a short story or a chapter, a writer needs to be able to break down his ideas into simple chunks that have internal cohesion and completeness. I often gripe about the first chapter or even the first paragraph of a story containing so many Capitalized Nouns that there’s no way I’m going to be able to put anything in context without having read the author’s previous work. Chapters – and short stories – shouldn’t be like that. They should be relatively complete, introducing new elements one at a time, not in a pseudo-expository infodump. It’s ok if you mention one or two things which won’t be explained until later, but don’t do it all at once, all right?
On to the point then; there’s an excellent tool out there to help you master the art of the short story. It’s called Practice. The almighty Practice has the power, if you serve it well, to grant you that elusive writer’s perfection that we all seek.
So how do you practice? The best way for me is to participate in one of the many short fiction contests being run all over the web. Many of them are short; entries can be written in an hour and revised in ten minutes. Some are longer, requiring a month or so of preparation, writing and revision.
Edit: There used to be links here, and all of them seem to be broken now. Sorry; you’ll have to run your own searches.
Participating in contests and flash fiction exercises is a good way to get a benchmark of where your writing stands. Writing to a prompt is good for discipline, helping you to teach yourself to focus on the details which are important to your continuity. They can also help you take that much-needed break from slaving away on your manuscript; I like to have at least two main writing projects to work on at a time, as well as several goals to accomplish around the house, for when you just need to get up and stretch your legs.
Getting your work out there by participating in contests can do a lot of things which writing in your notebook can’t. It can help you bring traffic back to your blog, where readers who liked your entry can find more. It can also increase your network of friends and potential alpha readers for your larger projects. And finally, it can help you prepare and polish sections of your actual manuscript, such as this little excerpt below, which is my entry for Becca J. Campbell’s Flash Fiction Contest & Giveaway, as well as being a character snapshot for somewhere in book two of The Pegasus Wars. (Though not a perspective we’ll see in the novel.) Enjoy.
He awoke to searing agony.
It was dark, and he couldn’t immediately determine where he was. He reached down toward his leg, where the pain was coming from, to find that a large shard of metal had embedded itself there. Had it hit a vein? Panicked, he tried to find something, anything on his console that would light up, let him see how bad the damage was. Moving made the shard twist painfully in his leg, but he managed to ignore it somehow.
None of the master controls worked. Had he lost reserve power too? No; he was cold, but not the cold of space. His oxygen pump must have been working as well, or he would never have regained consciousness.
He had been certain that the last shot fired at him was going to burn him to a cinder. His commander had ordered him to flank the enemy, and he had rushed to obey, darting recklessly across their line of fire. Then he had seen the other man pass him, abandoning him to the mercy of a dozen Tesaad fighters. Had he made a mistake? Angered the man in some way?
It didn’t matter. He felt lightheaded, and he could taste blood in his mouth. Reaching below, he felt his seat, sticky and wet. His heart pounded in his ears, frenetic, then slowing, and he felt his consciousness begin to crumble. He had been sold out. And now he would never know why. A rasping, frantic laugh was the last sound that ever crossed his lips.