Here’s The Story By Mary Dutta

Sometimes people tell me they could never do what I do. It’s not that I possess remarkable athletic or musical talent. And I’m not magical or a superhero. I write short stories.

The fellow writers who tell me they can’t write short crime fiction all have plenty of creative ideas, clever plots, and complex characters. They just can’t imagine putting all those things into only 2,000-5,000 words.

Here’s what I tell them: short story writing is a matter of attitude as much as length. Think of the word count as something that frees rather than limits you.

Freed of the need to keep track of and weave together the multiple components of a longer work, you can concentrate on polishing a short story like a gem. You can start long and cut away all the extraneous details until only the perfectly shaped story remains. Or, to continue the jewelry analogy, you can start with the central conflict and carefully choose only the most fitting elements to complement it and complete the design.

Writers always have more to say. But letting go of side characters and omitting backstory demands a laser focus that can yield marvelous clarity. Everything in a short story–every plot point, every word choice, every detail–has to earn its place because there simply isn’t any room for extraneous material. Think of that clarity and focus as a valuable exercise transferable to longer works. Turning that level of scrutiny on every scene or chapter as you write your novel can lead to less revision down the road.

Short story writing can also free an author for experimentation. If you write cozy, try a noir. If you write police procedurals, try a locked room mystery. Try your hand at a heist, a historical setting, or some supernatural elements. Play with an unlikable character or blur the lines between horror and mystery. Experimenting with genre or voice for 3,500 words is far less daunting and far more achievable than committing to an entire novel outside your comfort zone, and may just expand your notions of what it is you write.

Short fiction can free characters as well as authors. A short story can give a novel series’ protagonist something new to do, a new place to explore, or a chance to expose a side of their themselves that doesn’t get to shine in their main storyline.  A short story can also give a writer the chance to try out a new protagonist. If readers love them, you’ve already started building an audience for a novel with that character in the starring role.

As a bonus, you’re free to use your short stories as a marketing opportunity. A story can be a website giveaway or a perk for signing up for a newsletter. Inclusion in an anthology can reach new readers who are unfamiliar with your other works. If a story grabs the reader, they’ll go looking for more of your writing.

Multi-award-winning short story writer Barb Goffman says short stories should be about one thing, which is excellent advice for plotting a story. But beyond the plot, stories can be about many other things: craft, experimentation, marketing. So embrace the freedom of the short story form, and soon you’ll be doing exactly what I do.

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