Writing short stories is a great way to hone your writing skills, especially if you are finding your way as a writer of longer-form fiction. As writer and blogger Katherine Crowley says, ‘when you write a short story, you go through the entire process of storytelling in a short time, from the inception to the editing – which is a great way to figure out your personal writing process.’
A few months ago I wrote a short story about a murder in Brisbane in the 1940s. It was loosely based on a real life event, but I fictionalised it, adding new characters and inventing a different scenario. By the time I’d finished, I was quite pleased with what I’d achieved and felt like it was a decent short story.
I submitted it to a few short story competitions, not really expecting to get anywhere, but naturally still hoping I might get longlisted for one of them. I was rejected by all of the competitions.
Fair enough, competition is pretty stiff. There are so many talented writers that trying to get your story to stand out can be quite challenging. But I wanted my story to stand out. And it wasn’t.
So I thought, instead of giving up (neverrrr!!!) or writing another, different short story (legitimate option) I would try and work out what it was about this particular short story that wasn’t inspiring the judges and try to improve it.
I enrolled in Short Story Essentials, a new course run by the Australian Writers’ Centre to learn more about how to structure a short story and what works and what doesn’t. The course was really helpful in showing me where I was on the right track and where I could consider making changes.
I’d already sought feedback on the story from a few beta readers, but either they were all too nice to tell me what wasn’t working, or they liked it enough but something just wasn’t grabbing them.
So based on what I learned in the short story course combined with my gut instinct, here are a few things I decided weren’t working in the story and how I changed them.
- Too many different point-of-view characters. I had four. In a short story where you only have a limited amount of words, it’s confusing to be inside the heads of so many different characters. Now I have two point of view characters with one scene from the point of view of a detective.
- Humdrum title. The first version was called A String of Pearls. Sounds a bit romantic for a murder mystery/thriller. New title – The Pearl Choker. Bam! That’s way better. Someone is obviously going to be murdered in a story called The Pearl Choker.
- Predictable ending. It’s not essential for a short story to have a twist at the end but as I was writing a murder mystery/thriller, I wanted it to have a twist at the end. The reveal at the end of A String of Pearls was predictable. So I changed the killer. My beta readers have said they were surprised at the new ending. Yay! Success.
- Trying to be too clever. In A String of Pearls, all of the scenes were out of order, marked with dates and times. This was because I wanted to start with a hook – the murder – which actually happens in the climax of the story (when told chronologically). This made things too complicated for the reader because they were flipping back and forth, trying to work out the actual order of events. The Pearl Choker is in chronological order and flows much better.
The amount of times I’ve rewritten the story is – a lot of times. I’ve lost count of all the different versions. But you know what? The rewriting has paid off because the story is better! And the beta readers who’ve read both versions agree.
So what now? I’ve submitted The Pearl Choker for feedback as part of the short story course. A professional editor will read it and offer more suggestions how it can be improved, which will be a great learning opportunity. After that, I might submit it to more short story competitions. I know there’s every chance it’ll be rejected by all of them, all over again. But rejection is part of being a writer.
Polishing my short story has shown me how much work is involved in rewriting and editing until a story is the best story it can be. I’m now daunted by the prospect of facing the same process with the first draft of my 95,000 word novel. Based on how long it took me to refine my 2,500 word short story, a rough calculation indicates that I’ll be working on my novel for the next 100 years. Or thereabouts. Phew! Maybe I should write another short story first …
Enrol in Short Story Essentials with the Australian Writers’ Centre here.