Short stories – is there a winning formula?

In the world of publishing, there’s not much demand for short stories. Why? Because short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. Yet certain countries – including Ireland, America and Canada – have short stories in their blood, their cultural identity and still have a healthy attitude towards the art form.

Mary Costello's excellent collectionIn recent years, there have been incredible collections from writers such as Mary Costello, Kevin Barry, Deborah Willis, Alexander McCleod and David Constantine (a limited list but just a sample). There are some excellent short story competitions out there, like the Bridport Prize, Fish Prize, Francis MacManus and Seán Ó Faoláin to name but a few. Then there’s the excellent Cork International Short Story Festival, where the genre is celebrated.

It’s great to know that the short story is not a dying breed, but how do you go about writing a damn good short story?

Personally, I struggle with short stories. I find them at once infuriating, enticing, frustrating – in other words, they’re challenging. But what writer doesn’t like a challenge?

Recently, I was shortlisted for a noteworthy competition in Ireland and this meant I got to hear my story read out on radio by an actor. Of course, I was excited by the result, but I didn’t realise what an impact the overall experience would have.

Hearing the recording provided me with distance from my story so I could listen to it with fresh ears, rather than as something I’d written. I could also hear how someone else might read/approach/interpret it through the intonation in the actor’s voice. I always read my own writing out loud to spot errors and weak sentences, but it was completely different listening to a stranger read your words.

Most importantly, the overall experience also did something else: it made me raise the bar. I realised (without reluctance) that the next few entries I’d prepared for submission weren’t up to scratch. They needed time to mature. They still do.

This is a steep learning curve in the early stages of writing. I’ve come across many enthusiastic new writers complaining about the ever-decreasing ‘competition fund’ and lack of results. They worry that their work isn’t being read/understood/given enough of a chance. When in fact, the work probably just isn’t ready yet.

I’m not belittling their concerns or their work; indeed, I was one of those people a few years back. But something changed. It’s called writing maturity.

After several rejections, a smattering of near misses and a growing pile of longlists and shortlists (but never a win), you find your impatience simmers down, your arrogance bows its head and you start to focus on what really matters. Quality not quantity.

You worry less about the amount and frequency of competitions you enter and concentrate instead on getting it right. After a while, you realise that submitting one, really really good story in a year and having it recognised by the judges is far better than bashing out ten mediocre attempts that wouldn’t make it past the preliminary stages.

You may have a beautiful worded story but is it gripping enough? The opening might be a corker, but does the end deliver? Is the piece wordy just for the sake of it? Or does your favourite character (because it’s secretly revenge against that irritating neighbour/aunty/teacher that told you you’d never write) let the narrative down?

Writing, like anything else, needs time to develop, mature and improve. And this will never stop. You can always learn something new, try a different style, be more focused or more productive. But as your writing career develops, you begin to see your way more clearly. You can eke out troublesome characters, plot blips and unconvincing dialogue. Even if you can’t manhandle the meddlesome toads into something worthy, then you can at least spot them in time (before you send your work for submission and increase the risk of hitting the rejection pile).

So is there a winning formula for writing the perfect short story? I don’t think so. You just need to read lots of excellent examples and let them teach you. Then you have to write the very best short story that you can.Then try and write it better again.

And if it isn’t the very best it can be in time for the competition/submission deadline you had your eye on, impatience won’t get you anywhere. There’s always another year or another competition around the corner.


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