On Writing a Short Story

AlphaSmart Neo (by StarbuckGuy)

I wrote my first short story last week, and I’ll never be the same again.

For instance, I can no longer say “I don’t write fiction,” as I have for decades. I can no longer read fiction and wonder, “how do they do that?” I can no longer wonder why my right brain doesn’t seem to work. It evidently does.

This is terrible. I can no longer hide behind my mantra: “I’m not a storyteller.” That gave me permission to avoid fiction writing altogether. “What? Me write a story? Don’t be silly.”

I also had the romantic notion that I could ever write a piece of fiction, from that point on, there’d be a new, creative me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Although I knew it in the abstract, I now have a working insight into how difficult fiction is to write. Harder than anything I’ve ever written.

Forget the chapter I wrote for a SAMS book on recovering a failed Linux system. That was a piece of cake compared to looking at a blank page and attempting to coax out a story with a character who’s interesting, conflicted, and flawed, but maybe likeable.

Some part of me told me to at least try. Timid, I started by listening to podcasts of writers talking about their stories. I bought the odd book on fiction writing. I studied episodes of Joss Whedon shows to get a sense of how he and his writers created such zingy plots and dialog.

Then she came to me. A character. One I wanted to write about. The more I thought about her, the more I realized where the setting of the story should be. I thought of a plot that might be interesting. And over the course of a couple of weeks, I finished it.

How’d it turn out? In truth, it sucked less than I thought it would. Although it contained awkward spots and lots of beginner’s mistakes that need fixing, there were some genuinely positive and encouraging comments as well, from my critique group.

And now I’m terrified. What if I can’t learn the craft? Maybe I’m too old for this. Will I ever be able to write another story? Novel? Are you nuts?!

Sadly, I’m hooked. I now know, absolutely, how stories get written. One word at a time. Two words deleted for every three written. Hard work. Bum in chair work. Existential: no excuses.

But you know what? It’s also fun. Hard work, but fun.

9 thoughts on “On Writing a Short Story

  1. As my dad liked to say: he’d stare at the blank page in his typewriter until he sweated drops of blood on to the typewriter keys. And that was non-fiction!

  2. Mostly articles and non-fiction (a couple of pieces for Reader’s Digest, some work for Macleans back before it was a newsmagazine, loads of one-off pieces for numerous other first- and second-tier magazines), had a career in the news industry (Port Arthur News Chronicle, G&M, Toronto Telegram), had (at different times) daily and weekly columns, had a career in public relations and had a career as a speechwriter. He even wrote a book after WWII (never published) about the war from a fictional point of view describing incidents at one-remove. I remember reading a chapter of it when I stumbled across it one day and promised to set aside some time later on to read the full piece. Years (and following several of his down-sizing moves) later I made an attempt to find it again. Too late.

  3. John, that’s quite a writing career! Did he ever make the transition to a computer, or was the typewriter his thing? Pierre Burton never switched from a typewriter. He’d worked that way so many years he didn’t want to interrupt his flow by learning tech stuff.

  4. He didn’t just make the transition … he was in the vanguard. Shortly after he retired at 65 (in 1976) the first thing he did was buy a Micom word processor — this was at a time when they were $10,000 > $15,000 and were hard-wired as a word processor. He took a week-long course when he purchased it and then promptly started earning money with it. One selling point was that, because each story/speech was stored on a floppy (might have been a cassette but I’m pretty sure it was a floppy), any edits or changes could be turned around in a few hours.

  5. That’s impressive! Lord, it’s been many years since I heard the name Micom. It used to compete heads on with WangWriter and the IBM DisplayWriter, all of which were in that same price ballpark. They all used 8″ floppy disks.

    I supported IBM Displaywriters for a few years and have to admit they had terrific monitors and keyboards. They were expensive, mean writing machines.

  6. The guy who started Micom had previously started AES. It was basically (iirc) incapable of updates (everything was hardwired). The Micom could be updated (but I don’t know how or if my dad ever did that).

    In my earlier message, I mentioned “selling point”. It’s somewhat ambiguous above so I’ll clarify (in case anyone needs it). My father used the fact that he could respond to updates and deliver clean, re-typed copy as a way of getting Ministerial speeches. But it was more icing-on-the-cake. He seemed to have a very good appreciation of other peoples’ cadences and phrasing so when he wrote the speech, he was able to make it seem that the speech was written by the Minister (who was delivering it) and not just by someone who had been given the ideas, the topics to be mentioned and the duration of the speech. Ministers (being Ministers) often requested last minute changes but wanted a clean copy to read from.

    Incidentally, he was a four-fingered typist: two fingers on each hand (plus the thumb for the space bar) and he could always type faster than I could and with near-perfect accuracy. It was very frustrating to see his fingers flying unerringly over the keyboard as I used a pen and White-Out to fix up an assignment that I was going to hand in.

    Finally … Google “White-Out inventor” (you must omit the quotes) and see who the inventor’s son is.

  7. A very warm and happy birthday to you Gene! I am writing a fiction novel right now, have been writing for many years, and smiled deep in that quiet space inside, when I read your article above on having written your first “short”. I have a masters and most of a second masters, yet I don’t consider myself a hard academic by any stretch of the imagination. My admiration runs towards you clear-headed sensible left-brain types. I’ve read some of your stuff, lived in Toronto for years, and so when I came across your name, in some writing venue, it was familiar to me, and I knew that I already had a great respect for your crisp clear thinking. I read the notes from “John” up above. I DO hope that he finds his father’s post-WWII book, mentioned above someday. That generation were GIANTS. My father served for 3 years with the air force “over there” during WWII, and when he died 1.5 years ago, the daily journal book he kept for three years came into my possession. I am completing a fiction novel right now…200 pages in, but when I am done with it, I will be returning to an earlier fiction, that I shelved a few years ago, that travels through some of WWII with a couple of its main characters. I hope to use some of my father’s actual entries, in that book. Also my parents wrote daily love letters for 3 years, while they were newlyweds, and dad was sent over 6 months after they married. These are of course with my mother, they were married 67 years, after dating 3. I hope that one day, that she may share “some” of them with me; of course, I understand and respect that they are very private and belong to just the two of them…but if there are any she feels she can share….I may ask to work some of them into the book also. My father’s life was epic, and I hope to work a character based largely on his spectacular life. There seems to be something of his generations’ brand of solidity and clarity, in your thinking. A tip of the nib, sir. May your birthday bring somehow, a renewed sense of wonder, this very day. M. A. Pigeon (Mo)

  8. @M.A.

    I hold out only the slenderest of hopes that my sister or my brother has it squirreled away in a box of treasures — but, though slender and gossamer, there is still hope.

    I, too, came across a trove of letters from my father to my mother during the war. I know they were destroyed (probably in 1960 or 61) so that link to my past — their long-ago present — is gone.

    The Globe and Mail ran a series last year where they printed letters from a Canadian soldier at the front during WWI. If there was a gap of several days in correspondence, then there was a gap in the series. The series included additional snippets describing the times and lives during those times and concluded with a notice that he had been killed in action.

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