I’ve never been able to write short stories. No doubt part of the problem is that I don’t often read short stories. With a few notable exceptions (Saki, Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link), I don’t particularly like short stories. I’m generally of the opinion that if something is worth telling, it’s worth settling down, getting comfy and spending a good few hours with.
But people are forever telling aspiring writers they should enter competitions – and most writing competitions are for short stories. So occasionally I find myself knuckling down and giving it a try. Most of the time what I end up producing is a story fragment: the beginning of what obviously ought to be a much longer work, or a snapshot of a moment, that er doesn’t actually tell a story at all.
Back in January I learnt of a zombie short story competition being run by SFX magazine, to be judged by Zom-B and Cirque du Freak author, Darren Shan. The criteria were that it had to feature a santa outfit and christmas lights, and be no more than 1500 words.
1500 words! That’s nothing. What on earth can you say that’s worth saying in 1500 words??
Nevertheless I determined to try. One night, instead of sleeping, I had an idea for the story, and I crept out of bed in the small hours to jot down some notes. I expected that, as is often the way with insomnia inspired notes, they would turn out to be nonsensical gibberings. But in the morning the notes still seemed to show promise, and I set about writing the story.
I finished the draft that afternoon, and set it aside to mature. The next problem I have with short story competitions is that my writing process moves at a glacial pace. Those who have been waiting 2+ years for Kikimora to be released know this to be true.
I generally rewrite every scene several times before I’m done, and I don’t trust anything I’ve written to be any good until it has sat untouched for a good few months and I can come back and read it with fresh eyes.
Obviously you do not get that luxury when entering a competition. I began my story, The Big Guy, just a week before the closing date. The next day I decided it was utter nonsense, and I had better write something else.
I came up with a completely different idea, a more conventional survivors-of-the-zombie-apocalypse scenario – though still, I hoped, with some entertaining quirks to the trope.
I wrote a couple of opening scenes I was pleased with (I’m particularly proud of the scene where the hungover protagonist has to fight her zombie co-workers in the toilets (after passing out during the office christmas party), with only a bottle of bleach and bog brush as weapons) – and then I ran out of word count. I pared down those two opening scenes until nothing I liked remained, wrote in the next couple of scenes, again ran out of word count.
I stripped it back still further, I reached an end point, of sorts. I read it back. It was useless. The set up had promise, but a 1500 word short story was not the platform for this particular story. It read like the opening of a TV series, a British Walking Dead with added goofiness and ill-advised drunken sex.
I still wasn’t sure about The Big Guy (I’d only had chance to rewrite it three times). Was the tone right? Was it too silly? Too depressing? An awkward mixture of both those things? I very much suspected it was.
But on the plus side it was the first short story I’ve ever written which had a beginning, middle and end; that told an actual story, and did it all in less than 1500 words. That in itself seemed an achievement. And so I submitted it.
Almost two months later the editor of SFX emailed to say I’d won the competition, that Darren Shan and the other judges loved The Big Guy. To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement.
I went back to reread my story, and of course wanted to take a red pen to it. How did I let that line stay in it? What’s with that woeful description? Was I drunk when I wrote it? But apparently it was good enough. And perhaps the lesson to be learnt here (as well as to keep on trying) is that structure might be more important than fine prose? Get the shape of the story right (and I do feel confident that The Big Guy’s story structure is sound and solid), and the fine detail of precisely which words you use – although clearly still important – might not be quite as vital as the story itself (readers of Dan Brown surely realised this a long time ago. I am late to the party).
So will I give up my many months gestation on new writing? Allow it to pass the gate rough and ready? Not a chance. What I will do though is try to concentrate more on the shape, the load-bearing pillars of my stories. I’m pretty sure that will stand me in good stead.
You can read my winning entry in this month’s SFX (out today allegedly, though not yet in my local Tescos). Pics to follow!
A huge thanks to the SFX team and to Darren Shan for providing me with a much needed boost when I needed it most. Cheers guys.