Tips for Writing Very Short Fiction
As you are aware, dear readers, we have a contest going on, in which you have been invited to submit a story, sharp and short, of 500 words or less. Since we want all of you to win the prize, of which there are only three, as well as the top honor, of which there is only one, we revisited some of our past guests, smart and generous, and asked them for tips on how you might write a story that will win you this damn contest.
Tim Horvath, Michael Jeffrey Lee, Clare Wigfall, Manjushree Thapa, Rebecca Makkai
Jeffrey Rotter, Alan Heathcock, David Peak, Shane Jones
‘Quail Haven, 1989’ by Andrew Malan Milward
- Don't be afraid of form. Try the thing that you'd be scared to do in a longer story (the second person, the first person plural, the single sentence paragraph, the single sentence story).
- Like a crossword puzzle, make sure your story has a vertical and horizontal dimension, and that there are blanks in there too.
- Connect the disparate. Vast and microscopic, ambiguous and excessively specific, funny and tragic, passionate and indifferent; as much as contradictions can propel a longer story, we can really feel them magnified in a short short story. The tug, the tension of poles.
- Have at least one thing in there which is chosen almost solely for sound.
Author of Understories, and winner of Raymond Carver Short Story Award for “The Understory.”
Reach for the scars, my child, but try to keep it neat.
Author of Something in My Eye: Stories, winner of Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction
I came across a quote once from the Irish short story writer Mary Lavin who said, ‘I don’t think I would ever want to be a writer of detective stories - but I would like to be a detective and there is a large deal of detection in the short story...’ This is worth bearing in mind when you approach writing a very, very short story. Evidently you won’t have the space for explanation or elaboration, so think instead about dropping in clues for the reader, hints to a greater world and story lying beyond the words on the page, then allow the reader to do the detective work. They’ll thank you for it, too; people want to be engaged when they read, plus it feels good to know a writer has respect for your intelligence.
Author of story collection, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and winner of BBC National Short Story Award for “The Numbers”
Compress. Make each word essential. But don't be afraid to expand to accommodate detail, texture and movement, and even a flourish or two. Have fun!
Author of Tilled Earth: Stories, Forget Kathmandu, and several others.
Most stories we tell in real life are under 500 words. You're at a party, everyone has a glass of wine, and suddenly you have the floor. You throw out your little story like a grenade. “Once I knew a guy who...” And if you have any social graces at all, you probably keep it under 500. So my advice would be this: Don't get all up in your head thinking short-short stories have to be poetry without the line breaks. Don't put on your beret. Just tell a story, an actual story. Quick, while they're still listening.
Author of novel The Borrower and several short stories, four of which have been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories series.
Don’t fear the oblique reference. A narrator’s world, if it is to be convincing, must contain more than you can imagine. It should be as immersive and impossible to know as water; out of the water bits of obscure knowledge will precipitate onto the page. The name of a nail-care specialist, the habits of a television donkey, a ship fire infamous only in the narrator’s world: let them in and don’t bother to explain them. Because while trivia implies an entire world, labored explanations suggest only the limits of an author’s imagination.
Author of The Unknown Knowns.
When I started out as a student of writing, I just thought it was neat to make up stories. I tried to copy my favorite authors. I thought about sentences and plot points and story structures. I worried about point of view and psychic distance and verisimilitude. It was a hobby, all classroom and craft.
Now I know that being a writer is more than a craft, or even a job, but is a lifestyle, and one that allows me to indulge any and all of my curiosities. Every day I sit down and think, “What fascinates me today?” Isn’t that the way we all should start our days?
My advice is to always come at writing from a place of passion. I’m constantly examining what makes me angry, what makes me scared, and sad, what makes me swoon, what fills me with love and hope and dreams. What do you find interesting? What makes you yearn? When you’re in bed at night and can’t sleep, what comes to visit you: the ghouls of doubt and shame and fear, or the promises of a joyful tomorrow? This is your core, the most powerful content of the human experience, and thereby the most powerful core of art. Embrace the answers to these questions as the core of your writing.
Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to look fearlessly inward, to take yourself seriously, you will stop imitating others and will become original.
Author of short story collection, Volt, and 2012 Whiting winner in Fiction.
Worry about whether or not your writing is original. Has your story been told before? Have you read sentences like yours before? Odds are that yeah, it has been told before, your sentences echo those of another writer. Once you're able to recognize this, you can start working toward making your writing uniquely your own.
Author of the short story collection, Glowing in the Dark, and the novel, Surface Tension.
A piece of writing advice I've received that I genuinely like is: “write the stories you want to read.” It's easy to say writing advice is bullshit (which can be true, okay), or to just write everyday, or to “write what you know” or “get black on white.” All of those, and others, I've remembered. But “write the stories you want to read” means being connected to your influences, letting your personality dictate style, and having fun in creating stories you love.
Author of Daniel Fights a Hurricane, Light Boxes, I Will Unfold You with My Hairy Hands, and others.
Our father comes home from work, grumbling and flatulent. He steps out of the old Ford and into the house and grunts, brushing past my brother and me as we try to grab hold of his belt loops and pull at the cuffs of his trousers. We follow him around, picking up his tie, abruptly loosed at five o’clock, and gently we lay it at the foot of the bed. And then our mother appears, smoothing the lines of her apron, unaware of that spot of flour that has collected on her cheek, spat from a thunderous rolling pin. She follows a step and half behind him, asking questions, as he paces around the room. Our father pushes her out of the way and sits on the corner of the bed, slouch-backed, because he’s been “answering questions all day and needs to fucking decompress.” He takes off his black nylon socks, balls them up, and throws one at us—“Here, catch, you little monsters”—while the other hits the rim of the hamper and falls to floor, swallowed up by some dark corner of the bedroom. When no one’s looking we can’t help but raise the damp sock to our noses and inhale.
At dinner he jabs at the food on his plate and then stands, grabs a dripping Miller from the fridge, and moves to the window. He looks out at the sky that illuminates the land, his land, all these acres that had been his father’s and grandfather’s before him. “Going out to the barn,” he might say, though sometimes he just breaks wind and leaves. Our mother’s mouth opens, as though she might rejoinder, and then she looks to us, hoping for answers. “Why do you never speak?” My brother looks at me, then we at her, silent. We tine through our food while in our minds we follow our stumbling father out to the barn, and in doing so we begin to understand him.
The barn is where he keeps his secrets, the echoes of long ago that toll endlessly still, the unspeakable and sad: the greening class ring and broken-armed trophies; the lacy underwear of girlfriends gone by that on occasion, when the loneliness is overwhelming, he wraps around his index finger and brushes against his cheek, remembering; the letters his buddies gave him during the war to give to their families just in case—those epistles he could never bring himself to deliver when he returned home from that other world, still reading over his friends’ words, so familiar now, mouthing along. Our father is a stark mosaic of his past: his maimed seven-year-old feet, dappled by a friend’s errant buckshot; the 8-to-5 creases framing his adulterous eyes; the broken-down All-State throwing arm, forever aching; his red, swollen knuckles and Vietnam brain.
We watch the lights of Quail Haven (or others of the like—there are hundreds of them across the Kansas plains falling apart or being torn down, disappearing) turn on from the window above the sink. Our mother scrapes plates and then goes to stand before the washer and dryer, mesmerized by the synergistic pulse. She silently curses the day the state decided not to build a highway through this stretch of land. She holds out a dim hope, like a smoldering ember, that someday she will be allowed to sell this place and move to Kansas City like so many old friends, because “Who the hell lives in the country anymore?”
Of course, we’re not totally imagining him, our father. We know a little. There was that night when, after a small promotion at the office and several slugs of bourbon, he brought us out there with him. And as we reached the entrance of the barn he stopped and held us up to pull the lever that would give us light to see in the dark. Against his chest we could smell the heat on his breath, causing our eyes to water, and then the lights turned on one by one, illuminating a single section of Quail Haven at a time. And at this threshold, our father was unable to say anything—no stories about how our great-granddad built Quail Haven all those years ago, or how he lost his virginity right over there in the hardwood loft, or the boxing matches he used to have here with his brother (the one who died in the war, whom we know only through a single picture, warped as parchment) while their father looked on, grinning, leaning against the splintery siding, thumbs snaked through denim belt loops.
This is where our mother will find him a decade later, on the cusp of the millennium, hanging from a cross beam, slowly turning in the still air, and feel the immense burden fly from her shoulders. But that night, the night he brought us out there with him, was different. When the last light came on inside Quail Haven, the vast silence of it all shot fear through my brother and me, like the time we entered an empty church before our first funeral, causing us to grip him harder, tighter. We stood there, the three of us, unmoving. And that silence seemed to offer two possibilities: one that would finally let us speak, and the other, like a gaping mouth, that would swallow us whole.
We read it in The Agriculture Hall of Fame.
Word Count: 894