Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Short End Part I

My wonderful blogging pal, PJ, left me a comment yesterday about the basics of writing short stories. First of all, thank you PJ for the great idea! I could use as many of those as possible. (hint hint, wink wink) Seriously, this sentence is for all of my cool kids-ask away, suggest, argue-if you must-I love the ideas for future posts. And who better to ask than a room full of cool kids?!

I'm going to do this in a series of two or three posts. I'd like to make sure you really have a feel for the short end of writing. Each day of this "Short End Series" (like my nifty title?) will also include a writing prompt. Feel free to disregard it, or use it as a jump start for your creative writing exercise.

If you tell me you've never written a short story, I will call you a liar. Everyone has written a short story of some sort. Your resume is a short and sparse story of your working life. Remember those dreadful essays we had to write in high school and/or college? Even if it was factual-it was an exercise in writing short.

The easiest place to start with short stories is memory. We all tell people about events in our lives. Story time around the dinner table still lives today. We call it quality time, family time, girls night out...etc.. I think you catch my drift. When we call our girlfriend for our weekly long distance chat, we don't tell them our entire lives. We pull out singular events. This is what we do when writing a short story. We aren't writing the whole novel-we're writing a singular event of the novel.

Today's challenge is to write a short story about an event in your life. I'm going to leave you mine as an example. It is absolutely autobiographical...and written when I was fourteen. I wrote it for my dad.

I burst through the door and welcomed the cool air of our tiny apartment. Summer was lurking around the corner and in Texas the heat had already spiked. I hated this miserable place. 

My mom poked her head out of her sewing room. "Hey, Kristi. Where is the jacket that goes to this skirt?" She held up the pink skirt I had worn to my aunt's wedding last year. 

"I think it's in my winter clothes bin; should I get it? Is something wrong?" As soon as the words were out of my mouth, my dad walked in. 
He was wearing a suit and tie, which struck me as odd because American Airlines tariff agents didn't have to wear a tie or a jacket. As is his usual custom, he grabbed something off his desk and exited the room without a word.

"I thought Dad had to work tonight. Why is he home?" 
"He has plans for the two of you. Go find your jacket." My mom smiled and I noticed a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
"What is going on? Shouldn't I be doing my chores?"
"Kristi Faith! Just listen to me and get your jacket!"

I bumped into my dad in the hallway. "Sorry, Dad. Are you okay?"
He grinned from ear to ear; something I didn't see often. "Sure I'm okay. We gotta hurry so we don't miss our flight."
I could barely contain myself. "Flight? Where?"
"First class to New Orleans. You've been doing a good job of juggling your electives and grades. And I know you need a break from that fat broad down the street." He winked. He was referring to Stephanie, my so-called best friend that stabbed me in the back and now had the whole apartment complex against me.

I squealed, but managed to keep myself from throwing my arms around his neck. Instead, I ran to my room to find the pink jacket; my ticket to a first class airplane ride. 

When we got to the airport, I noticed my dad's stride slowed to match my own short, clumsy feet. He stopped at the gift shop and bought himself a good thriller. He said we'd share. Then he told me to find something. I chose a big book of word puzzles. I knew he'd be more impressed with an intellectual choice.

On the plane, Dad let me sip his scotch and water. It tasted horrible, like bad cough syrup. He told me that was a good sign and we both laughed for a long time. When we landed, some old friends that we hadn't seen in years, Glen and Sandy picked us up and took us to their house. 

We sat up playing cards and laughing at the colorful stories Glen and Sandy told. They were incredible people and absolutely hilarious! I laughed until my sides ached, my facial muscles stuck and tears ran down my cheeks.
It was about two in the morning when Dad patted me on the leg. "Time to get some sleep, kiddo."
I nodded and stood to go to bed.
"Now, girl, you betta give yore ahntie shuugas night-night," Sandy exclaimed in her thick Louisiana accent. She squeezed me hard and kissed my cheek, leaving a sloppy wet spot. "You go on an give yore daddy some shuuga, too now, ya hear?" she whispered in my ear.
Timidly, I walked over to my dad and pecked him on the cheek. He surprised me by wrapping his arm around my waist and squeezing me tight. I could hardly stop smiling long enough to sleep.

The next day we went out early in the morning and ate beignets(totally awesome donuts) for breakfast. The whole place had a magical feeling about it. We walked around through foggy cobblestone streets. Dad cracked jokes and pointed out items of interest. We ate Po'boys for lunch and then agreed to head back to Glen and Sandy's until tonight when we would tour the French Quarter.

We were listening to the radio at full blast when I noticed we were driving over a swamp. I didn't remember seeing it before. "Hey, Dad, I think you took a wrong turn or something."
"No, I'm just taking a different route to see some new sights."
"Okay." I trusted my dad. Pretty soon I saw a sign indicating Baton Rouge was 60 miles ahead.
"Uhm, Did you see that sign?"
"What sign?"
"The one that said, 'Baton Rouge'."
A grin played on the corners of his mouth. "Okay fine, we're lost. I just didn't want to admit it. I'll go ahead and warn you that all men don't ask for directions."
I couldn't stop laughing at his brutal honesty. "Then I'll ask, you just have to pull over."
It took us so long to get back to civilization we ended up driving straight to the French Quarter instead of going back to the house.

I couldn't get enough of the old buildings and the different smells of French cuisine. Each little shop boasted something I had to see. My dad was a good sport about being dragged in and out of every tourist attracting shop in the Quarter. 
Then the most amazing thing happened. My dad found the coolest voodoo shop I've ever seen. I had only read about these kinds of shops. They had everything, eye of newt, frog legs, hair, wax dolls...Dad even bought me a trinket. Little voodoo dolls in a tiny coffin along with the spell and how to use them. As long as I didn't tell Mom. It was our secret. I loved that we had a secret. He held my hand as we walked around the square and showed me how a true gentleman always walks on the side of the street. He teased me about dating and what kinds of men I should choose. I was so embarrassed when he told me I was pretty and the boys were all thinking of only one thing.

The trip ended with as much excitement as it began. There was a horrible storm and we were worried that we would be stranded in New Orleans for another night. Dad had to get back to work and I could see the worry lines on his face even as he stopped at a breakfast cart and let me pick out something for breakfast. I ate half of a bagel and downed my orange juice as we ran to the gate to listen for our names to be called from the stand-by list. I apologized a hundred times when the flight was delayed again.

"Why do you keep apologizing?" he asked.
I squirmed under his questioning stare. "Well, I just, I figure if you hadn't taken me in the first place you wouldn't be worried about work and me getting back to school."
"You think that's what I'm worried about?"
"I'm worried about you. I know they won't fly unless it's safe, but I know you hate storms. I was trying to decide if we should just get a hotel room and fly out tomorrow."
I was shell shocked. I'd had my ham radio license since I was thirteen and had been asking to go chase storms with him. I couldn't believe he was worried about me. I was scared, but I wasn't about to admit it.
"If they fly, we fly." I grinned.
Dad looked at me in a new light, I think. His face showed surprise, but underneath I could tell he was proud. 

We finally boarded the plane and had a slightly bumpy flight home. 
"You should write a story about this. Just for me, you know? You're a great writer and I'd like to see your take on our little vacation."
"Really? You really want me to write a story. I mean, it's not too cheesy?"
"Not at all. In fact, I'll write one too."
I was impressed and laid my head on his arm (his shoulder was too tall) for the rest of the flight. As the plane descended over DFW, I threw up. I apologized a million times.
"You've got to stop thinking I'll be mad at you for something you can't control."
I nodded weakly, but couldn't answer. I was so embarrassed that he had to see me throw up. He even held my hair while I puked into a paper bag lined in plastic.

"How was the trip?" Mom asked as soon as we walked in the door.
"Great! I can't really talk about it right now, I threw up in front of Dad."
She started to laugh, but covered her mouth. "I'm sorry, honey. It's okay, I've thrown up in front of Dad."
"That's different!" I stormed into my room, but I wasn't really mad. I just wanted to start writing about the greatest vacation of my entire life. I couldn't wait to see the transformation in my relationship with my Dad. I couldn't wait for him to read it.

*This short story is just under 1500 words. By Writer's Digest standards it would qualify for their short short contest. However, I've never been interested in publishing this piece and it could use a little work.
It could actually go on another five hundred to a thousand words to be a short story. Simply put, a short story is your idea condensed. There is room and freedom for movement in your word count unless you are writing for submission. This is something I'll go over tomorrow.

You still have a beginning, middle and end. You still see character growth, or change. It's a scene from your novel of life. Notice I didn't have to describe every single detail of walking through the streets, or even of the different shops we visited. This is how I wrote it originally. I skipped over what wasn't terribly important and focused on what made the events that I did describe important.

Now-questions? comments? anything I forgot?


  1. I don't write a lot of short stories - basically a time issue for me. I don't have tons of writing time, so I focus on my novel. But, they are fun!

  2. You have a definite talent there!!! The thing about short stories is, they're a lot of fun to write but a hard sale. Of course, novels are a hard sale as well. I LOVED writing short stories and I wrote quite a few. I used to write for confessions magazines and made thousands of dollars a year at one point. There are other magazines that pay for short stories.

  3. Jemi: I'm with you there!
    Stephanie: Thank you-that was written 18 yrs ago. LOL I sort of fiddled around with magazine submissions, but found that what I really enjoyed were longer stories with more depth. I do love writing short stories though for fun.

  4. You definitely had a talent for writing way back then! I haven't written any short stories for a long time. I'm focusing on my book right now.

    By the way, I have an award for you at my blog:)

  5. Melissa: Thank you so much. I really wish I hadn't given it up for so long! I could've been rich by now....or at least a little smarter. :0)


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