Five Tips For Writing A Powerful Short Story by Shelley Weiner

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This post is written by acclaimed novelist and Academy favourite, Shelley Weiner. This is not her. This is a person unsure of the power of their short fiction.

It is a commonly held fallacy that short stories are somehow easier to write than novels – and certainly they’re, well, shorter. But that’s about it. A perfect piece of short fiction is as hard to achieve as a finely wrought item of jewellery. It demands precision, supreme control, and a good strong tale at its heart.

Here, to get you started, are five essential tips:

  1. Know every character in your story. What does each one of them want? What will they do in order to get it?

  2. Be ruthless. Make something happen to your main character that will put him or her to the test. This will help your reader to care about the outcome, which is vital.

  3. Make your opening as close as possible to the ending. Constricting the time frame can strengthen your tale.

  4. Write your story as though it’s a letter to a friend who shares your sensibilities – and your sense of humour. It’s a trick to make your story more engaging and to help with the flow.

  5. Every word counts; every sentence should advance the story. Don’t waste a single comma or distract your reader’s attention with an ill-conceived metaphor or an irrelevant piece of purple prose.

Shelley Weiner

 

Shelley Weiner is the tutor on our week-long course, The Five Day Short Story.

 

QuickFic 10/06/16: The Winner

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RUNNER-UP: Catherine Palmer

The Front

Pearce carries his burden with him, heavy by his side.  It throbs in the empty space on the right side of his body. 

As Pearce shifts in his seat, he looks to his left at Louise sitting next to him.  It’s a habit he’d picked up, always sitting on the right, always taking pictures in profile. 

He smiles at Louise.  She isn’t beautiful, her nose is too large, and Pearce can see the pores on her face.  But when she smiles, her eyes squint into half-moons and her mouth opens into a soft rectangle as her tongue pushes on her teeth. 

Pearce lifts his arm from around Louise’s shoulder, eats some popcorn, sips some soda.

“Are you okay?” Louise whispers, immediately attentive to his movement.

“Yes, good,” he whispers back.

As he settles back in his seat, Pearce rubs his shoulder.  He digs into his pocket, swallows a pill, grits his teeth.

Phantom limb pain, the doctor had called it.

“Difficult to treat,” he’d said, looking out at Pearce from the top of his glasses. 

“Psychological.” 

“It will go away with time.”

When he’d returned from the front, Pearce had learned to write with his left hand.  Granted, it was chicken scratch, but it was enough to get him through law school.  He could work on his car, kiss a girl, make coffee.  He could even dance the waltz like the couple on the screen. 

He could still live his life. 

If only the pain would go away.

 

RUNNER-UP: Susan McLeod

Celluloid

The mess hall fills rapidly. Men flood in, some with folding chairs, some hitching a hip on an occupied seat. The room is a desert of khaki.

I remove the film from the take-up reel and place it in its tin. A baby-faced private passes smoking a cigarette. Ash drops on my shoulder, the film stock.

“Back off,” I shout but he’s oblivious, eyes fixed forward.

The projector is ancient, a relic, and the reel changeovers will be manual. I thread the slippery cellulose nitrate ribbon, matching hole to sprocket.

“Hey, four eyes.”

The crowd grows impatient, hungry for the feature. Hello Frisco, Hello starring Alice Faye. A frothy confection yet drawing a bigger audience than the newsreel. The troops are more interested in a musical than the Eastern front. Go figure.

“Get on with it.”

I ignore the catcalls. Hand-cranking is an art, matching speed of frame rate to the sound – it requires focus.

Someone barges into me and I grab the projector as it overbalances. Laughter from the audience.

“He crapped it there, Jim.” The machine stills once more on its base. I release a pent-up breath.

A ball of paper knocks off my patrol cap.

“Bullseye!” More laughter, more jostling, more shouts. The cap lies where it fell.

I wave an arm and the lights blink out.

Silence falls. A beam of flickering light pierces the blackness and illuminates the screen. Bodies lean forward, faces turn upwards in reverence. The lion roars.

 

WINNER: Thom Willis

Close In Darkness

Sometimes all anyone wanted was to hear the rasp of the projector, the glassy sheet of film purring coolly though the gate and painting its vivid light on the wall. Some days it was all that I could think about, the thought that the darkness could be lit this way, like magic. Like stars up close.

One of those nights we sat near the back, your arm around me, my hand gripping your leg through sheer excitement. No funny business, not then not there. I would think about that later, in the silent grey of the early morning, and tremble.

The light of the screen was a hard rectangle adrift in the soft black fluid of the night. The images danced for us, sang shrill from a speaker somewhere behind the seats, beckoned us through the bright window. A night at the theatre for we who had no nights, we who sat in the close darkness as the fire screamed to the sky and the sky roared back, peppering our childhood bedrooms with soot, with lead, with carelessly spilled blood. How could we return to them now and be innocent still?

Impulsive, I turned and kissed you, once, on the cheek. You put your hand to it and stroked it like a new scar, eyes fixed ahead. Blinking tears, you held my chin and kissed me back. It felt sharp, like a bite, and I knew then that you were doomed, and I doomed likewise. The projector hummed on.

 

Ooof. Congratulations, Catherine, Susan and Thom – those are absolutely stellar. And thanks to everyone who entered. You are extremely excellent.

See you next week!

QuickFic 10/06/16

Hello there. Can we interest you in a spot of flash fiction frivolity?

That’s right. It’s Friday, which means a fresh QuickFic prompt and flapjacks for breakfast. That prompt is awaiting you at the bottom of this post. You should go and look at it, and then you should write us a story, of 250 words or less, inspired by it. Give that story a title, and then stick it in the body of an email (along with your wordcount) and send it to academy@faber.co.uk by 2.50pm (that bit’s important).

At 3.30 we’ll announce our winner, who this week will be winning this rather attractive stack of books:

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Right. Here’s that prompt then:

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Happy writing!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of our Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, basically.

For more creative writing exercises, click here.

QuickFic 03/06/16: The Winner

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Hey look! It’s the first line of MADAME BOVARY! Oooh la la.

RUNNER-UP: John Herbert

Translation

‘This,’ the Head Man said, ‘is Devaux. Higgins, see to it that you look after him, lest you incur my displeasure.’ He glared at me with his one good eye before sweeping out. I felt the ghost of my last flogging clear up my back.

The servant deposited the desk next to mine, along with the pale creature who accompanied it. I slid my primer to the middle and jabbed at where we were, stealing a glance at his fine suiting and the gold pen he pulled from a pocket.

O’Callaghan threw paper at him and said to the class, ‘As you were. Mr Malloy,’ rounding on the boy at the front, hunched over his books. ‘Don’t think that distraction will save you. Continue.’

As Malloy stammered through his lines and my own turn neared, I watched Devaux’s pen produce a fine copperplate, a complete translation of the passage. He pushed it with one thin finger to the centre of the desk where I might hide it from view.

‘Higgins, you preternatural disappointment, what have you to offer?’ I made sure to pause for thought, to mask the crib and feign a struggle. ‘Surprisingly competent,’ was all I got in return. ‘And you? Devaux is it?’

Devaux’s deep voice was shocking, emanating from so meagre a frame. He continued until O’Callaghan slammed a hand upon his desk. ‘Vanity is a sin, Devaux,’ he said and stalked back to his board.

‘So, sir, is wrath,’ Devaux replied, his thin neck bowed.

RUNNER-UP: Louise Swingler

Musical Box

The desk was out of kilter with the pattern of the existing desks in the classroom. Three rows, desks paired down each row. Identical, simple desks; a square of plywood on a cantilever support – looking, side-on, like a collapsing square bracket.

The new desk shouted John Lewis or Heals. The servant removed the masking tape and the drawers flew in and out; airborne on perfectly engineered runners.

It was placed at the front of the middle row. Two boys had to move their desks to the back, near where the musical instruments were stored.

They wheeled him to the desk in a wheeled chair, too beautiful to be called a wheelchair; minimal, lime green and trendy orange, wheels making no sound. The boy was as slender as wheat, translucent, almost – his neck white and hairless, slightly crookedly rising from narrow shoulders as if he had the habit of cringing.

The servant plugged thin, elegant wires into the tiny person. The desk top tipped up, revealing a wide screen that seemed to hover, on which the teacher’s words appeared as he spoke them.

When it was time to play their solos, many of them stumbled on notes they already knew, or lost their places. Then, when at last it was his turn, four slim triangular speakers rose up from each corner of the new desk. It was as if water had risen on wings when the boy began, his head quivering with the melody as it filled the room.

WINNER: Kathy Stevens

At St. Matthew’s Academy for Problem Boys

We all knew who he was, of course; most of us had seen the movie that week, sneaking out one by one from the dorms after last rounds. Some had seen it twice, it was that good. Even my mother, who was the most out-of-touch person I knew, had said she’d read all about the movie, and him, in the paper. He was all over the papers. For good reasons and bad.

He looked at the desk, set apart from ours and bigger, sneered, and plonked himself down in one lazy movement. His escorts left.

“Enough,” said the master, “Face front.” We glanced at the blackboard but the moment he returned to his scrawled sums we turned to stare, as one, at our new classmate.

I tore a page from my exercise book and wrote a note: Nice to meet you, I liked your movie. I folded it into an elaborate paper plane which I launched as the old master pottered on with his algebra.

My note landed squarely on the actor’s desk.

He opened it, read it, and, scanning the room, looked for its origin. I raised my hand and he nodded. He bent over the scrap and added his reply. Scrunched it into a ball and chucked it at me.

My breath coming quick and short as I opened the movie star’s note, I read: fuck off loser.

I knew then, without a doubt, that we were going to be the very best of friends.

 

Congratulations, John, Louise and Kathy! And thanks to everyone for all your brilliant stories.

Happy weekends, happy writing!

QuickFic 03/06/16

Good morning, flash fiction fans. Ready for a prompting? A little inspiration on this gloomy day?

Great! We’ve got just the thing. Those of you who’ve played before can skip on down the page and check it out. But if you’re new around these parts, or a little rusty on the rules, a quick reminder:

  • You’re about to see a prompt
  • We’re after very short stories, of 250 words or less, inspired by that prompt
  • Those stories should be sent (in the body of an email, along with a title and your wordcount) to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50pm this very afternoon
  • At 3:30 pm, we’ll announce the winner, and that winner will win these books:
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Look how sturdy and standable they are!

Phew. Recap over, let’s move ever onwards, and check out that all-important prompt.

This is it:

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See you back here at 3:30!

By entering our QuickFic writing competitions, you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win. The winner will also get a chance to win a place on one of our Start to Write one day courses, because at the end of the year we’ll be choosing our favourite of all the winners – the champion of champions, basically.

For more creative writing exercises, click here.