Thursday, March 3, 2011

Short Stories—the SWAT Teams of Literature


Yes, yes, I know… When it comes to writing, many people aren’t impressed with anything less than a full-length book. However, even though I’ve got a couple of published novels under my belt, I still enjoy hammering out short fiction. If you’re a fiction writer who has never attempted a short tale, I encourage you to try your skill at crafting some short stories, which I consider the SWAT teams of literature.
S.W.A.T. stands for “Special Weapons and Tactics.” It refers to highly trained paramilitary tactical units engaged in law enforcement that falls outside the routine duties of police officers. A SWAT team may face heavily armed criminals, or barricaded suspects, or they might rescue hostages. But whatever the situation, these units apply special tactics to get in, to do their job effectively, and then extract again. By analogy (but minus the classy uniform), that description parallels the task facing a short-story writer.
The ticking clock. In a hostage situation, the bad guy might give only so many days, hours, or minutes in which his demands must be met. The same is true of a short story. Before launching your short-fiction plot, be sure to check the word limits of the magazine or journal to which you plan to submit (and don’t you dare write a story without planning where you’ll submit it, or you practically doom your work). One publisher for whom I’ve written quite a few short fiction pieces sets a 1,800-word limit. I know this before I sit down to write. Inevitably, however, my first draft misses that mark and lands at 2,100 or 2,200 words. So I slice, dice, and tighten until I hit my bull’s eye. This is excellent practice at precise writing, in which verbal fluff is verboten. It’s also fun—and potentially profitable. For stories of 1,800 words, I’ve captured checks of $350 to $400.
Stay on target. A SWAT sniper who knows he might have to take out the dangerous desperado also understands that his duty leaves no room for admiring pretty, cauliflower clouds, the blooming daffodils, or a myriad other details. Likewise, the short story writer must focus on the plot at hand. This type of literature offers scant opportunity for wandering thoughts or emphasis on trivial details.  
Do the job; then exit. Sure, novels provide ample room for a climax, followed by a leisurely dénouement. But in short stories—as in a hostage situation—you need to perform the job and then get out. End with a decisive bang if that’s what’s best, but realize up front there’s no time for extensive character development or other fiddling around.
An impressive number of famous writers contributed really dynamite short stories to literature. O. Henry, Jack London, Isaac Asimov, Anton Chekov, Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Harte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Heinlein, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Washington Irving, and a host of others have enriched our imaginations with short, well-targeted tales.
How about you? Got what it takes to write short?
Rick Barry

11 comments:

  1. Colleen Shine PhillipsMarch 3, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    I LOVE to write short stories. And I am blessed to write for one of the same periodicals you do, Rick. A famous Christian novelist friend shakes her head at me over my short stories. "I don't know how you do it, Colleen. I could NEVER write a short story. Impossible for me to tell a tale in so few words." All the parts have to be there--characterization, conflict, setting, etc. It really is an art--and a fun one, I might add. I agree. Every writer should try their hand at a short. Of course....it does cause a problem when I work on a novel. I mean, how do I write so MANY words for a story that could be told in a short one?! Great article, Rick.

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  2. Short stories are the gateway to the full length story...
    I like using short stories to flesh out possible ideas..

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  3. Another advantage: You can write one in a matter of hours, or a couple days. No year-long emotional commitment. Then, if it sells, you also get to see it in print relatively quickly. Short stories are what got my foot in the door of publishing.

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  4. Articles did that for me on the non-fiction side. The few short stories I've written haven't had the same effect, but it may be because I wrote them without a particular publication in mind.

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  5. I've earned money with non-fiction articles so I've wondered if I could do short stories. It's not what my focus is.

    This is almost like a challenge. I hear A-team music playing in the background. Good blog Rick

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  6. Mary, if you've got a plot no one else can help with, and if you can find them, then maybe you can write for ... the A-Team! [insert music here] ;)

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  7. Rick, you could play Murdock in the script....:)

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  8. Just found your link when browsing the "followers" of my blog. My mom LOVES you and talks about you all the time! So good to be able to get to know you through your work!

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  9. Great blog, great comments! Now I can go to sleep and dream, um, write short. . . :-)

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  10. When I first started writing, I never considered writing articles and short stories. I pounded away at my novels. Today, I'm a few months from seeing my first, non-fiction article in print. This is exciting but gave me some real great ideas for fiction articles. I am punching out a few while I continue to push through my book. It's fun to have some success while your working away at your real dream.

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  11. I bet you know a good resource for magazines that publish short stories, huh? *big grin*

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