I’m not a short story writer. Now that might seem a strange statement from someone with a collection of short stories out, but I don’t think of myself as one and given some writers make very respectable careers out of short fiction, it feels disrespectful to their years of craft to equate myself with them. I’m a novelist who’s also written short stories and these short stories have taught me a lot – I had great fun writing them and they’ve developed the series’ plot in a number of vital ways. What I do know is that there’s no one way to write anything, so here are just a few of my thoughts on the subject.
A story’s as short as it wants to be
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, novella or short story – a story has its own length and it’s your fault as a writer if you get that wrong. Whether it’s the (probably rather apocryphal) six word Hemingway short story or a 300,000 word doorstop of a book, every idea has a natural length and to gloss over events is as bad as fixating on the unimportant. The God Tattoo has a story of 3,000 words alongside two over 20,000. When a story wants to be short it should be – whether or not I have a default setting of ‘novel’. My forthcoming book, Moon’s Artifice, is 70,000 words shorter than my last, and that’s before my editor has got his hands on it. Given it’s not the same world or scale of story, why would I follow old paths just because they’re there?
Forget the map
World-building isn’t your friend. Chances are you don’t have time to develop the society/background many fantasies require. So either take the easy route and set the story in an established world, or make sure what little background details you can fit in are enough to spark the reader’s imagination. They’re not stupid and you shouldn’t write as though they are, so make use of the imagination they have. Ask too much and they’ll be distracted from the book, but it’s a great discipline to whittle down the flavour of your world into a reference or two.
It’s certainly easier that The God Tattoo’s stories are all set in the world of the Twilight Reign – one could say that there’s a million words of background detail to these stories – but I didn’t write them to rest on those shoulders. Many came about when I was reading a lot of M R James and Lovecraft and they set how I looked at the books rather than the other way around. Very few major characters from the books made it into the short stories, while one short story character appeared in two of the novels solely because he was part of the world around which those scenes were built. While it’s hard for me to judge, having had Twilight Reign fill my head for the last 14-odd years, I don’t believe prior knowledge is necessary to read any of these. My goal certainly has been the opposite.
Short stories have their own constraints, but they’re also fun as well and a damn good way to stretch yourself and develop your style. In a long epic you’ll be struggling to justify certain styles and conceits, in a short the reader isn’t as likely to get irritated with you using an atypical approach. You don’t need to build a whole world so the snapshot of a letter might be enough, a political speech or narration might best say what you want. The Pictures Of Darayen Crin started out as a straight story threatening to become a novel, one I failed to finish. It then became a series of letters, then a police report of sorts but none of them fitted properly.
Next I decided to try it as an account of under 1,000 words to force myself to focus on the important details, which was better but still not right. The final version was an amended version of that account with everything but the narrator’s voice removed. I’d been unsatisfied with the results every step of the way, but stripping out everything but the voice finally gave me the story I wanted as well as serving as an exercise in different ways to present information as much as how people react to stimuli when they’re speaking. It might be it doesn’t work for some, but I realise now that’s how the idea in my head wanted to be told.
The God Tattoo by Tom Lloyd is on shelves now, published by Gollancz, available for £13 from Amazon UK.