Sunday, September 30, 2012

Five Tips for Writing Short

Now that Jackson and I have finished putting away the groceries, I'm to give tips and tricks on writing short - novellas and stories.

This is very easy: use fewer words.


Okay, okay - David is forever assuring me that nobody thinks I'm as funny as I think I am. But hey, at least I amuse myself.

I suspect that most writers tend to be naturally good at either writing long or writing short. That's not to say you can't learn to be the other kind of writer (I did), but most of us start out with what comes naturally, in both length and genre.

Me? I'm naturally short.

And I 'm not saying this just because I'm 5'4", which is admittedly short by most standards. I tend to be fast and concise in most everything I do. I don't talk a whole lot. When asked to speak, I never run over time. I can clean the whole house in two hours - and I figure out the fastest way to do most everything. Even my Masters thesis was one of the shortest in the department.

My natural, out-of-the-gate writing form were essays. Particularly the 1500 word essay. Where other people in my essay-writing class were groaning over how to trim fat, I could whip out a complete essay that screeched its tires right up to the finish line. For me, the huge trauma was learning to write long. Even now I think I'll never be the writer who turns out the 500 page tome. SO not me. My CPs and editors are forever asking me to add scenes and write more explanation.

But that's my issue and an off-topic one.

Being able to write short is a great skill to have. Novellas and shorts are faster to write, enjoy a great market and can be a terrific way to build an audience.

So, tips from me, the Queen of Short in All Things.

1) Keep It Simple Stupid. Kiss kiss! No - really. This is the key component. When writing a short story or novella (I'm going to stick to fiction here), keep the idea behind it to one or two very basic things. The character transformation should be very clear and not necessarily earth-shattering. For example, in SAPPHIRE, I knew the story was about two things: whether she'd tell him her first name and whether she'd use her safe word.

2) Limit the time frame. Have all action occur over a few days or a week. This forces you to condense events too, so you're not tempted to add too many scenes. SAPPHIRE takes place, for the most part, over a weekend.

3) Limit the number of characters. For a romance, really you can keep this to only the two people involved in the love affair. I almost added or three, but I think adding a third person increases the level of difficulty in a number of ways, which you don't need. (See Number #1.) In PETALS AND THORNS, only the Beast and Amarantha are in 98% of it. Except for two cameos by her father and sisters, it's all about them.

4) Have part of the story occur "off-stage." In romance, a lot of writers like to short-cut the story by having the love interests already know each other - the reunion trope. I don't like this because the meeting/getting-to-know each other is my favorite part. But I'm adding it because I know it works for a lot of people.

5) Compress and Intensify! I think this is the crux of it all. Give the characters reasons to be thrown together in a compressed way and give them intense, passionate personalities. Make their motives urgent. The proverbial ticking clock is great for this. If someone is flying to the other side of the world the next day, things HAVE to happen fast. In PETALS AND THORNS, the Beast has one week to seduce Amarantha and break the curse.

Any tips you all have that I missed? Or questions?


  1. Great post! I agree with your notion that writers have a natural length, and I also think we tend to either write fat first drafts and trim down on edits, or write lean and then flesh out. My natural length seems to be the 1500 word short and I'm a trimmer-downer. One of the best pieces of advice I received for writing that short and making sure it still has story to it is to focus on 3 things:
    a) Have the main character make a choice
    b) Have them demonstrate that choice through their actions
    c) The choice has to have consequences, so they finish the story in a different place from where they started.

  2. What an interesting thought that writers have a natural length. This is a great post, Jeffe. And I"m jealous of your 1500 whizkidness!

    Also, CJ, I love those tips.