Writing short

Note: this is not actually a new post. I’ve finally located some of the old blog from before the crash at the end of 2012 and have rescued the posts I thought were worth saving. Here’s the first, originally published on July 11th, 2012:

I just had a lovely email from my editor claiming that I am the only author he works with who knows how to write a Flirt.* Flirts are Entangled’s shortest stories, at 10-15,000 words. The next line up is Ever After at 20-40,000 words. 40,000 words is half a good sized novel and almost enough for a category romance (45-50,000 words). So a Flirt is a really different kind of thing.

I find writing short much, much easier than writing long. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve done so much academic writing with very strict word counts – even one word over the limit would knock you down a grade. I think I have a natural tendency towards brevity as well. Plus words are the hard bit of writing. Ideas are easy.

Anyway, here’s how I go about writing a Flirt. It’s basically three chapters of a book (not necessarily of equal length): Set up; Conflict; Resolution. Easy.

Set up
In two of my Flirts I’ve helped move the set up along by having characters who already know each other. I think there’s a limit to what you can do from a meet-cute in 10-15,000 words, and it will be hard to find a satisfying conflict unless there’s some background to draw on. The set up will also need to introduce the conflict, just as it would in a longer romance.

Then you need to pitch the real struggle in chapter two. This is the key to making the short story work. You’ve got to have a conflict that’s real and significant, but also one that you can resolve in the short space. Your story doesn’t have to take place in a single day, but I think it does need to be relatively compact chronologically as well as narratively. Episodic short stories are weird and unsatisfying, in my experience. You’ll need to have characters who talk to each other about real stuff so that you can get to the heart of their issues quickly.

In a longer book, the resolution takes up a comparatively small proportion of the word count, but I think that even in a short story, readers want to be able to enjoy the happy ending and feel sure that it’s real. It’s easy, in this length of story, to use themes, images and phrases that refer back to the set up and the conflict to give a satisfying literary resolution which matches the romantic resolution. I don’t think you have to aim for HEA with a short – happy for now is definitely okay. You’ve dealt with one problem between your characters, but if they are real, complex people, they’ll doubtless face other issues and the reader knows that. Don’t make the resolution bigger than the conflict deserves.

I think that’s the key, actually, balancing the set up, the conflict and the resolution. You’re probably not going to tell a grand, sweeping love story that towers across the ages in this short format. What you can do is focus in on one moment of a relationship, and make your readers care about your characters enough to want them to get through this particular hurdle and come out stronger and better on the other side.

*It should be pointed out that of the three stand-alone Flirts published so far, one has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and the other two are mine. So I haven’t exactly got the magic touch.