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Short fiction: the great comeback, or You, too, can write short stories

by Patrick Coyne It’s official: short stories are back. Two world famous literary authorities have recently said as much: In May this year the 5th Man Booker International Prize for Fiction was awarded to Lydia Davis for her collection of short stories. A few weeks ago, the Nobel Prize for Literature was presented to Alice Munro for being ‘a master of the contemporary short story’. Alice said in an interview: ‘I hope the award will make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you play around with until you get a novel written.’ Ruth Harris, the New York Times’s ‘bestselling author’, went further. On Anne R Allen’s ‘Best Writing Website’ she blogged as follows: ‘What – short stories? Aren’t they just for writing classes? Why would I waste time on stuff that doesn’t pay? Because it does… Amazon announced that it had sold over two million Singles ebooks (short stories) in one year… Many of the top sellers are by name authors like Lee Child, Stephen King, and Jodi Picoult, but others are by unknowns…This is where you should be doing a happy dance and shouting from the rooftops: THE SHORT STORY IS BACK! This is nothing but good news for authors no matter where you are in your career.… I’m NOT advocating that new writers self-publish your fledgling short fiction... To succeed in publishing – whether self- or traditional, you really need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours.’ Okay…In other words: you must put in the hard yards before you can expect any success. How should you go about this? STEP ONE: Read collections of short stories by successful authors. And I mean contemporary ones, not those published sixty, seventy, a hundred years ago. (Because tastes in fiction and acceptable styles in fiction have changed drastically since those days.) Here are some names of successful contemporary short fiction authors (in no special order): Lydia Davis, Alice Munro, Elven Silver, AM Holmes, Andrew Pritchard, Ron Parsons, Denis Johnson, Adam Marek, Conor Patrick, George Saunders, Charles Stross, Joy Williams. Why read? Because you can then copy. And this is nothing to do with plagiarism. You can copy the masters’ style at first. Later you can develop your own. STEP TWO: Learn the craft of short story writing. Here are my hints - I’d rather not call them rules. (Once you are successfully established, you can break all the rules anyway.) (a) How long is ‘short’? How many words does a short story have? Competitions often specify 2500 words, or eight to nine double-spaced A4 pages. But a short, short story would contain only 1750 words, or five to six A4 pages. ‘Flash fiction’ can be 1000 words or less. It’s easiest to start with the 2500 words length. (b) Layout: Indent every paragraph (except the very first) but don’t miss a line. Remember to start a new paragraph for every new speech.

(c) As few characters as possible. Two or three are enough. In anything over 2000 words, the main character should develop and change noticeably during the story. In less than that, a hint towards this would be enough. (d) The action should ideally take place over a few hours or days. Avoid long flashbacks and time leaps. (e) First paragraph or two: establish the main character and point of view. (If you use the First Person point of view, you must somehow let the reader know the first person’s name and sex.) Establish the setting. Introduce conflict as early as possible. A short story without conflict is almost invariably boring. Conflict? Like arguments…(Don’t forget that two people arguing often say things that both knew anyway – which is an ideal way of giving the reader background information.) (f) Language: short words and short sentences wherever possible. (g) Hints on Style: no writer’s opinions are allowed - only your characters may have opinions. Humorous touches are good, even in a suspenseful story. Remember: dialogue is the life-blood of a short story. (h) Ending: ideally, have a twist in the tale, a surprise, provided that some clue towards it has already been given. STEP THREE: While you are learning and practising, submit your apprentice efforts to competitions – preferably outfits that boast respected judges who will send you a useful evaluation with advice on how to improve your writing, e,g. The South African Writers’ Circle (contact: Brigitta Simpson 071 6818378). Never be afraid of criticism. A writer can rate his or her maturity by success in handling criticism. STEP FOUR: When you have entered dozens of competitions, learnt from them, and have achieved a success or three, then and only then, can you consider getting your stories published, which is more possible than you’d think. Now, that’s another story… About the writer Patrick Coyne is a Durban-based writer who has recently published his collection of 21 short stories in many different genres, titled The Flying Lady. All the stories won first prizes in either the South African Writers’ Circle competitions or the open ‘Nova’ competitions of Science Fiction South Africa. Coyne said that he hoped more writers would try their hand at writing short stories, and that ever more readers would learn to enjoy this genre, which has its own charm and, for the devotee, a fascination. He explained that each story in his book provided a short fiction experience complete with an ending, a sort of literary fast food, bitesized read that can be digested and enjoyed by busy people taking a lunch-break, waiting for an appointment, or travelling by plane between two South African cities.

Coyne has given workshops and talks on the art and craft of writing short stories. His new book is published by BK Press, Durban, and is available at leading bookstores. More details can be found on his website:

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