Monday, April 19, 2010

Keeping it Short

I loved the Haikus that Donis included below. What a great way to get a message across saying no more than what needs to be said.

Of course we don’t read fiction to get just the message.

John hated Mary, John killed Mary. The police killed John in a shoot-out.

Not exactly what we call a fun read.

I believe that learning the skills of keeping it short and simple can help an author learn what’s necessary and what can be cut without ruining the story. Beginning authors in particular, and I remember this well from my own first attempts, flounder around wildly not knowing what to include and what not to. When is too much detail too much, when is too much background too much? Regarding background, the answer is almost always. Background, too much, and way too soon, is often the first-time authors downfall.

I own a great book titled The Word’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death (Running Press, 1999. Edited by Steve Moss and John M. Daniel.) Every story in the collection is less than 55 words long. I use the stores when I give workshops sometimes to show how you can get an idea across quickly.

A couple of my favourites.

Hear No Evil by Rob Austin

“You’re free to go! Judge Hardy shouts at Clements, who bolts from the courtroom leaving his twelve peers frozen with disbelief in the jury box.
His ashen-faced lawyer finds shim kissing the courtroom steps.
“Do you believe it?” says Clements. “Not freakin’ guilty!”
In chambers Judge Hardy fits a new battery into his hearing aid.

The Transplant by Steve Sainsbury
Lying on the gurney, I felt the IV medications take effect.
“You came alone, right?”
“Yeah, Doc, just like you said. I get $10,000 for a single kidney?”
“That’s right, son.”
Slipping into unconsciousness, I asked with slurred speech. “Then... why... all the ... secrecy...?”
“Because I get twice that for a heart.”

Torture Session by Steve Elliott
A dirty, late-summer wind added to the tension.
“This should loosen up those lips,” he said, plunging a needle deep into an unsuspecting eye.
The recipient writhed in pain.
“Maybe you need a little heat.”
Flames blistered the victim’s flesh until death, mercifully arrived.
“Enough with you.”
Tommy moved on to the next grasshopper.

In the second story we learn an amazing lot about the two characters in a few words. The doctor is greedy and unscrupulous, obviously, but what do we know about the victim. He is young (doctor calls him son), probably poor, naive.

In the third story we learn almost all we need to know about this character. A psycho in the making. I love the way the single line about the wind adds just enough description.

The first story is just fun.

Its often been said that short stories are a way for beginning writers to tone their skills without putting in a couple of years on a novel. If you’re wanting to write, but just don’t have the time, why not try to see what you can do with 55 words or less?

(Note: If I am breaking copyright by reproducing these stories, I apologize. When I was the editor of the Toronto Chapters Sisters in Crime newsletter years ago, I wrote twice to the publishers to ask if I could reproduce one of the stories. No reply was ever received.)

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