What is it to write stories? How do you come up with them? Is there any secret?
No. You just have to wait and listen. Every minute of the day there’s a million things passing through your brain and if you’re ready and listening it’s not hard to catch hold of the tail of a story and just reel it in.
I don’t sit and plan, I don’t think hard with sweat and blood of something I want to say and then hack out a scenario to fit; no. I just feel around for a few words to start and then push the ball off the top of the hill. The story does the rest.
For example, Chemistry was just a couple of words that came to me as I walked up Wittenham Clumps: ‘The second time he came…’. I knew this wasn’t enough so I added ‘…I was ready.’ to finish off the first sentence. That was plenty to get me started when I sat down on a bench overlooking the woods of the Clumps. That suggested the forest location and the rest was just one word following another.
Last night a story passed through my brain as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t sleep too well and so I thought I’d just have a little play with some words, the beginnings. The beginning is always the best bit of composing. It’s just getting a feeling and a flow. If you get the beginning right then the rest tends to follow.
In terms of inspirational habits – I don’t think it is a case of inspiration. It’s a case of relaxing and opening your mind. Never go hunting for a story: you might catch one, but you’ll probably have to kill it first. Walking is very good, as is any exercise. Going somewhere else is very refreshing. I wrote a lot in Egypt, for example. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a story just sitting at my computer. That’s where having a little typewriter like the AlphaSmart Neo comes in very handy. Last night Snowcat came to me in a state of relaxation; after lying in the darkness, after reading a little fiction, after eating a little dark chocolate. Did these things help? Probably, but they’re not necessary.
My latest short story, Perched, is only about 850 words long. Yet I have put it into the Short Story section of my site – is this correct? How long is a short story?
So, to settle the matter with some hard statistics, I decided to interrogate my favourite short story writers: Ernest Hemingway and, firstly, Naguib Mahfouz.
From The Time and the Place (1991), we have:
- Zaabalawi: approximately 5600 words, based on 400 words per page
- The Conjurer Made Off with the Dish: 3600 words
- The Answer is No: 1600 words
- The Time and the Place: 3600 words
- Blessed Night: 3600 words
- The Ditch: 2600 words
- Half a Day: 1600 words
- The Tavern of the Black Cat: 4000 words
- The Lawsuit: 2200 words
- The Empty Cafe: 3600 words
- A Day for Saying Goodbye: 3600 words
- By a Person Unknown: 6200 words
- The Man and the Other Man: 2800 words
- The Wasteland: 3600 words
- The Norwegian Rat: 2600 words
- His Majesty: 1200 words
- Fear: 4400 words
- At the Bus Stop: 3200 words
- A Fugitive from Justice: 3400 words
- A Long-Term Plan: 3200 words
That’s 20 stories at an average length of about 3300 words per story. The range is from 1200 to 6200 words, but you can see the vast majority land in the 3200-3600 range.
Now for Hemingway. From In Our Time:
- Indian Camp: approximately 1225 words, based on 350 words per page
- The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife: 1050 words
- The End of Something: 1050 words
- The Three-Day Blow: 3150 words
- The Battler: 3150 words
- A Very Short Story: 700 words
- Soldier’s Home: 2450 words
- The Revolutionist: 350 words
- Mr and Mrs Elliot: 1225 words
- Cat in the Rain: 1050 words
- Out of Season: 2100 words
- Cross-Country Snow: 1925 words
- My Old Man: 4200 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: I: 3125 words
- Big Two-Hearted River: II: 3150 words
- L’Envoi: 150 words
That’s 16 stories at an average length of about 1900 words. The range is from just 150 to 4200 words, with most hovering around 1000-1200 mark.
So I don’t know what we can take from that, except that short stories can be anything from a few hundred to several thousand words long. It also seems that different writers feel comfortable at different lengths for their stories. Mahfouz’s short stories tend to be three times as long as Hemingway’s, but you wouldn’t say that one is preferable to the other.
I am pleased to note that my story, at over 800 words long, is longer than three of the Hemingway collection. So I shall be keeping it in the short story section because it feels like a short story.