Feelings not facts - from novel to short story, by Ali Bacon

Since my recent post which touched on the early photographs of Hill and Adamson, I’ve not only paid a flying visit to St Andrews (my old university town and always a good place to go) but also been invited to read a selection of my historical fiction at the St Andrews Photography Festival. This is a huge thrill for me and has given me the nice job of making sure that by the time of my event on Sept 9th. I've assembled the right words in exactly the right order. 

Reading Silver Harvest in April at  Stroud Short Stories
I’m planning to read five or six pieces which have already been written in one form or other, but I don’t want to read for more than 10 minutes at a time  - i.e. 1500 words max - and although the pieces are linked in theme, I would like each one to stand alone. 

Looking at my raw material, only Silver Harvest fits the bill exactly. The others are either too long or, on closer inspection, betray their origins as fragments of a novel. ‘Repurposing’ them is proving an interesting task and one that’s making me aware of the strictures of short story writing. 

Here are a few rules I’ve made for myself in my reverse-engineering project of cutting my cloth to suit my new coat!

  1. Stay in the moment.
    I'm trying not to hark backwards to previous stories or things I know happened, and since there is no option for the audience to read on, I'm avoid ‘foreshadowing’, i.e. hinting at what’s to come (or even jumping ahead to tell people!)
    St Andrews Cathedral, an iconic ruin 
  2.  Make sure each short story has a structure of its own, i.e. each one should have its own story arc, however brief. A piece of narrative which is there to fill a historical gap will just be exposition.
  3.  Avoid too many scene changes. I don’t particularly like ‘static’ short stories, but in 1500 words there are only so many places we can go without things feeling rushed. If necessary, history can be compressed!
  4. Examine minor characters and decide who is really needed. Short stories traditionally have a narrow focus rather than a big cast of characters. If a character is required, don’t linger over a description, just let them play the role that’s required. It might be they don’t even need a name.
  5. Strip down the dialogue. Every word counts so skip yes’s no’s and maybe’s – just let them agree or otherwise! If it’s just for plot, you could use indirect speech which holds things up less. ‘He thanked them but said he would leave that night,’ is slicker IMO than, ‘thank you, but I will leave tonight,’ he said.
  6. Feelings not facts! i.e. beware exposition/info dump. I’m writing historical fiction and would like my audience to know how much I’ve found out about these people and their time, but sticking in extra facts, events or characters is either insecurity or showing off. An eagle-eyed beta reader has found one of these I didn't see for myself.

In writing down these rules I can see I have broken quite a few of them (3 and 4 especially!) so it’s time for another look at the writing  - or maybe the rules!

Finally, I can also see that most of them could be applied to a novel, which confirms my belief that the process of writing a novel and short story are not so very different. However a novel takes a lot longer!

If you would like to know more about the St Andrews Festival of Photography, please visit their Facebook page or my own website.

Ali Bacon was born in Fife and lives in Bristol where she writes, reads, reviews, and occasionally takes to the stage. Her novel A Kettle of Fish is available in print and as an e-book.


Sandra Horn said…
Wow! Very interesting - and helpful - post! Thank you, Ali.
AliB said…
Thanks Sandra!
Umberto Tosi said…
Rules to rewrite by, indeed: thank you. I wish I could wing it over the pond and attend your September event.
Excellent post, Ali and I'm amazed there are not more comments, contributions from other people since most of AE's current members write short stories as well. I've occasionally taught short fiction classes and this would be very useful for anyone doing the same. I do wonder about the similarities between the two processes: short and long fiction though. You certainly get more elbow room in a novel. I suppose mainly it's a matter of complexity (although the best short stories have lots of implications over and beyond the obvious simplicity of their structure.) In a novel you can build whole worlds. I've seen a lot of short stories that really wanted to be novels, but also novels that should have been short stories. Finding out why that's the case is helpful (although not always easy!) I've turned one of my short stories into a novel, but looking back on it, the story worked well as a story, but was like a springboard into the much more complicated tale.

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