May 5, 2015

The Long and the Short of It

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

At a Southern Writers authors event a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking with several novelists about their approaches to writing (you'll read about many of them in upcoming issues of Southern Writers).  When I spoke with one author in particular who writes both novels and short stories, I sought his perspectives on writing for the two different formats.

When I learned that his first step in creating his novels was to create a detailed outline, I asked if he plots out his short stories as well. "No," he replied with instant enthusiasm.  Short stories, he explained, are his opportunity to run free. When he begins a novel, he knows how it will end before the opening scene.  For a short story, he lets his characters take him wherever they want to go.

At first glance, one might think the short story would be the one warranting advance planning, since the novel by its sheer length could afford to let its characters wander off course a bit.  I'm even reminded of Abraham Lincoln's famed reply when asked to give an impromptu speech: 

"If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if an hour, I am ready now."

However, the short storyunlike the novelisn't required to conform to the traditional three-act format we expect from a novel.  The hero's journey as explained by Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and others will probably always have some influence on long-form stories, but the short story can afford to carve its own path. A simple contemplation of a single theme? A beginning-to-end chronicle? The sky's the limit with a short story. the same token, there are authors who outline their short stories while letting their novel characters cast their own fates to the wind.  Indeed, going back and forth between the two approaches (outlining versus not) seems like an excellent way to exercise both sides of a creative brain.

There are many good books to help take the guesswork out of outlining, such as K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel, and even if flying by the seat of your pants is your preferred writing method, it's good to know the rules so you can break them with confidence.

Whatever your chosen approach, we invite you to forge a potentially new path by entering Southern Writers' 4th annual Short Story Fiction contest.  By popular demand, we've doubled the 1200-word limit and you can now let your imagination run wild up to 2500 words. The deadline is August 1st, 2015.

Visit for all the details, and good luck!  With a $500 grand prize, there's never been a better time to get short with us.

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