I’ve decided to try to enter a short story competition. The FAWWA (something something Writers of West Australia or something equally meaningless) is running a competition for short stories of any genre up to 3,000 words. I figure I could do with the practice and it is only $10 to enter, so why not? The main reason I might not is because I may not have a story ready in time. The 3,000 word limit is quite difficult for me because my stories usually require considerable set up and due to their subtlety require a fair time to run.
The real trick
The real trick with such a short story is to pick a single theme and a single conflict. It is an exercise in focus and is the reason I’m having a go. When writing a novel you need to start as close to the start of the main conflict as possible and end a quickly as possible once it is done. It might take five books each of 100,000 words to do that, but that’s the idea. Short stories are even more so.
If you were to write a story about a young boy who discovers he is the missing prince and he must defeat his evil uncle to retake the throne (why not?) then you can’t just start anywhere. It might be tempting to start with the boy waking up one day to go about his usual daily chores, meet the various characters who will are important and then the next day have him escape from an assassin. The reader may well be lost before they get to the assassin. So start with the action. Start with the assassin trying to murder the prince who, while fleeing is told by his adoptive parents (as they die?) that he is the prince. Bang! That’s just how we roll. admittedly there are some stories that seem to start further from the start. It might be tempting to think a story like the Curious Case of Benjamin Button breaks the rule by starting with a child’s birth. But the story is about Benjamin’s life so you’d probably have to start with his birth no?
Back to the Short Story
A 3,000 word short story needs to have just one conflict and needs to start really close to it. If you were to break it down you’d have 1,000 words to set up, 1,000 words to climax and 1,000 words to resolve it. Considering approximately 250 words per page, you’d have to do each of those things in just 4 pages. The West Queen and The Fallen Prince both have chapters around the 2,000 – 3,000 word mark and each has about 30 or so chapters and there is a third book of similar size to finish the series. So I have to come up with a character, world, conflict and resolution in the space of just one chapter.
What have I come up with
So what have I come up with? I’m not sure yet. It seems to be two different stories in one. Originally I was going to have a woman come home to a farm she has inherited to discover a sinister cave in the hills where it seemed her father was sacrificing sheep in a kind of religious fashion. This was done to appease a monster / spirit that lived in the cave. Since her dad died and stopped making the offerings the monster comes out and scares the woman until she decides to continue the sacrifice. But as I was writing I added more and more conflict between the woman and her dead father. She was remembering arguments she had, how she left in a huff without making peace with him and so on. She goes up into the hill looking for some sheep and finds the place where her father’s helicopter crashed. She has a cry and says sorry then the clouds clear up and the sheep wander in. She goes and decides to keep the farm rather than sell it like she was going to. That’s right, a sort of literary piece rather than a horror like I’d initially intended. But this is the nature of the short story. If I had 10,000 – 15,000 words I’d probably be able to have both the emotional conflict of the woman and the blood thirsty monster. Heck, I could probably drag the whole thing out into a novel by throwing in a handsome vet just arrived from the city and a large corporate farming company trying to buy the property. Add in a stack of unexplained deaths, a mysterious pregnancy and an ending without a clear future and I’d have an “airport” novel no worries. But I had just 3,000 words and my tense, angsty horror had to be dropped in favour of a more straight forward emotional journey. Besides, when they say the competition is open to any genre, I have a feeling you’d have to write an extraordinary science fiction / fantasy / horror story to get a serious look in.
An interesting point with this competition is that the stories must be submitted with a pen name. The judges won’t see our real names. Because this story is about a woman and her emotional conflict with her father and the farm I might be a little tactical and pick a pen name that puts the reader in mind of a middle-aged woman author. I don’t for one minute doubt that readers are influenced by the name of the author when they read. Since I’m going for a post-colonial search for place with a feminist bent I should choose a pen name that puts the reader in that frame of mind with the hope of inducing the “halo” effect. After I submit and get results I’ll post the short story and the result here.