Brevity and Briefs: Reflecting on a Short Story

Recently I submitted a new piece of work to my friend Kent Shawn as part of his short story competition. I decided to craft a brand new piece for the occasion and duly planned and wrote a lockdown-themed thriller story entitled Left Outside.

This was a difficult challenge but also one I relished.

If you’ve by chance read any of my previous short stories that are posted on my website (for example my last one, Growing Storm), you may notice that they are on the long side of “short”; indeed, Growing Storm weighed in at approximately 12,000 words.

Kent’s competition, however, had a word-count limit of 5,000 words, less than half of the length of Growing Storm.

Problem? More a challenge.

I was pleased with how Left Outside came together. Firstly, having the goal of 5,000 words – and a deadline – focused my energies quite dramatically. It was great to be writing to a “brief” that I wasn’t able to cheat on. I had to get the story under 5,000 words, and I had to have it done and submitted by July 1st this year. The latter was a goal I easily made, though I didn’t rush the piece at all; I estimate that Left Outside took about 6 weeks to put together.

In some of the video blogs I’ve seen from Kent he’s said that some writers, when faced with the 5,000-word limit, have bemoaned that the limit was restrictive. I could’ve been the same; indeed, back in my final year at University, I complained that my creative writing dissertation piece had too small a wordcount at 8,000 words and my complaint successfully had that increased to “up to 10,000”, to the chagrin of some classmates but to the relief of me and some other like-minded writers.

And this is the journey of discovery I found myself embarking upon: to make my story “work” for this small amount of words I had to look at my writing style and adapt it to suit this brief:

  • My fiction prose is plot-heavy: building a cohesive plot in such a short amount of words can be quite difficult because there’s simply not enough narrative room to have that beginning, middle and end as you may expect. With Left Outside, I had to quickly throw my characters in and introduce them, while imbuing a sense of the setting. Instead, with a piece this short, it’s better to focus on a moment in a greater story perhaps that could be expanded upon. In Left Outside, we open with the protagonist, Adam, abandoned on a gravel path in the middle of some deserted location. We don’t know how he got there, or what happened prior – these are all narrative points that we could’ve expanded upon with more words to play with.

    But this is advantageous in a way because we the reader then experience the discovery at the same time that the protagonist does and this was useful in creating the sense of mystery and confusion that I wanted to start off with. I gave the reader very little information as to what had happened, and I let Adam be the audience surrogate for that initial discovery.

    Indeed, one of the struggles perhaps I encountered was the switch from writing mainly plot to going more character-led. One of my writing weaknesses, I feel, is my characters exist to serve the plot. In Left Outside, I didn’t have “time”, so to speak, to waste on setting up the plot so I had to focus on making some vivid characters. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but it was a learning experience.

    I think, also, I was ambitious in trying to still tell a complete story within the confines of 5,000 words. There’s perhaps more mystery in Left Outside than I initially intended but this is because I didn’t have the wordcount left over to expand.

  • Description must be economical: I’ve been complimented on several occasions for my vivid worldbuilding and description. But there’s simply no room in a story of 5,000 words to describe every brick in every wall, every blade of grass. While I was editing the story, I picked out extraneous description to the minimum, almost, required to tell the story. But I didn’t want to make the prose bland and perfunctory.

    Description in this story was limited, really, to pertinent details that the reader needed to know. It was a good exercise in paring down some of that description without losing the sense of what’s being described and keeping it at a suitable level of prose without it turning into a dull-to-read recount. That said I still think there are definite moments where a sense of the place – and the feeling within the place – is built up and concentrated.

These two aspects meant challenging my two strongest storytelling skills – plot and description – for this project. In retrospect now having submitted – but without knowing the results of the contest as yet – leaves me thinking, yes, this is perhaps what I could’ve done differently, but also I feel quite content with how the project turned out. I’m very pleased with Left Outside, it’s not perfect but what I can take away from this is what I can improve and do better with next time. Indeed, reflecting now, I still feel the balance of plot, description and character was a little off; but this is something to work on going forward.

It’s important with writing not to stay in a comfort zone and only ever write what you know, but you should challenge yourself to write new things you may not have considered before, and practice skills to keep your writer’s skillset supple. With Left Outside I am thinking how to better plan out stories like this because I still think I put too much plot in, and what sort of ideas would perhaps work as more “moments” for a short story like this. But knowing the word count in advance was certainly helpful – to paraphrase an excellent simile from a writer friend – to know the size of the mould into which the jelly (story) is to be poured to see if it fits.

In editing the story I was conscious that this was for a competition so treated it perhaps more judiciously when it came to editing than I would’ve for stories I simply publish on my website. The story went a couple of times to a couple of writer friends who offered feedback on successive drafts and also to a friend who hadn’t read it at all and was given the third draft that resulted from earlier feedback. This is a good approach, mixing feedback from those familiar with the work and it’s development to those who come to it totally fresh. But I didn’t want to over-edit the piece so once I was happy with it, the fourth draft became the submission.

In dealing with the feedback it was important, also, to not just try to please all the suggestions but take the ones that were achievable into the draft. Good commenters giving feedback will make suggestions, well aware that their suggestions may or may not be taken. There were some great suggestions that would’ve needed a substantial rewrite to achieve, and I was happy with the sections in question, though gave them a good spit and polish. But the feedback that would’ve required a more structural re-think also had ideas that were great and would’ve been implementable if the story could’ve been longer. That too is a skill to hone, of knowing what feedback (and don’t get me wrong, it was all good feedback, I wish I could have done it all) is achievable for a specific project.

Writing Left Outside, though, was a great learning experience and I am still very pleased with the resultant story. I only hope the competition judges feel the same, too! But more importantly, I feel, it’s renewed my sense that short stories are good proving grounds for plot ideas, writing styles or character situations. I’ll endeavour to hone my brevity skills with more sub-10,000-word short stories in the future, I’ve left this project with many ideas for new shorts!

Growing Storm – Short Story Announcement

It’s unprecedented times right now, and we’re all concerned about what’s going on. However, to find a positive in this troubling world, I have found some time to work on some creative endeavours. I’m pleased to announce therefore that I have posted a new short story Growing Storm, on my site and you can read it right now!

This started as a short story I’d initially wanted to release for Halloween 2019 but that didn’t happen for many reasons, but I’ve finally finished the story. It’s a “spooky sea shanty”, another experiment into horror/sci-fi writing that takes a lot of inspiration from one of my favourite novels, The Day of the Triffids, while hopefully doing its own thing.

This image summed up the mood of the story, and some of the key elements!

Please let me know if you what you make of the story!

READ THE STORY IN FULL HERE

In strange times like those we’re currently experiencing it’s important, I think, not to let ourselves be consumed by what’s happening in the world and allow ourselves some escapism – if anything it’ll alleviate the boredom of a long spell at home! I hope my short story – and the others here on my site help with that!

Free Festive Fiction 2019 – From the Archives!

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I had planned a festive short story to go out on my site today but various real-life things – a new job for starters – have put paid to those plans, which is a shame. The work in progress I’ve been nibbling at is still coming for sure and I am very excited by it – it’s still untitled, annoyingly, but can be described thusly as a spooky sea shanty, riffing a little, and intentionally so, on a classic sci-fi story from way back when.

I am, however, giving something for Christmas this year – I have made available a ~6,000-word short story I wrote in 2018 as part of my university course, Pandora’s Box. I hope it makes adequate festive reading! (Link at the bottom of the post or in the navigation!)

It’s a good story to revisit – written as part of my Narrative Techniques in Popular Fiction module that I recall enjoying quite a lot. This story was borne out of a great discussion we had in class about science fiction where an extrapolation of a real-world topic or concern.

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The concern I took to extrapolate was one I am legitimately concerned about – government collection of vast amounts of personal data, and the nefarious means by which this data could be used. There’s also a hint of extrapolation against nationalising of private industry. Here’s my premise notes from my University notebook:

The story is set on New Year’s eve, a year after the radical PANDORA group swept to power promising that, after an unfortunate industrial accident that they use to highlight the “callous profiteering” of the gene-modding industry, the “immoral” practise of “buying” genetic enhancements (or screening for flaws and correcting them) to create the ideal human body would be outlawed and the technology used to ostensibly “better humanity”.  This event is called the “nationalisation”.

 Over the course of the preceding year, under the surface, PANDORA uses this technology to screen the population for their perceived enemies who start to disappear after the gene clinics are used to surreptitiously build a gigantic genetic database on the entire population.

How does the story link in?

A breakaway group, Nexus, is rebelling against these practises finagles their way into acquiring the master genetic database code and is able to stop the powers that be from continuing to screen the population. However, confronted with such a pandora’s box of information and possibilities, the tables turn with the breakaway group inevitable becoming just as bad as the revolutionaries before them.

 This piece did well when assessed – scoring 67 marks, 3 marks off a First – and it was another one of my University pieces that garnered comments that it could work as the beginnings of a novel. I’ve pondered it myself, it’s certainly a setting and a premise I think holds legs!

READ THE STORY IN FULL HERE

Looking forward to writing lots more in 2020 – and wishing all of my readers happy holidays!

Short Story: Rescue at North Point

This story was inspired by a piece of the same name by my friend Col Price, who is a concept artist and art director who has worked in video games, TV and film for the last 20 years. Definitely check out his work! I submitted this story as part of a recent Creative Writing assignment for my course at Kingston University that scored a First; fair to say, I am extremely proud of this one! – Richard

Rescue at North Point
by Richard Holliday

Spittle mixed with dirty, salty air caked her hair as the wind whipped it into her face. Andrea winced, but looking down toward the waves that grew smaller and more distant under her with every second, she finally felt dry.

“We’re nearly there, Ms. Cross,” a voice, battered with static and interference, said abruptly into Andrea’s battered helmet. “The Ranger is standing by.”

With a gust a sheet of icy rain tumbling from the grey mass above Andrea was blown into her face. She winced instinctively and looked up. What little sun that penetrated smog-like clouds was blocked by the enveloping mass of the VTOL rescue ship Ranger that had plucked her from the gloom below.

Andrea clamped her eyes and the blood flowing through her veins began to warm core. The wind, so vicious and angry before, now merely rocked her gently in the harness.

A brook babbled innocently. Reeds gently ticked her face as she wriggled through. A young girl laughing, joyful and merry. The brook babbled and the reeds gave way to a pond, reflecting the sunshine from the cloudless sky in the crystal-clear water. The little girl ran along the bank of the pond, her blonde hair whipping with the gentle breeze. She never saw the root, jutting from the grass like a troll’s dirty hand, ready to grab her sandal and toss her into the water. What was clear and immaculate now threatened to envelop her, the sky turning black with every cough and gasp for breath…

Andrea opened her eyes. Whatever that was, what she faced now was reality. She put the dream about the little girl back in her mind, locked away. She fidgeted in the harness as it bucked and swayed and felt into her soaked uniform. The little locket was still there.

That one summer’s day led the girl to hate the water. For years the girl was told that water was the source of life. How could that be true? Water wanted me dead. Water hates me. Water must be conquered. Water is my enemy. Andrea followed it to the ends of the earth. Watching the last glacier dissolve into a surging mass of liquid. She remembered being there, hovering from a VTOL and cracking the ice herself with a titanium pick. That was part of her revenge.

“Are there any more survivors?” Andrea called toward the hoistman. The wind picked up, and carried her words out to sea. The hoistman remained motionless against the buffeting chassis of the VTOL.

“I said are there any more survivors?! The crew must’ve gotten…”

“No,” the hoistman called back. His irritation was clear over the static. “No-one else survived. They’re all dead. So shut up and hold tight if you want to see land again.”

A few hours ago she’d walked the rusting walkways that made up North Point. The undersea observatory had creaked and whinnied. A trickle of icy liquid fell into her hair. That was when it began. The trickle became a surge that punched through metal. It wanted Andrea. It wanted to make her pay, and pay dearly she would. The frothing mass that had laid all around North Point, eager to smash it to pieces and claim its mortal enemy, had waited to exploit the tiniest of flaws. Which it did. Nature always did.

The sea roared victoriously, gurgling into the hole below. Above, sheets of rain cascaded from the angular sides of the Ranger, forming a curtain of waterfalls that enveloped Andrea. Feeling entombed, her eyes closed again.

She remembered running along metal corridors that groaned underfoot. The fluorescent tubes bursting and flickering, sending sparks through a gloomy hell. Irregular movements as the undersea platform disintegrated, throwing her against walls. The screams of all those around her washed away. Trying to catch her breath on the ladder, but slipping on the cold rungs. Her bare knuckles turning white and, as the grey sky beckoned, a surge of water coming through the hatch, as if to say: “Not so fast. I’m not done with you yet.”

Andrea took a breath and looked down to see North Point disappear, the light of the service hatch flickering through the waves. A hand grabbed from the gloom above. The hoistman sighed with effort as Andrea’s soaked form fell onto the deck. With a final glance, she looked down to the sea. It was finally over.

© Richard Holliday, 2016

Update: If you’d like this story in Kindle format then visit my Short Stories folder where you’ll find it and all of my other stories!