How not to write a short story (and write it anyway)

Any writer with any common sense would sit down and make a plan. I mean, what a dumb thing to do to publish part one of a story – admittedly a story you only imagined would take up one- two at the most – posts – without making a plan? Who would start off with four characters in mind and have absolutely no idea what they were going to get up to?

Me, I’m afraid. I should it be ‘I – I is afraid’ or even ‘Afraid, am I’? After you’ve been exploring the boundaries of your linguistic abilities for a couple of hours, you begin to think, and write, like the small green furry with the sideways ears, ie:


I just thought you might like to know how one story kind of… happens, in spite of the incompetence of its writer.

So I got this idea for a short story, but not the short story in question (The Obedience of Brother Odhran). The short story I got the idea was a kind of fantasy/horror item involving Jane Eyre and… That one was/is, probably going to be a long one for submission to an online magazine. That one might make me some money.

However, I thought – (some) people seem to like it when I put short stories on the blog. I don’t want to not write short stories for them. So what if I use the same skeleton of a plot but kind of drape a different story over it. And make it shorter. Much shorter. You do go on a bit, I told myself.

So I typed out a page of notes, which were… (and this is a trade secret I’m handing you here)…:

The work of a young illuminating monk does not meet with the approval of his master. The master agrees that his artistic talent is prodigious but he makes costly mistakes because he does not understand the Latin well enough. He gets bored easily and starts drawing in the margins or on scraps of vellum. The master knows that this may be a sign of his gift, but he needs to learn to be scrupulous.

So he sets him a task, to decipher a dusty old Latin volume – one of many. He is to refer to Latin text books as he goes along in order to produce a perfect translation. The master does not tell him that this same task was set to him, in his youth, and probably to other monks before him. The text is obscure/untranslatable – and the aim is to focus the youth on a single aim – discipline through denial, since he cannot draw until he has completed the translation. The master fully intends to relent, after a year or so. The youth will then be so grateful to return to illustration, and so much better at Latin – that the purpose will have been achieved.

This is the first half. No point in spoiling the second (as yet unwritten) half of the story by publishing the plot. Only a silly billy would do that.

Then I spent a pleasant hour or so rummaging about on the internet for images to go with the story. That’s the fun bit. Anything that’s not writing is fun. It’s not easy with fantasy/horror stories, though. Although there are a lot of lovely fantasy/horror pictures on the internet there’s a limited supply of free-to-download ones. You can’t just snitch them so you have to be a bit creative in your choices – do a bit of lateral thinking.

And then I spent maybe a couple of hours (I lost track, as always when I’m writing – I know it got dark at some point) writing part I. It was quite good, I thought. And then I hit the button and published it. This is not the correct thing to do, ladies and gentlemen, for three very good reasons:

a) you are then committed to writing the rest of the damn thing and there is nothing like having to write something to make you not want to;

b) you are also committing yourself to writing by the seat of your pants/trousers/plus-fours, pantaloons or whatever they call them in your country. This is scary, but also… exciting! I don’t get much excitement nowadays. The thing is, when you get onto part II you tend to realise that something or other in part I wasn’t right – and then you’re left with a choice. Do I go back and change part I, which isn’t really cricket, or do I skew the whole plot going forward in order not to change it? In part II I realised the nasty Abbot was not in fact of Norman lineage but a Roman. It was a single word, so I went back and changed it.

c) you need to take into account that writing a story gets harder as it goes along. The first instalment is always easy but the further you go with pushing this knot along to the end of the piece of string, building this wall when you are only an inch away from it, etcetera, the more complex it gets – the more plates you have to juggle, the more you have to keep in your head. And the characters will keep messing around with the plot, they keep inputting. For example, I was schlepping around in my dressing-gown this morning, feeding the cats as always. I checked my shopping list. Did I need soap?

And suddenly Brother Odhram was whispering in my ear: ‘When I fall, I make a black shape against the white sky, like the shape of a letter upon paper.’ He hasn’t fallen yet, by the way, and he may not fall. By the time I get to that part he may have decided to pack up and become a sheep farmer in Patagonia. How would I know?

More of this later, maybe.

One thought on “How not to write a short story (and write it anyway)

  1. I think you write the story the way you want to, even if it means changing some key elements, and trust your readers to understand. That the joy of blogging, as opposed to sending your stuff off to publishers.

    Liked by 2 people

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