I’m writing my first short story in 25 years. I used to write short stories often and even had a few published in smallish Alaskan anthologies that no longer exist, but a quarter century is a long time not to use a set of muscles.
So where to begin? Over the years, my short stories have become novels and I write novels by the discovery method. I’m a good way into the narrative before I decide how it will end and then I draft some plot points to get to the ending. I then go back and rewrite to correct all the inconsistencies left in the wake of a discovery writer’s pen.
I don’t have that kind of time or space in a short story of 10,000 words due in August.
Where do I start? I’m a character-based writer, so for me there is no story until a character presents himself, but this story will be a stand-alone companion within the larger universe of the Daermad Cycle where there are abundant characters for the choosing. 10,000 words is a daunting limit I’ve grown unused to. Suddenly that blank computer screen intimidated. I think I know what brand new writers must feel.
Where to begin? Gulp! Uh…. Wow, that sure is a blank screen!
I have a lot of writing heroes, but when it comes to shorts, Ernest Hemingway ranks near the top. What former journalist can resist those succinct yet eloquent sentences? In his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recommends that I find “one true sentence” that is the message of the short. It’s the truth, the controlling idea, what I want the reader to come away from the story believing. What idea do I believe that I would I want to grab the world by its metaphorical shoulders and shake my readers until they listen?
I wrote that down on the computer screen and other words followed. While plotting my draft to reach that statement, I realized that it is one of the overarching themes of the Daermad Cycle. I’ve been following Hemingway’s advice (read decades ago and just rediscovered in time of need) without realizing it.
If you are a new writer just starting out, the blank screen (or paper) is intimidating. The good news is that you probably aren’t writing to a deadline. You can afford to write a mediocre short or even a novel with no ending because you haven’t made any promises to other people. That gives you time to experiment, discover and explore. Consider entertaining Hemingway’s advice. Find a statement you really want to make and try writing to demonstrate that truth, to express and then prove that central idea through the narrative structure of the story. Present the truest thought you can conceive of without resorting to explanation.
By just writing that one sentence you overcome the hardest part of writing – getting started.
Lela Markham, author of The Willow Branch and Life As We Knew It.