Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Short Stories - Deciding What to Write

“How do you decide what to write about?”  It’s the question I’m asked most often about my short story collection, IT GOES ON. My answer is not brief.  It’s easy to decide what NOT to write about, but coming up with compelling ideas for short stories is a challenge.  Yet, over time, I’ve established common elements to my stories and a method for selecting subjects. 
The title of my collection is from a Robert Frost quote. “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”  My stories look into the lives of people from all walks of life. Occasionally, pets and animals find their way into my tales. The stories can be romantic, suspenseful, mysterious, or even humorous.  Most of my stories include the following elements: 

  • An opening intended to pique interest and provide a glimpse (sometimes misdirecting) of the plot
  • A few characters that I develop rapidly
  • Elements of suspense and/or controversy
  • A twist or two toward the conclusion  
  • A takeaway lesson or thought

I try to keep the length of my stories readable in one sitting, but I let the stories come to their logical conclusions.   As a result, they range from 3,000 to more than 6,000 words.   
My second collection of stories is partially completed.   I thought about having a common genre or theme to this collection, but quickly abandoned the idea.  While a common genre might help target a specific audience, it is too limiting.  I found myself forcing stories to fit the theme, rather than letting them come to me.  

Story ideas arise at any time--while talking to friends, listening to music, watching TV, exercising, or as I’m about to fall asleep.  One thing I’ve learned is to capture the thought. I’ll jot the idea on a piece of paper or my iPhone, whatever’s available.  These initial ideas are only a few sentences about the main character, the setting, the plot and how the story might end.  I always have a backlog of potential stories.  When I’m ready to write, I’ll pluck several ideas that interest me the most from the backlog and compose the opening for each--approximately 300 words.  After selecting my favorite opening, I’ll spend next several days expanding it.  If I’m not distracted, it takes three to five days to complete a draft, and with the help of my editor, another few days to revise it.  

Below are examples of the ideas captured for my first short story collection. 

  • A married couple steals pension funds from their aging aunt.  After their aunt dies, a calamity of errors and missteps develops as they attempt to hide past lies and their aunt’s body.  
  • A man’s close friend tricks him into attending his ten-year high school reunion.  Once inside, the man embellishes his accomplishments, but is found out by an old flame.   
  • A young Wall Street broker struggles with his priorities.  His family life suffers as his career takes off.  He convinces several clients, including his father–in-law, to invest in a hedge fund that turns out to be worthless.     
  • A corporate manager feels sorry for himself driving to work one day. He’s become bored with life and despises his job.  As he drives past homes, the heartbreaking stories of those living inside are brought to light to the readers and eventually to the manager.   What he learns changes his perspective.

These four ideas and eight others made it into IT GOES ON. 

I also use contests as motivation for writing short stories.  Many contests are available to both aspiring and accomplished writers.  I’ve won a few of the smaller competitions. After entering short stories in Writer’s Digest’s annual competition for several years, I finally received an honorable mention last year for the story, A CIRCLE BROKEN.  That story started out as the following idea:

  • An elderly man waits on the porch of a nursing home for his daughter to visit.  Once a successful businessman, the up and down story of his life leads back to the opening scene. 

You can read this story on my website, DRShoultz.blogspot.com, under the tab Short Stories.  It will also be in my next collection out later in 2016.  I welcome your thoughts and feedback.