The Long and Short of It

Inspiration is a strange thing. Sometimes, it comes you to in a word. A phrase. A sentence. Sometimes, you have a dream. Sometimes, it’s a what if. In my next blog post, I’ll probably go further into ways I’ve been inspired to write the stories I’ve composed in my life. I’m not sure how inspiration works with other writers, but with me, it always seems to show up in a way where I can tell what the final piece will become. Short Story? Novel length? I usually know how far I can pull each thread when it appears. And so, I tend to find my planning so very different for each. On this blog, I once discussed the difference between a pantser and a plotter, and I very firmly stood on the plotter side, but with some flexibility. But as I’ve begun working on new short stories, the first I’ve written since truly completing my first novel, I’ve realized something odd.

I’m not a pantser or a plotter. I’m both.

When it comes to working on a novel, I am an obsessive planner. I write forty page long outlines with clips of scenes and setting and history and descriptions, etc. I like to be ready, so when I sit down to work on the story, I know all the details and I can create without being stopped by questions about where I’m going or what role certain things will play in the story. That being said, I still surprise myself, and I try to stay open to changes when they occur, and reshape my outline every few chapters to make sure my direction still makes sense.

When I’m working on a short story, it’s very different. Sometimes, I come up with a concept I want to play with. Sometimes, it’s just a word. Sometimes I get a story prompt. Sometimes, the idea pops out of my head fully formed, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ axe-split noggin. Sometimes, the idea comes out in dribs and drabs. I’ll write a paragraph at a time, when the mood strikes. I’ll revisit it and write a few lines of dialogue. I’ll find another story prompt that will revitalize it and I’ll start writing it full time again. Often, I’ll just write with no idea where I’m headed, and see what happens. Then I’ll go back and re-read it all and add and subtract as needed, once I’m sure I have something that might vaguely resemble an actual story.

I am currently working on one of those piecemeal short stories, and it made me think about how different the processes are. Short stories are a short, frozen moment in time. You have to say so much more with so much less, and for some stories, it’s impossible. Some are just too big for that. In short stories, every word must count to explain the situation, to create the mood, to give us enough of the character that we care for them in a few short pages.

In longer stories, you have time to grow the character, to slowly reveal the plot, the setting. You can go into much more detail, have so many more words to work with. Perhaps this is why the outlining for a long story is so intense for me. Perhaps with short stories, I’m telling a story frame by frame and worrying less about the background, about who these people were beforehand and will be later. Because all that matters is this moment in time, and what they do with it. And the only thing that needs to inform that is their actions in that moment.

Or maybe the writing brain is magical and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

For all my writers out there, what methods do you employ when outlining a short story? A novel? Let’s chat!