I recently announced on my Facebook page that I’m part of an anthology releasing on April 1st. Based off UtopiaCon’s Step Write Up freak show theme, our 8 carnival setting short stories will be bound together in one book: The Peculiar Lives of Circus Freaks. (See our announcement video and join The Peculiars here.) My Donovan Circus readers will hopefully be excited to read a Ringmaster Sheffield Donovan prequel.
We’ve been plotting this since last summer, and each of us concocted our own short stories that take place in one place known as the Kipling Carnival. Each of them unique characters, each of them with a different job and problem, make up part of the carnival crew in some way. The only thing they had in common was that they all were part of the Kipling Carnival. When we set out to write our stories, however, I realized my big problem: we were writing short stories.
Now, I write regular bite-sized magazine articles, but when it comes to fiction, I’m a novelist. I couldn’t tell you the last time I wrote a short story, much less had it out in the world to see (I’m guessing I’d have to go all the way back to Harry Potter fan fiction at 17). Each of my books are anywhere from 70k-110k words, which means 10k sounded downright impossible. Despite having my character, setting, and outline ready in my head, I had big ideas and grand scenes that simply wouldn’t work. There was no time for fight scenes or long discussions or themes. How did I prevent myself from diving into developing full backstories for each character?
My author friend BJ Sheldon, also in the anthology, described it in a way that really opened my eyes to breaking through the short story block.
You’re writing about a situation. Not a huge overall arc spanning an entire set of problems. Just one small situation that must be explained, understood and, in one way or another, resolved (not necessarily a happily ever after, simply an ending).
Because you only have so much space to cram in a story, chances are it can’t be a big, sprawling world with tons of characters and three huge action scenes that go on for four chapters (guilty). Not everyone’s life has to be in danger, and you probably won’t be able to follow many people (if in 3rd person omniscient) because it gets jumbled up in a short time frame.
This isn’t to say you can’t cover a long span of time day/week/month-wise, but because we each only had about a 2 week timeline in each of our stories, that made it much easier for us to maintain concise plots with only a few characters with specific motivations. I knew when my story started and ended, which gave me a nice time frame to work within. We each agreed to work in a few mentions of each other’s characters, simply for reference (meaning, someone else’s lion tamer shows up in my story, or the ringmaster in my short appears in their story even if it’s just in passing). So, I had plenty of foundation. But how did I build on it without creating an entire world behind the show?
I won’t lie, it was hard squeezing my story into 10k (in fact, my first draft ended up at about 11k). Turns out there’s a delicate balance to short stories, in how much you reveal and how to make an impact in a short bit of time. It was a brand new challenge. Rather then delve into everyone’s backstories, I focused on the one person my DC readers would recognize: Sheffield Donovan. I know the guy pretty darn well, but he’s plenty mysterious in the series. There are a couple new folks that are important to my story as well, but Sheffield Donovan is the heart and soul of the whole thing (possibly as he is in the DC series).
I hope readers learn more about Sheffield, his background and history, in this short story than in any of the series’ novels. (I know I did.) My story is a quiet one. There are no fight scenes, but I hope there’s tension and uncertainty. There is no romance, but I hope there’s a sense of love and family. There is no Lucy Sullivan and the gang, but there are Easter eggs and other tidbits that are important to Sheffield’s character and his interactions with the Kipling Carnival. This short story actually opened my writing up as I forced myself to try something different. It improved my writing as I learned what parts of the story were most important, and which were fluff.
And in all honesty? It made me even more excited to eventually write the short story prequels I’d like to do with more DC characters. Much like Harry Potter’s Marauders, I’d love to eventually write a few shorts featuring the old Donovan Circus crew, with Sheffield, Lucy’s father Lenny, and others you learn about but never meet in the current series. This was great practice to not only see if I could do it, but do it well and enjoy it.
I recommend giving your short story idea a shot. Even if it never sees the light of day, it’s good practice to learning a different writing style, deciding what stays and goes if within a word count limit, and gaining a better understanding of how you work. You might surprise yourself!