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James Whyle: Rules of thumb for prospective short story writers

James Whyle - 2011-07-13

James whyle: Rules of thumb for prospective short story writers

I am no expert on the short story, but here are some general rules of thumb that make sense to me.

Rules of thumb
  1. Write. Write daily. It doesn't matter what it is, but try always to have at least one biggish project at some stage of evolution at all times.

  2. Read continuously, but never out of obligation. Search out writers that entertain and provoke you. Steal and copy what you love. (Imitation is good practice.) Acknowledge it where necessary.

  3. Protect your writing time.

  4. Use no unnecessary punctuation.

  5. Choose a simple tense and stick to it unless there is a clear gain in changing.

  6. Let dialogue speak for itself. Don't say “She spoke grumpily”; just write it grumpy. Listen to people talking. Listen to the dialogue in books. Examine how it is done. (Cf Elmore Leonard)

  7. Write for your ear. Read it aloud. If you really need to test it, read it aloud to someone else. You will feel where it works and where it doesn't.

  8. "There are two kinds of scenes: set-ups and pay-offs" (David Simon). If you have to, then plot, plot, but sometimes you don't have to. What you do need is one or two narrative nodes, climaxes, big scenes or set pieces that you are always aiming for. You should have a general intuitive sense of where you are going and why. The journey there should be a surprise to you and everyone else.

  9. Structure – real structure, not plot – is musical. It is built on, accumulates from, character, image, theme and the cadence of sentences. It is about how you climax the reader's emotional journey through the book.

  10. On the business side, and especially if you venture into film or television, take no shit if you can possibly help it. (Cf Richard Ford)