In Search of the Illusive Great Short Story-Scattered Thoughts Looks At Short Story Writing

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
―Lorrie Moore
“A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.”

― David Sedaris

“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Wonderful quotes but they don’t get to the heart of the matter which is what is a short story, what makes a short story great and how to write one.  I have been reading a number of short stories lately, either in anthologies or published as stand alone pieces of fiction, and in the majority of the stories I have read, I am seeing the same issues over and over again.  Rarely is the story I read a complete one.  They have the feel of the beginning of a story, or the middle of a story or sometimes just a chapter in a story, but not a complete story.  And in those stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end, it is the ending that is always rushed.  It is as though the author looked at the current word count and quickly scrambled to complete it within the allotted number without rounding out the story.

So with so many short stories being published, I thought Scattered Thoughts should look at what is a short story and what makes a short story great?  First, what constitutes a short story? A short story is defined as a story with a range is usually between 3000 to 5000 words with 10,000 being the maximum.  Although this can vary depending upon different writing guilds.  The Science Fiction Writers of American uses these categories for their Nebula awards:

  • Short fiction: under 7,500 words
  • Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
  • Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
  • Novel: 40,000 words and up

But for the purposes of this article, let’s go with the 10,000 words, just to be on the generous side. I say that because the smaller the word count, the harder it is for the author to write a good short story, let alone a great one. Writing a short story is not the easy task that some think it is.  William Faulkner calls it “the most demanding form after poetry”.  Absolutely true, especially when you consider the elements that make up a good story. For me those elements are unforgettable characters, a strong beginning, solid story framework, consistency, and a strong (read not rushed) ending. That is what I look for when reading (and reviewing) stories.  And for me those components remain no matter the length or the genre.

But let’s look at the most common five elements that go into every fictional story: character, setting, conflict, plot and theme. A short story takes those same elements and narrows it down proportionately. On the whole, short stories tend to be less dense in plot, usually focusing on one event or experience. The short story typically has a single plot, a single setting, a small number of characters, and covers a short period of time.  This does not mean that you write a story and then cut it off prematurely in order to get the word count right.  And that is the story that comes across my Kindle time and again.

What should an author remember when writing a short story?  What is your goals in writing it? Have you achieved those goals at the end? Where is your emphasis, on characters and plot? Or on length? Remember what type and length of story you are telling. If you start out writing a short story but the characters and plot pull you further than you expected, then sit back and reorganize your thoughts.  Maybe the framework you set out is that of a novella or novel.  If so, rewrite your goals and continue on with your longer version.  But don’t try to fit it into the constraints of a short story or a word count objective received from a publisher if that is not the story you are writing.

I know sometimes it is hard to condense all your ideas for plots and characters once you get started.  There are “voices” that clamor for your attention, each demanding their story to be told.  Or at least that is what some authors tell me. But remember, your goal is the short story. It has a finite framework, a compact (but not necessarily simplified) plot that contains all the same elements of a larger piece of fiction.  Remember that every word counts. Make sure each word moves your story toward the character’s goal.  Because you are working towards one goal… that of a great short story, an illusive animal indeed.

What makes a short story great?  A short story takes all those elements listed above, and executes them beautifully, giving us memorable characters and a story that makes you think and feel far past the ending.  A great short story can rock you on your feet, take your breath away or make you laugh.  It doesn’t leave you frustrated that the ending was rushed or that something was left out, whether it was a more layered characterization or incomplete world building.  The great short story feels complete because it is complete.  Sounds so simple, yet so hard to achieve.

As William Faulkner said:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

Writing is an  art form.  It will pull the guts out of you, it will take your blood, your heart and soul, and then ask for more to be spilled out across the page as you write.  It is frustrating, it is exhilarating and sometimes stupefying.  It’s hard work.  And the short story form is all that and much, much more compressed into a small gem.  But only if it is done correctly.  Only if you know what a short story demands of you and you respect that.  Otherwise all you will be left with is a truncated novel that satisfies no one, including yourself.

I am currently making a list of the best M/M Short Stories I have read.  Let me know if you have any you think should be on the list. In the meantime, here is a link to a list of The 50 Best Short Stories (not m/m) and 100 Great Short Stories.  In the meantime,  Scattered Thoughts is still on the hunt for that illusive animal, the great short story.

Review of the Jewel Bonds Series by Megan Derr

Rating: 4.75 stars


For the Jewel Bonds series, Megan Derr creates a rich world of wizardry and combatants.  In this fantasy world, we have the Territories full of wild creatures and dragons, a lawless land that is constantly infringing on the civilized cities and towns.  To deliver the full measure of protection to the civilized zones, it takes a bonded team comprised of a mage and a warrior.  One to go forward in strength and combat, the other to watch his back and keep safe all around them by magical means.

Children with an affinity for magic or sword work and able to pay tuition go to live at the University of Magic and Combat where they are taught lessons in warfare and magic.  The children are all ages. The different schools seem to correspond to our system here. Some arrive in their teens for studies at the university level. Neither gender or social status matters, both can be warriors or mages, as long as the tuition is paid or scholarships hold, they can attend.  When a mage is finishing their third year in the University, clear jewels are implanted in their wrists and foreheads, showing they are ready to become full mages able to use their magic to the fullest of their abilities. Mages tend to have a talent for one area of alchemy like fire or wind and when they find a warrior to bond with, their jewels take on the eye color of their partner. But for some mages, whatever the reason, a warrior is never found to bond with, leaving them to become a field mage or research mage on their own.

Within this realm of harsh realities, of learning acquired through pain and physical deprivation, Megan Derr gives us three short stories of mages and warriors at different stages in life. Two are still in school at The Royal University of Magic and Combat in the capitol city, the middle pair have left their schooling behind them, one to glory and the other to ignominy and despair, and the third pair sees a mage in his forties, in straightened circumstances, facing a life without a position, possessions or a bond who in his most desperate hour meets a young warrior in need of a temporary mage.  Derr gives us a glimpse into their lives, the hardships they endure to become warriors and mages, and the strange journeys made to find fulfillment and love.

An Admirer (Jewel Bonds #1) introduces us to Kaeck, a poor student working three jobs to help subsidize his scholarship in order for his to stay in school.  By inclination (he feels unloved by family and peers) and circumstances (he works from predawn hours to midnight), he has isolated himself from most of the student body.  Kaeck’s daily routine and expectations rarely changes until the day he opens his student post box and finds a letter from a secret admirer, One letter is followed by others and then gifts.  And Kaeck finds his outlook changing, someone admires him, thinks him beautiful! Kaeck wants to meet his admirer and give him a gift back. But while his admirer is anonymous, Kaeck has met a fellow student, Bellamy, with whom he shares common interests and insecurities and soon Kaeck wonders if their friendship could turn out to be more. But Bellamy is enamored of another student and Kaeck is left wondering if his secret admirer will ever come forward.

I took Kaeck to heart immediately.  Who hasn’t had someone like him in their lives, doing everything he can to keep afloat and make his dreams come true. Kaeck’s family is harsh and lacking love growing up has contributed to his sense of worthlessness.  I just wanted to grab him up, give him a huge hug and feed him a massive dinner.  Kaeck is so fully realized that his pain became mine as well.  It was just as easy to become invested in Bellamy.  A “country mouse” late to class his first day of advanced swordplay and in his ignorance he treated the Lord like a regular professor. Bellamy gave his all in a swordfight, earning his Lordship’s respect and earning a coveted apprenticeship as well as the continued resentment of his peers. Neither young man is comfortable around others, one silent, the other babbles when nervous.  But together, they find a ease with each other they have found no where else.  Derr brings the stress and angst that comes from  school cliques, trying to find your way,  and awkwardness in school and transfers it believably to a fantasy world.   I loved this story and want so much more of these two. At 36 pages, it felt just too short as I was totally invested in these young men and their world. You will feel the same.

Kiss the Rain (Jewel Bonds #2) is a neat time shift as the two heads of Magic and Combat, Lord Jenohn and Master Selsor, almost 60 years old in An Admirer, here  are only 18 when the story begins.  We meet Selsor as he is being brutally attacked by bullies in the school yard at the University.  Told from Selsor’s POV, this is a difficult paragraph to read as you feel every blow to the ribs, every kick to his head as curses rain down upon him.  In his fear, he strikes out with his magic, which up to now has never worked.  A lightning bolt comes out of the sky, killing another student in the courtyard by accident.  Selsor is hauled before the University council who refuse to believe him about the attack and the accident. They tell him the student is dead because of him.  Selsor is banished, forbidden to use magic upon threat of death, and his jewels turned black by the University mages.  Three years have past, and we meet up with Selsor, age 20, scrubbing the floors of a lowly inn, living in the straw above the animals in the stable, reduced to almost starvation levels as no one will hire a disgraced mage.  So depressed he has tried to kill himself, he is beaten regularly by the sadistic innkeeper. Into the inn comes Jenohn, a warrior and a group of soldiers on a mission from the Prince.  The town they are in is being inundated by rain to the point of extermination and the Prince wants to know if black magic is the cause. Jenohn needs the help of an uncorrupted mage and picks Selsor for the job, to his amazement and distrust.

In Kiss The Rain, Megan Derr takes the hard life and isolation of Kaeck’s student life and then deepens it into abuse and horror for Selsor.  Selsor only wanted to become a mage and bond with a warrior, just like his parents had.  But his pretty features and slight build made him an easy target at school where the bullies endless physical and emotional abuse was a daily occurance.  Not only was Selsor afraid for his life but his magic doesn’t want to work even though he knows he has it, adding frustration to his fear.  Selsor commands both our empathy and understanding as he tries to deal with horrific living conditions and the loss of his dreams.  Especially horrifying are his circumstances when we meet up with Selsor years later only to find him being kicked and abused again, only this time with no magic at hand.  So when this golden warrior, Jenohn appears, offering him enough silver to live on and escape the life he is living, we are just as wary as Selsor.  He knows from experience that life is never fair nor kind.  But just as Jenohn grows on Selsor, so does he grow on the reader.  Arrogant but able to back it up, kind in a sort of “need to smack him” sort of way, Jenohn just gets under your skin, Selsor’s too.  Selsor finds it hard to keep his grump on when faced with such irrespressible good nature, and all of it directed at him.  Great characters, both of them.  I loved seeing their backstory after getting a glimpse of them in old age.  This  story has it all, tears, angst, rage and laughter all in 47 pages.  Amazing.

An Exception (Jewel Bonds #3) takes us into the life of Riot, a lonely mage. Mage Riot never thought he would be jobless and practically homeless at the age of 40.  After 20 years of service to the lord of the territories, making sure the land is safe from dragons and that the kingdom prospers, his lord dies.  The new lord is an arrogant, smarmy young man who bullies all around him and expects Riot to submit to his sexual demands.  An honorable man, Riot refuses the pipsqueaks’s ultimatum, and leaves with nothing as all his belongings are confiscated by the new lord.  Even worse, once Riot is cast out, rumors are spread, casting aspersions on Riot’s honor and magic abilities.  Almost penniless, Riot is trying hard to hold on in a land that no longer seems to put a value on his experience, and accumulated wisdom. What is a mage to do when all the rules he has lived by are deemed old fashioned?

I loved Riot immediately.  He is such a unique character.  He is older, forty to be exact.  His hair is graying and he is well aware that any chance he had of being regarded as handsome is long past.  His former lord was a good man and Riot was happy in his service, even though he had never met a warrior who wish to be bonded to him during that time, to his everlasting sorrow.  Now his crystals in his forehead and wrists have turned gray from lack of use and he despairs of ever finding another job, especially at his age, let alone a warrior who would want an older man.  How that rings true no matter the setting, our world or that of fantasy.  Riot is so relatable in every way.

Derr excels at characterization and her people, like Riot, have emotions, thoughts and feelings that match ours.  How can we not relate to them, trying to get through life without compromising who they are and dealing with the stress of everyday life? Even if that life means keeping the kingdom safe from dragons? All that to deal with and at middle age too. Depressing, even heartbreaking.  I felt I knew Riot intimately. Rior meets his match in Coroe, a warrior in need of a mage.  Coroe is in charge of seeing his Lady safely to the lands of her new husband in a neighboring kingdom and all the mages he has hired have been disastrous, either drunk or incompetent or both. Coroe’s gorgeous looks belie his warrior status just as Riot’s rough warrior like exterior is atypical of mages.Both men have had problems stemming from peoples assumptions about their appearance and both are equally wary about the other.  Each also feels their age difference matters to the other in how they are perceived.  Again, how realistic. Coroe’s character has the same level of complexity that Riot has, but it comes out in difference ways.  I loved him too.  Both men circle around their mutual attraction, held back by Riot’s insistence on a firm separation of business from pleasure.  I liked this plot twist that keeps the men from acting on their romantic impluses because with the physical sexual act removed from the action, Derr is able to concentrate on building her characters, their backstory and amble, instead of run, to the start of a romance.  Here too, Derr gives us a complex duo in 10,000 words.  Do I want to see more of them?  Why yes, I do!

I hope Megan Derr will continue to give us wonderful stories in the Jewel Bonds universe,  Perhaps more of Selsor and Jenohn as we are missing 40  years of their lives.  Or perhaps Kaeck and Bellamy after graduation.  The plot possibilities are endless and so are my hopes for the series.  Don’t pass these up.

Covers by Megan Derr.  Hard to argue when it is the author themselves creating the covers for her stories.  Love them.