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  • Writer's picturePeter Sexton

the long and short of it

Recently, in my very first printed interview, I was asked about pacing, and how I keep all the important plot points of my novel in order. The short answer is: Short Stories. Short stories play a huge role in my writing. Let me begin by talking a bit about my love affair with the short story form.

My introduction to fiction and writing was at the very young age of twelve. I was in a reading/writing class taught by an amazing young teacher named Barbara B. She introduced us all to the works of Poe, Lovecraft, Bradbury (to name a few). I was so thrilled by what we were reading that I started buying as many books as I could, nearly all of which featured short stories. Then one day, as I was tellign my teacher how amazing I thought the stories were and that I wished I could do something like that, she said: "You can!" By the end of that school year I had written a number of short stories and was eager to write many many more.

Within ten years my first short story was published in a short-lived horror magazine called Blood Dreams. The story was called The Fountain of Youth and dealt with a new take on the vampire legend. This story, by the way, I plan to publish in a collection of short stories in the summer of 2020 or 2021.

Initially, short stories helped me learn and develop into a writer who could tell a story and hold the attention of readers. Later, I realized that they were doing so much more for me. Here are some of the reasons I still write short stories:

- to learn about characters

- to help me figure out where a larger story needs to go

- to learn how to write concisely

- to conquer the dreaded "writers block"

- and to build an audience

Let's return to the question I was asked about pacing. Too often, while reading a new book, my interest is lost because the writer spends far too much time developing character, setting, or backstory. Understand, while much of the time this information is important and something we need to know, it is just told in a way that loses the reader's attention. The stakes need to be high, the reader must be invested in your characters and the story being told. Death to any story is the dreaded phrase: Who cares? If you get the reader to think that, or, ugh, utter it out loud . . . you've lost him or her.

So . . . how do you draw your readers in and keep them invested and emotionally involved while flipping pages in a race to the end? Understand short stories. In short stories, you don't have time to meander around and look at this and taste that and listen to something else. You have to be headed for THE END from word one. But . . . you still need to develop those characters and settings enough to make the readers care about your story and continue reading. The task now before you is to develop characters, set a swift pace, and engage the readers without leaving out anything crucial. This is exactly the same way you maintain the fast-pace in your novel.

First, you need to know where you're going. What is the big payoff at the end of your book? Once you know that, you can determine the best route to follow. While you're following that path you can determine the best characters to tell the important parts of your story. Before you know it you'll have a fast-paced novel that readers can't put down. And you will have done it without compromising character or important backstory.

So, in short, whether the story I'm telling is twelve pages or 372, I approach it the very same way. I know where I am headed before I type the first word, and I am constantly asking myself who cares? Because there is so much involved when telling a good story that you can't allow yourself to be bogged down by irrelevant details and backstory. If it's important to the story, figure out an interesting way to convey that information to the reader. But, as I have learned while writing short stories, don't ever spend pages upon pages telling the reader things that could be fed to the shredder without losing the point of your story. You'll have a lot more fun writing your novel . . . and your readers will thank you for it.

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