To Make a Long Story Short

Jan 25, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Nancy Cole Silverman

Henry David Thoreau first coined the phrase ‘make a long story short’ in a letter back in the 1800s. He wrote: “Not that the story needs to be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.”

As a novelist, short story writer, and teacher of the craft, I wholeheartedly agree. There is nothing short, simple, or quick about writing a short story. In fact, experience has taught me that the shorter the format, the harder it is to set the tone and capture the reader.

Nancy Cole Silverman

I found that particularly true last year when I read more than 500 short stories for Mystery Writers of America’s annual competition for the Edgar Short Story Award. Crafting a short story that will stay with the reader, like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” — still one of my favorites — or last year’s Edgar Winner for the short story competition, R.T. Lawton for his story, “The Road to Hana,” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, May 2022) is never short work.

I’m always surprised when I teach my short story class, and students tell me they don’t have the time to write a novel and thought they might start with a short story … like that might be the easier of the two. Words have weight, and the fewer words an author has to use, the more critical word choice becomes. Short stories cut to the quick. Dialog. Settings. Characters. Each has to support the story’s theme. There’s neither time nor space on the page for flowery prose that doesn’t advance the storyline, and yet, time and again, short story writers find ways to mince words to advance and color their stories.

Take, for example, the opening sentences in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “It’s impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.” In that simple, well-crafted sentence, the reader knows the protagonist’s troubled mind and the tone and direction of the story.

I like reading and writing short stories. I write a lot of them, sometimes for competition and other times to test out ideas for a new character I’m playing around with for a larger piece of work. Other times, I’m just testing a plot point or flushing a scene out. I’ve learned a lot of tricks along the way. Best of all, there are no hard rules. But if asked for advice, I’d have to quote Thoreau and say, “it will take a long time to make it short,” so give yourself plenty of time and be prepared to write and rewrite.

When something works on the page, and the reader can’t put the work down, the author has succeeded. It’s the best advice I can give my students. Read, subscribe to short story publications, and enter as many short story competitions as you can find.

And, on that note, I’d like to introduce SinC/LA’s new anthology, Entertainment to Die For. I hope you enjoy it.

Sisters in Crime Los Angeles (SinC/LA) has announced the release of their new anthology, Entertainment to Die For (January 1, 2023), with an introduction by award-winning novelist Sara Paretsky. Paretsky, a founding member of the national organization, said when she and other female authors were starting out thirty-five years ago, it would have been easier for a woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics than an award from Mystery Writers of America. But today, Sisters in Crime is a national organization with a membership of more than 4,000 and 50 chapters worldwide. “We live in a world where women’s voices are at risk,” says Paretsky, “but this collection says we are on center stage, and we aren’t leaving.”

Contributors to SinC/LA’s Entertainment to Die For include a lineup of mystery writers with short stories about Hollywood in the forties, the struggles of black filmmakers, vampires, and actors facing retirement. All stories were selected by blind competition. Listed below is a complete list of short stories and their writers.

All the World’s a Stage by Kim Keeline
As Seen on Television by Melinda Lomis
Careful What You Wish For by Nancy Cole Silverman
Death Under the Stars by James T. Bartlett
Destination Wedding by Frankie Bow
Duet by Cyndra Gernet
Freddi Farr, Behind the Bar by Carrie Voorhis
He’s No Gary Cooper by Mary Keenan
Murder in Xanadu by Lisa Morton
Mystery in MB by Laurie Fagen
Natural Causes by Yoland Reid
Ordinary to Extraordinary by Lynda Palmer
Possessory Credit by Diana Gould
Red Carpet by Sherri Leigh James
Transylvania on the Tallahassee by Avril Adams
Unknown Sand Pit by Laurel Wetzork
The United Location Project by Anne Louise Bannon
The Writer’s Room by L.H. Dillman

Edited by Gay Toltl Kinman, Meredith Taylor, and Susan Rowland.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up this week.

You can use this link to purchase the book. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the Amazon link. You can also click here to purchase the book.

Nancy Cole Silverman. After twenty-five years in News/talk radio, Silverman retired to write fiction. Her crime-focused novels have attracted readers throughout America, and her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Silverman writes the Carol Childs and Misty Dawn Mysteries (Henry Press), and The Navigator’s Daughter, a Kat Lawson Mystery (Level Best Books).


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