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At some time in late 2018 I decided that, in the New Year, I was going to write more short stories. The reasoning behind this was, mostly, that I’d practice the short form, after focusing for years on plays and novel-length fiction.

My friend Dave, over at Karavansara, quoted to me someone saying that, if you write a story a week for a year, you are sure to write something good – if only because it’s hard to write fifty-two bad stories in a row… Or something to that effect: I’m quoting from memory, and quite freely. That said, Dave is the kind of fellow who can (and does) keep up with such a breathless schedule. I, being a lazy, soft creature when stage deadlines are not involved, settled for a story a month.

So I wrote down the notion in my notebook, made a list of story ideas and a rather cute story tracker*, and in January, while I was feeling sorry for myself because of unrelenting fever, aching bones and all that, I began. And then stuck with it.

Eight stories later, I have only good things to say about the plan. Specific good things – and here is a little list.

1. Practice makes… well, let’s leave perfection alone – but certainly practice makes ease and purposefulness. While it’s not that I hadn’t written short stories in years, I tended to approach the short form in a rather haphazard fashion, as though it were a kind of miniature novel – or play. It always felt a little like elbowing my way around a narrow place. Doing it more systematically is proving quite the learning experience in the ways of conceiving and telling short stories short. And by the way…

2. Trying out things. I’ve taken a few short story courses over the months, just to see and try different approaches. Some teachers will have you start with a personal memory, others with a character, other still with questions, or the ABDCE structure, or the ending… Of course, as Kipling says, there are nine and sixty ways to tell a story, and every single one of them is right – so it’s interesting to explore and experiment. And not just when it comes to structure and method and length…

3. …But also in genre, subject, and whatnot. No, really. Left to myself, I’m an inveterate comfort-zone dweller. I may like to explore the bounds of historical fiction now and then (or convince myself that I do) – but that’s as far as I push myself. I believe I told you about the mentor who used to nag me into stepping out… now I have to nag myself – and short stories are proving a perfect way to do it. A short story is a short-term thing – a stroll out of bounds, not a year-long journey. One hardly needs to lock the door when venturing into, say, contemporary land for a short story. So I’ve tried a few things I might not have otherwise – and rather liked it. Also…

4. I’m sure you know how it is to have notebooks bursting with story ideas… old ideas, small ideas, bizarre ideas, half-baked ideas… they are all there for someday, too flimsy for a novel, or intriguing but not enough to spend months or years on them, or… as I said, you know how it is. Well, when I started on the monthly short story, old ideas emerged from notebook-limbo in droves, waiting to be written. Back in January, my first step was to reprise and write in earnest a ghost story – the first story I ever wrote in English, some twenty-five years ago. Among other things, it was fascinating to see what I could to with those bare bones, and a quarter of a century’s worth of writing and experience under my belt. And then, of course…

5. The deadlines. I’ve said I’m a lazy creature when deadlines are not involved – and that was stating the case mildly. The fact is, I’m terrifyingly proficient at procrastinating, and little startles me out of it – unless it’s a deadline. Stage deadlines, mostly – and Nina is very good at setting tasks, then nagging, and then deciding that she needs “it” next week rather than next month… Contest or award deadlines also work quite well. Artificial deadlines… not so much, as a rule. This time, though, for some reason, it works like a charm. I want to finish my story-a-month, and I always have, so far. I’ve cut it quite short a couple of times, and driven family and friends slightly mad about it – but it works: eight months, eight stories – and counting.

Now the ninth story is in progress. It wants to be another old thing I began… oh, I don’t know – twenty years ago, perhaps? I started it in Italian, and then left it there. It has resurfaced recently from the depths of my hard-disk, and wants to become my September story. I’m doing my best to make it happy, and then there will be three more, and I may not stop there at all. Who knows?

Let’s wait for December, and the twelfth story – and we’ll see.

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* A tracker, yes. A cutesy one, in the shape of a stack of books… And I know – even I can’t possibly lose count between one and twelve – but what can I say? I’ve come (or regressed) to a point where marking off another notch in a tracker is ridiculously satisfying – so sue me.

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