Become a Writer Today

How to Write Short Stories with Frank Burton

April 07, 2021 Bryan Collins
Become a Writer Today
How to Write Short Stories with Frank Burton
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Become a Writer Today
How to Write Short Stories with Frank Burton
Apr 07, 2021
Bryan Collins

Have you ever tried to write a short story? I've often felt that short stories are a great way to try out different styles and genres without the commitment of writing a novel.

They are also a valuable way of moving your writing away from blogging or journalism.

Frank Burton is a podcaster and author. Not only has he produced several novels, but he's also a prolific short story writer.

I was interested to know more about his short story writing process and how he comes up with so many different ideas for short stories across genres.

In this episode we discuss:

  • How Frank got into writing short stories
  • How long it takes to write a short story
  • Influences and favourite writers
  • Are there any rules about how long a short story should be?
  • Can anyone write a short story?
  • Dealing with mental health during the lockdown

Resources:



Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Show Notes Transcript

Have you ever tried to write a short story? I've often felt that short stories are a great way to try out different styles and genres without the commitment of writing a novel.

They are also a valuable way of moving your writing away from blogging or journalism.

Frank Burton is a podcaster and author. Not only has he produced several novels, but he's also a prolific short story writer.

I was interested to know more about his short story writing process and how he comes up with so many different ideas for short stories across genres.

In this episode we discuss:

  • How Frank got into writing short stories
  • How long it takes to write a short story
  • Influences and favourite writers
  • Are there any rules about how long a short story should be?
  • Can anyone write a short story?
  • Dealing with mental health during the lockdown

Resources:



Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Frank :
In many ways novels are easier, because with short stories, you write one and then you have to come up with a whole new idea for another one. So putting a short story collection together takes a really long time, whereas with a novel, it's just one story.

Introduction:
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan :
Do you write short stories much? Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. And short stories are a fantastic way of exploring different genres and different types of writing. Back in 2008 when I was a washed out journalist, I enrolled in a series of creative writing classes in the Irish writers Centre in Dublin. And at the time, or at least up until I enrolled in these classes, I was reading a lot of thrillers and science fiction books. And while I still read these types of books today, I wasn't really reading other books from different genres or even different types of writing. Our creative writing instructor, who was a guy from Texas, gave us works to read by the likes of Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver and Kurt Vonnegut. And I was fascinated by these books and stories, particularly the short stories by Charles Bukowski and Carver.

Bryan :
I couldn't believe that somebody could write a story about a couple of people sitting around in a room having a drink or talking to their friend. And it seemed like nothing happened in a short story on first read, but then when you read it a few times, it was like peeling back the layers on an onion and you discovered that there was different subtexts to the story. And in particular, I'm talking about his most famous short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. So after that, I decided to write short stories myself. And although it's not something that I stuck with over the term, it got me into writing beyond journalism. And I started sending my short stories off to competitions, and I also started writing short stories in different genres.

Bryan :
And the advantage of all of this was firstly, it got me to try different genres. Secondly, it got me into the habit of finishing my work and thirdly, it got me into the habit of putting myself out there with my writing rather than just sitting alone in my room, trying to write the great Irish novel. Because the great thing about a short story is you can finish one in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks, whereas you could spend a year or two working on a great novel and never actually get any feedback about your work. I still read short stories today and I think it's a great form of writing that any writer can try without any great cost in terms of time or in terms of spending a lot of effort at something that doesn't pan out. And if you consider you might have a short story, I'd encourage you to look for a magazine that you could submit it to, or to encourage you to find a competition that you could enter.

Bryan :
Now, one man who's done this and is a prolific short story writer is Frank Burton. He's a writer, publisher and podcaster. In fact, he's got two podcasts on the go and he's also written several novels as well as a collection of short stories. I recently caught up with Frank and I asked him about his short story writing process and how he comes up with so many different ideas for short stories across genres.

Bryan :
But before we get over to this weeks interview, I do have an ask. If you enjoy the Become a Writer Today podcast, please can you leave a short review on iTunes or wherever you're listening to the show because more reviews and more ratings will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. Now let's go over to Frank and I started by asking him to introduce himself and what type of short stories he likes to write.

Frank :
I got into writing short stories quite early on I think, because I've been writing since I was a teenager and kind of playing around with short stories was one of the first things that I did. And it's certainly the first kind of works that I got published were short stories. I did kind of creative writing as part of the degree at university that I did many years ago and kind of got into it through that really. Yeah, I kind of carried it on for quite a long time. I still do it. And I eventually got a book of short stories published in 2009 called A History of Sarcasm and quite a few of them had been kind of published in magazines previously. So that was kind of my first step into publications if you like. Our first kind of published works where short stories.

Bryan :
And how long does it take you to write a short story and what are your short stories about?

Frank :
Well, when I've got a good idea, it comes out quite quickly and they're the ones that I prefer. Sometimes I'll work on a story for quite a long time, just kind of in my head before I put pen to paper. So if it's a bit of a complex subject perhaps, or it's kind of an idea that I can't quite get my own head around, I will think about it for a long time before I sit down and write. Because my process really is that I just like to kind of have it all prepared in my head and then just kind of bash the whole thing out. By doing that I'm kind of almost making it look easy. I'll sit down and write a short story, it'll take me 45 minutes, but actually it's taken me much longer than that.

Bryan :
That's pretty fast.

Frank :
But there's a whole process before that of just kind of deciding what the story is going to be about, what's going to happen, what is going on with the story. And in terms of the subject matter, lots of different things. It's kind of changed quite a bit over the years. I was very much into Kurt Vonnegut when I was kind of in my twenties and stuff. And I wrote quite a few short stories which kind of looking back were rather Vonnegut-esque, shall we say, a little bit of-

Bryan :
I've done the same thing.

Frank :
But you know, they're still pretty good, it's just I wouldn't necessarily be doing that now. I think I've kind of found my voice as a writer, as they say, and rather than trying to emulate Vonnegut, I'm kind of trying to build upon my own kind of themes and my own kind of ideas and stuff like that. The biggest challenge that I did was I wrote a book called One Hundred, which technically is a novel, but it's actually a series of 100 stories, but they're all kind of linked in together. So it's very much a kind of a short story collection that sort of became a novel. And the challenge that I set myself was right, I'm going to write a hundred stories and I'm going to put them in a book and I'm going to call it One Hundred. So that's what I did. And they're all very sort of surreal kind of bizarre things happening, but within kind of a recognizable kind of context. They're all set within this-

Bryan :
But are linked.

Frank :
Yeah. They're kind of linked all together. Kind of linked through this tower block. They're all sort of set sort of in and around it. So it's kind of a recognizable setting, but kind of crazy and wild things happen.

Bryan :
Okay. That's a good idea. So I'm looking at one of your stories here, it's A Man Gives Birth to a Human Hand in the Night, the prose is quite sparse so it feels like something, you've mentioned Vonnegut, are there any other influences? I don't know, Raymond Carver kind of came to mind when I was looking at the... Oh, sorry, Franz Kafka actually, your introduction, your first line. Have you had any other influences on your work so far?

Frank :
I think around the time that I was writing that I was very much into European stuff. Kafka being one particular writer, but also there's a series of short story anthologies that I'd highly recommend. The series is called Best European Fiction. I don't know whether it's still going actually, it was definitely going for about 10 years. There's some really amazing stories in those collections and each of the anthologies has a story from each country in Europe is represented in the anthology so there's one story per country. And yeah, I was really into those at the time that I was writing that particular thing.

Bryan :
Okay, I'll check that out. When you write a short story, do you have any particular rules in terms of word count or what it needs to do?

Frank :
Not necessarily. It depends on what I'm trying to achieve with it really. What I'm doing at the moment, as a matter of fact, is I do this podcast called Ragbag, which I've also got a fictional element in that I'm releasing a series of novels that are based on stories that I've created as part of the Ragbag podcast. There's quite a few short stories that I've written specifically for the podcast that aren't actually published anywhere. They're just kind of published as audio stories. So it's kind of a different process because they're not necessarily intended to be read, they're just intended to be listened to. So I think with that, it's not exactly a rule, but kind of making it understandable to a person who is kind of listening to it and that they may be doing something else at that time. The sort of things that people do when they're listening to podcasts.

Frank :
They might be listening on their commute, they might be walking down the street with headphones in, something like that. So generally this sort of thing, people will be listening while they're doing something else. So it's kind of bearing that in mind. It's a different experience to sitting down in a quiet corner, reading a book. So not exactly a rule, but it's kind of making those stories understandable to the listener. And I've also got specific rules for the kind of Ragbag world in that everything that happens, it's a change of approach to what I was doing previously with the One Hundred book where kind of anything could happen. But in the stories that I'm writing now, they have to be plausible. They have to be something that could realistically happen in real life. So that's the only real rule that I've got at the moment.

Bryan :
Ragbag is your series for which you published a new novel as well.

Frank :
Yeah. Yeah. So the new one's just come out, the new one's called Getting Away With It. And yeah, it obeys that rule just about, in terms of plausibility. There's some quite crazy things that happen.

Bryan :
Would you be able to give listeners a flavor for what it's about?

Frank :
Okay. The premise behind the whole thing is that Frank Burton is the central character in the books. So the story goes, I, myself, am writing about real things that have happened to me in my life. Now this is not strictly true, it's all a fictional world, but within that world, the character of Frank Burton exists. So in the new book, Frank gets involved in this large kind of extortion plot where he befriends this kind of criminal mastermind who is taking historical buildings and holding them to ransom and he kind of becomes an unwitting accomplice in all of us. But at some point as the story goes on, you kind of realize that oh, maybe this isn't really happening. Maybe this is Frank's friend is just telling him that these things are happening and he's kind of sucked into this story that he's being told. So it's kind of like a bit of a mystery in itself. That's kind of the general idea behind the book, if that makes any sense?

Bryan :
So you're kind of breaking down the fourth wall, or it's a little bit like the twist in Fight Club?

Frank :
I'm not breaking down the fourth wall as such, I'm doing the whole thing as though this is something that really happened. It's like a fake autobiography.

Bryan :
Oh, okay. Gotcha. And what did you find was the difference in the writing process between short stories and something longer, like a novel?

Frank :
In many ways novels are easier because with short stories, you write one and then you have to come up with a whole new idea for another one. So putting a short story collection together takes a really long time, whereas kind of with a novel, it's just one story. So you can just go, here's chapter one, I know what's going to happen in chapter two because it's a continuation of what happened in chapter one and then bash that one out as well. And so in many respects, just from my personal experience, writing novels is kind of easier in its own way.

Bryan :
Yeah, that makes sense. What does your editing process look like for short stories?

Frank :
Like I was saying, I've tried to do a lot of it in my head before I sit down and write. So what I try and do is have almost the finished piece come out at the end. So when I write it all down, I can tinker around with it, play around with some of the sentence structures and stuff like that. But hopefully I should have the whole thing done, kind of before I've written it. And I know that's not everybody's process and that may sound like a crazy thing to use to a lot of people, but for me it's a lot easier because when I first started doing it, when I first started writing, I'd do just loads and loads of different drafts of... I'd do like a first draft where I was just basically kind of making it up as I went along, and then I'd kind of have to pick it apart and go, well, I like this bit, but I don't like this part. Maybe I'd have to rewrite the whole thing or maybe do three or four other drafts of it before I got it right.

Frank :
Now I think I've reached a point where I can just do kind of that stuff internally, prior to writing it all down. But I think that that's something that comes with practice because I've been doing it for a long time. And I think you get to just develop the instinct for what works and what doesn't work. And it just becomes a lot easier as the more that you do, the more that you write, the better you get. That's the principle anyway. That's the idea.

Bryan :
Yeah. It's kind of like your subconscious can still work on the story, even when you're not sitting at your desk.

Frank :
Yeah. Are you familiar with the 10,000 hours principle?

Bryan :
Malcolm Gladwell's rule for mastery, yeah. I've come across it.

Frank :
I like that idea.

Bryan :
Think it's been debunked, but it's a good rule though.

Frank :
Oh has it been? I didn't know that it had. Oh, well, whether it's true or not, I think the general principle that if you spend, it doesn't have to be 10,000 hours, but if you spend a long time working on something, working on the craft. And with writing it's all about working on the craft I think. Working on the, like I say, developing that instinct about what works, what doesn't work and the more you do it, the better you get. Your instincts get better.

Bryan :
I would agree with that. Yeah. Practice does help with improvement. You mentioned you sent a lot of your short stories into competitions, that's something I did as well. What made you decide to enter competitions and what impact did that have on your [crosstalk 00:14:20]?

Frank :
I didn't do many competitions actually. It was more kind of magazine stuff. So get getting [crosstalk 00:14:27] in magazines and on websites and journals, what have you. Yeah, I entered a few competitions. I never won a single one so I gave that up. But I got quite a few kind of short stories published in magazines, which was nice.

Bryan :
Yeah. Did you get paid for getting published in magazines or was it more for the recognition?

Frank :
Yeah. I mean, it's not huge amounts, but it's always nice to receive. The first payment I ever received for writing was I got a check for 50 Australian dollars from a Australian publication called Etchings. I don't know if it's still going actually, but it's really good. That was for the first short story that they published of mine and then they published another couple of them after that as well. So yeah, that was a nice achievement. First time I got paid for writing something.

Bryan :
Yeah, it is nice to get paid to write all right. So you've a lot of experience writing short stories. Do you think it's something that anyone can do?

Frank :
Not necessarily, you have to really want to do it I think. That being said, I mean, everyone tells stories in day-to-day life and I was just thinking about this the other day because one of the things that I miss the most about from being in this lockdown is just going out for a drink with my friends. And one of the things that I missed about that is that everyone's sitting around telling stories to each other. "Here's the thing that happened to me last week," or, "I heard this thing about somebody else." And a lot of interaction, a lot of those interactions that you have with other people, it's storytelling. It's telling each other stories.

Frank :
So really we're all storytellers, but actually the craft of kind of writing a story is very different to talking to your mates in the pub. But I think there is some kind of a overlap there. And that's something that I'm trying to do with my current work is that I'm trying to, particularly with the spoken stories that I do for the podcast, I want to make it feel like it's just somebody sitting next to you at a table talking to you. "Here's the thing that happened to me, isn't that funny?"

Bryan :
I could see how that could work for a podcast all right. And how do you start a short story?

Frank :
Start with an idea usually. It could be a simple idea or it could be a more complicated thing. I do prefer the simple ones though. Short stories are great just for, you can have a short story about anything and it could just be about two people sitting down having a conversation. I mean, if you look at Raymond Carvers' stuff, it's just kind of nothing happened, but there's something really sort of compelling about them, even though nothing happens particularly much in those stories. It's just kind of about these little sort of slices of life. But I quite enjoy the crazy bizarre stuff as well. Depends on what mood I'm in.

Bryan :
Yeah, Raymond Carver, it can take a few reads to figure out what exactly he's trying to say because it almost just feels like you're sitting in a room and nothing happens. Has the lockdown changed your writing process?

Frank :
It's changed the way that I organize my time because I've got two kids and I've got them at home right now because the schools are closed. I've taken to writing kind of late at night, whereas I was a lot freer to kind of take my notebook out and write some stuff down. But at the moment I'm basically kind of got the kids full time. Which is great in its own way, it's just that I have to reorganize some things about the writing schedules and stuff like that.

Bryan :
Yeah. I have three kids as well so I understand where you're coming from. You mentioned you take out your notebook. Do you mean a paper notebook or a laptop?

Frank :
I always used to have a paper notebook. I did it for years and years. Nowadays I actually just take out my phone if I'm making notes. It's just for convenience because I can carry it in my pocket. So I'll just use the notes feature on the phone and quite often that stuff will get copied and pasted into a document at a later time. I actually know quite a few people who use Google Docs. I've used them occasionally. Because it's great, you can just sort of update the document on your phone while you're wandering around the supermarket or something and just add a little bit to the thing that you're working on and it just saves it. It's kind of a convenience.

Bryan :
Scrivener as well works on tablets and iOS devices so it's quite good for that. You've also spoken about mental health and writing about your experiences with temporal lobe epilepsy. How do you manage mental health during the lockdown and balance it with writing?

Frank :
Yes, it's a tough one that. I'm lucky in that I'm not experiencing symptoms of epilepsy anymore. I've kind of got over that, fingers crossed. But I mean, the whole lockdown process is stressful and I've definitely had moments where I've been incredibly stressed in terms of just trying to deal with the thoughts that creep in when you can't leave the house and I'm stuck here with my wife and my kids and no one can go anywhere. I had a phase of kind of going out for a walk and just to try and clear my head that way. But as a matter of fact, I think writing is the best thing for kind of relieving-

Bryan :
It's a free form of therapy, right?

Frank :
Totally. Totally. Yeah. I don't really write kind of diary type stuff very often. I do it occasionally. Just kind of write something that is not intended for publication, it's just kind of me getting down my thoughts on the page. But I think I'm more likely to just kind of channel kind of any emotional stuff that's going on with me into fictional characters and it kind of comes out that way. It really is a great way of getting rid of stress from my point of view.

Bryan :
Yeah. I find journaling is quite helpful for me, but I guess I don't write much fiction these days. But I definitely agree, writing is helpful at the moment, especially when we're spending so much time at home when we can't leave because of the lockdown. So do you have plans to work on another novel because I know you just pulled the second book in the Ragbag series?

Frank :
Yeah, I'm doing a whole series of them so I'm working on the third one at the moment. Yeah, I've kind of got into the swing of it to the extent that the first book and the second book and the one that I'm working on at the moment I'm writing quite quickly as well. They took me three months to write each. So I literally wrote a novel in three months. I couldn't believe it. I mean previously I worked on a novel that took me two years and it was rubbish as well. It didn't go anywhere. I wrote that book One Hundred, which I was really pleased with. I kind of ended up releasing it myself. It was being read by some top people in the industry and people were saying nice things about it. I didn't get a book deal for that in the end and I released it myself in the end.

Frank :
But I was really pleased with that book and I wanted to do something similar to that. So I spent two years writing this other book that was kind of, "I'll do something even more bizarre than that." And so I had all of these kind of weird ideas for this kind of science fiction book that I wrote and it just didn't hang together and I put a lot of work into it. And so what happened after that was that, because I'd kind of got it into my head that being weird was my thing. I'm the guy who does the weird stuff. The weird stories, that's kind of my thing. But then I thought, well, this obviously isn't working out very well for me. So I kind of changed direction.

Frank :
And that's part of where this rule came from with the Ragbag story is that everything has to be realistic and plausible in order for it to make it into the Ragbag universe, as I call it as kind of a joke. And yeah, that seems to have worked very well for me in terms of actually productivity. So I've kind of developed this ability to write a novel in three months, which is awesome.

Bryan :
Yeah. Some constraints are always useful. If you had to pick a genre because you sound like somebody who doesn't like to be confined, what genre would you pick for Ragbag?

Frank :
Oh, I see, right. At the moment I'm trying to have a slightly different genre for each book. So the first book, it's this kind of mystery story, like a pseudo detective story. There aren't any real detectives, it's about Frank's dad going missing and he's kind of trying to solve this. It's kind of like a missing person kind of mystery story. Whereas the new one's more kind of a crime thriller. I guess the Ragbag book's a little bit more about just the characters and the way that the characters relate to each other and their relationships and things like that. So it's not kind of your classic kind of crime thriller novel, I'm just labeling it as that for want of a better phrase, I suppose.

Bryan :
Do you spend much time promoting your books or are you kind of more focused on your podcast, which I guess is a form of book promotion too?

Frank :
I'm trying to kind of use the podcast as a promotional tool and stuff like that. I've actually launched a second podcast as well, just to keep myself on my toes

Bryan :
Two podcasts?

Frank :
Yes. Yeah.

Bryan :
How do you find the time?

Frank :
Well, I don't know. It comes. I think if you're organized enough, I think you can do these things. Like I say, a lot of my creative process is kind of in my head just while I'm walking around. So I think that's why I'm able to kind of produce things quite quickly when it comes down to the actual doing the thing. So yeah, I think that's how I've ended up with-

Bryan :
I'm curious about how you approach to spoken word version of your stories. So you come up with the idea in your head, then do you write it out and then do you fire up your podcast recording software and read it out, or do you do it in a different way?

Frank :
Yeah, no, it's all in the script. So it's all written down kind of and I will read out word for word, but I will try and make it sound like I'm talking off the top of my head. So I present the podcast in character. The podcast version of Frank is kind of a little more eccentric than the version that appears in the books. So I'm a little bit more experimental, a little bit more kind of crazy on the podcast. It's a hundred percent scripted, but I try and make it sound like Frank the character is talking off the top of his head and he'll just kind of react to things in real time.

Frank :
So he'll do these shout-outs to kind of listeners and stuff like that. And the shout-outs are all kind of part of the script as well, it's all kind of fake, but I'm trying to make it sound like it's real. So I'd shout out to Bryan or whatever, and then Frank will just be looking in his inbox and he'll be reading things out and he'll be reacting to it in real time. And he'll be arguing with the guy who's written an email and saying that, no, you're wrong about that and stuff. So yeah, it's kind of a little trick that I'm playing I suppose, but it's fun.

Bryan :
Yeah. That's quite clever. A lot of non-fiction writers take articles they've written and turn them into books. So you could nearly take your podcast episodes and turn them into an audio book.

Frank :
Yeah, well I'm probably going to do an anthology of the short stories that are in the podcast. That'd be quite nice. I've done quite a few of them now. There are ones that I don't think would translate onto the page as well. So I would probably select the ones that would work in the written form because there's certain ones that involve me kind of doing sort of weird voices and stuff like that, or just kind of reacting in character to certain things. And it's more about the tone of voice that I'm using to say these things in and it wouldn't necessarily translate. Like if I'm being sarcastic or something in like an extended sort of way, it wouldn't necessarily come across on the page. But there are certain ones from the podcast that I think I will sort of release as some kind of anthology at some point.

Bryan :
Yeah, I think it would be a good idea. Where can people find out more information about you Frank or where can they read your short stories?

Frank :
Oh, frankburton.co.uk is the place to go.

Bryan :
Okay. Check it out. Well, thanks very much. It was very nice to talk to you today.

Frank :
Yeah, likewise. Thank you very much.

Bryan :
I hope you enjoy this week's episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you're listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show. Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I'll give you my writing books, discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.