Writing a short story is a worthy mission. Short stories are fun to write, fast to compose (well, faster than books), and they get published every single day. Here’s a quick guide to help you craft short stories like a pro.
Before we get started, let’s put ourselves in short story mode. Your goal when writing a short story is to deliver a satisfying narrative in a very small package. Short stories aren’t tiny novels. They rarely have any subplots at all. Instead, the action revolves around one main conflict. The theme is revealed through a character and his or her obstacles. Tension keeps the reader invested in the stakes all the way through to the resonant ending.
When I started StoryADay May back in 2010, some of 100 or so people who took part really stuck with me. One was Gabriela Pereira, who had just finished up an MFA and was transitioning from student to working writer. We shared an enthusiasm both for writing and for the hair-brained scheme.
Back then, I was a couple of years ahead of her in the online, community-building, content-marketing , writing-for-pay experience. Now she has soared into the writing world as a leader, a teacher, an inspirer and, in her own words, Chief Instigator at her project: DIY MFA.
This afternoon I tuned in to her latest webinar, sort of as a favor. I’ve heard the talk before, live and in person, and was really just showing in case no one else did. Of course, there were tons of people on the call, loads of questions from attendees, and Gabriela fired people up and sent them away with tools and techniques to make their writing better, as always.
But — it shouldn’t surprise me, but it did — what I hadn’t expected to happen was that I had a breakthrough about my own novel-in-progress, while listening to Gabriela talk. Suddenly, I knew exactly what the turning point at the mid-point of my novel needed to be. More than knowing it, I could *picture* it.
I rushed off to my office and scrawled three pages of notes, opened up Scrivener and started adding scene cards to the second half of my novel’s file. I got super excited, and then realized how much writing I had to do…then chose to see that as exciting too!
Did I mention I’ve heard this talk at least twice before?
Lesson learned: when you find a teacher/mentor/friend whose words you really connect to, stick to them. Revisit their lessons. Re-read their books. Get on webinars and conference calls with them. Ask questions. Go over and over their lessons at different stages of your development and the development of each of your projects.
There is still time left this year to meet some of your goals. The question is which ones?
You probably had a list of projects you wanted to write this year, and there are only two possibilities now:
You haven’t made the progress on the projects that you would have liked, or
You blew through your projects and generated a new, longer list.
Either way you have a choice to make:where do you focus your time and creative energy for the rest of the year?
Learning To Choose
“Successful people make decisions quickly and change their minds slowly”
This certainly seem to be a trait in many of the successful people I know.
“The only bad choice, is making no choice”
I’ve been writing long enough now that I’ve seen people come along who were just starting out when I’d been doing this for a few years, who have overtaken me. Whether it’s the success of their website, or their book publishing, they seem much further along on one or other of the paths I want to take.
I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. But why does it happen?
Partly, it’s to do with making choices.
Like many writers I tend to over think things. I tend to get stalled by the idea that there is a perfect choice.
We could beat ourselves up about that, but the reality is, as writers we make choices all the time. We need to get comfortable with that, so that our perceptions don’t hold us back.
Everything About Writing Contains Choices
to sit down and write today
when to work
what project to work on
What decisions you character’s going to make
The best words to convey their actions, their feelings, their surroundings.
Every choice you make is a rejection of every other choice.
Does The Thought of Closing Down Options Paralyze You?
As a reforming over-thinker and reluctant-decision-maker, I’m here to tell you that, the more you make choices in your writing, the better you become at it.
And in fiction, making choices is always reversible.
Decision + Course Correction = Win
Here’s the really important part about choices: you aren’t locked into your choices, but you must review them and adjust your course.
For example, if you decide to kill off a character in your short story, but then find they would have been useful to have around later, you have some choices to make: must you correct the mistake or can you make some other character carry the weight that would have been taken up by the character you killed?
And in your writing life: you decide you’re going to write for two hours before bed every night, but find yourself tired and depleted and unable to create anything worthwhile. Should you continue to do what you think ought to work, or should you review the results of the experiment, decide you’ve learned something useful, and try writing at another time of day?
(Hint: it’s Answer B)
We’re not sculptors, lopping off pieces of marble that ought to have been a nose or an arm. If we accidentally chop off a story arm, we just go back in and add more words!
With words, we can fix everything.
Making choices in your fiction is fantastic practice for making choices on bigger issues.
TASK: Go back to your writing today with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the fact that your medium is the insubstantial one of words and fiction; and that by making choice in your fiction you get to become better at it.
Don’t Be Too Capricious
The art of iteration (i.e. trying things, adjusting and trying the next, tweaked version) is in trying a new thing for long enough to really tell if it’s working, before you analyze and make changes.
If you’re trying to write at night, commit to trying it every day for two weeks (or the equivalent thereof) and only then, make changes.
If you change a plot thread or a character, write a good chunk of the story after that decision point, evaluate it, and only then make decisions.
Do not make decision on the fly. Do not change your routine or your decisions every day. Give every experiment time to run, then examine it, and change one little thing, and go again.
Think of these experiments as first drafts. My first-draft version of ‘write first’ allow me to check email before I started writing. After I had tried the experiment for a while, I got stuck. The experiment (the first draft) had run its course. The outcome: checking email derailed my fiction writing.
So I edited out ‘check email’, and gave the process another try. It went much better.
The fact that we commit to writing a story every single day in May, means there is no bargaining. There is no question of ‘am I going to write today?” No mental energy is lost on that decision. Instead we StoryADay-ers leap out of bed in a panic, thinking “WHAT am I going to write today?”
With the writing part assumed, we skip straight to making creative choices, and scanning the world for inspiration.
I advocate taking away as many choices as possible from your writing practice.
Making choices saps your willpower. If you spend your day making choices about your writing practice, by the time you sit down at the keyboard, you’re going to be pretty depleted.
Does your day go like this:
Decide if I’ll write today
Decide when I’ll write today
Check email — to ‘clear the decks so I can write’
Tidy up/run a load of laundry– to ‘earn the right to write’
Push back my writing time for any of 1001 reasons
MAYBE get around to writing, and send the first half of the time allotted, trying to quiet my mind and get back into the story.
I would argue that if your day looks like this, you have depleted your will power so much that it is going to be really hard for you to make all the choices that you need to make in your story world.
Think about Mark Zuckerberg and his omnipresent grey hoodies, or Obama wearing the same blue suit (or multiples thereof) almost every day of his presidency. These people have so many choices to make in the day, the last thing they want to do is waste energy on choosing an outfit.
You have so many choices to make in your story world, the last thing you want to do is worry about reinventing your writing routine every day.
Protect Your Bubble
Now, I know not everyone can write first thing in the morning (it’s extremely rare day when I can truly sit down to write without having to deal with other people’s needs first).
But what you can do, is create a protected bubble of time that is for writing. In order to do that, make a deal with yourself that you will write at a specific time every day (or plan ahead for a weeks’ worth of writing days if your schedule is unpredictable).
And then stick to it.
This removes the self-talk about whether you’ll write today, wether you deserve your writing time, and all the bargaining we do with ourselves to ‘buy’ writing time.
My Current Practice
I have tried to make it, recently, an absolute that I write fiction first thing in the morning. I’ve tried to make it an absolute that I don’t look at email, Twitter, Facebook, or talk to any more people than absolutely necessary, before meet my fiction word count.
The more that has become a habit, the more my fiction output has grown, and the more my output has grown, the more creative breakthroughs I’ve had and, the better my writing has become.
Find Your Routine
You may find that you can write best at the end of the day, when everyone has gone to bed and you will have no choices except the ones in your story world.
Just decide when you’ll write, and stick to it for a couple of weeks. Decide if it’s working. Tweak. Try again. Keep writing!
DON’T BE AFRAID OF ROUTINE
I know we creative types often resist routine and commitment and structure because we’ve been sold this vision of the crazy creative.
We’ve come to believe that routine and structure stifle creativity and innovation, but in fact, routine in your working practices can actually free you up to be more creative in your work.
“Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and to look at what’s happening.”
We can’t build the creative space we need if we’re cramming our writing time into the space between all the will-I/won’t-I choices we put in front of our commitment to our writing.
Learning to get better at making choices and sticking with them is a powerful tool both in your stories, in your writing life, and in your life in general.
(Lesson #357 in how writing makes us better people!)
HOW TO GET BETTER AT MAKING CHOICES
Make your choices boldly. Stick to your commitments for a period of time. But remember that, as in writing, you can edit your choices later.
What will you choose to work on between now and the end of the year in your writing life? Something in your writing practice? A particular written project? Leave a comment