How to Draft Short Stories

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Short stories are my stock-in-trade. While I’ve written (and am writing) novels, short form fiction is really what I’ve had the most success with. I also get the most feedback and questions about them when speaking with other writers. It’s always interesting to me when people think they are “too difficult”, since for me, writing a novel is the greater challenge!

If you’re thinking about writing a short story, I’d encourage you to do so. I’m a big proponent of literary magazines and anthologies, and building a body of publication through them. While it’s good to hunker down for months-years and knock out a novel, a great short story can potentially earn its keep in a week’s worth of work.

Here’s a few tips on my personal system for short story writing:

Story Beats

I’m a plotter.

It seems a bit crazy to outline a short story, but I do it anyway.

It’s not a traditional outline though. It’s just “story beats”. It’s a simple bulleted list in my notebook that I use to “pre-write” the story before I actually grind out the first draft. Will it change? YUP. Does it keep me on track and help write the story faster? YUP.

One of the main criticisms I see in short fiction is “the story goes nowhere”, or “it feels like a vignette”. It can be tough to pack an arc and character transformation into a 5-10K word story. Having those story beats laid down ahead of time let’s you look at the skeleton from a zoomed out perspective to see if you’re accomplishing that goal, before you get into the details of laying “meat on the bones” so to speak.

Self-Editing

Please, PLEASE. For the love of God, do NOT hire an editor to go over your short story. Shorts are a perfect way to accomplish two things.

  1. Brush up on your editing & proofreading skills – Give each pass a day in-between. You’ll find the problems. Fix them. Let the Editor at the lit mag or the anthology point out the rest. It’s what they are paid to do.
  2. Build a stable of Beta Readers – Quality beta readers are indispensable to an author. You need to treat the ones who give great feedback like gold. Short stories are a low-commitment way to find beta readers. It should take a few hours at most to read a short story and critique it. And once you’ve identified the beta readers who give great feedback, you know who to ask first when you need a larger project (ie: novel) read and reviewed.

I personally do three editing passes on my short stories (waiting 1-2 days in between each pass to keep my eyes fresh) before I show them around to people. Those folks will inevitably catch new things, and I fix those before I begin to submit around.

Learn When to Quit and Submit

I debated including this, but I think it’s really important.

Saying “this story is done” is one of the single toughest things for a writer to do. Knowing “when to say when” is tough because an endless draft protects us from the dreaded rejection letter.

Short stories generally carry less blood, sweat, and tears in them than novels. So sending them off for submission (and rejection!) can help you learn about what I like to call my personal “quality threshold”. While thickening your skin, rejections and acceptances will help you know whether you sent out a story that was up-to-snuff, or needs another revision. While we’ll never be the best judges of our own work, it can at least help us to know when it’s time to not do another revision. Unlike a novel, if you’re on your tenth re-write of a short, it’s probably best to scrap the whole thing and just write another story.

Conclusion

I hope these tips are helpful, and if you’re thinking about writing some short stories, do it! There are many benefits to them, and they really help you to find your voice as a writer, while also giving room to experiment with different styles that you may not want to commit to for a book-length project.

 

 

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The Benefits of Reprints

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I recently received an acceptance note (hooray!) that one of my short stories was accepted by a literary journal as a reprint. I haven’t seen much discussion of reprinted works on here or social media, so I figured I’d post for the benefit of other authors who might not have given them much thought.

Expand Your Audience

Reprints are an excellent way to get your existing work in front of new readers. My short story “Yard Sharks” was originally published in a print-only lit mag. That means it had a relatively narrow audience. The literary journal that picked it up as a reprint is online, so it will now exist in a whole different medium; with the power to share it more easily. Reprints can breathe new life into an old story, and you never know who might read it.

Keep Up Author Momentum

We can’t always write new stuff. Life happens, and even the best of us get occasional writer’s block or just need time to recharge our creative batteries. Submitting existing work for reprint is a great way to keep your “author momentum” going, and “make your writing work for you” as a friend of mine said. It gives you a positive goal and something to talk to your readers about in those extended periods of downtime when you are either struggling with an idea or perhaps deep in the throes of revising a novel.

Validate Your Work

What’s better than having a publication accept your work? Having two publications accept it. Or three. Or five.

Publishing is a numbers game, and a networking game. There’s clout to be had when editors or outlets look at a piece that has been picked up multiple times. It implies quality, which might mean the difference between them giving you an opportunity versus a rejection.

Seeking Reprints

There are fewer literary journals and anthologies that accept reprints than don’t. Most places want previously unpublished works. That said, there are still a number across all genres that are willing to give good stories another home. Just be sure, as always, that you read submission guidelines carefully and that all your republication rights have effectively returned to you before you seek new pathways to reprint your work.

 

The Active Word Checklist

Hot on the heels of “The Weak Word Checklist”, another great post by K.M. Allan with an “Active Word” checklist. Another one to bookmark for reference when you’re re-writing those drafts.

K.M. Allan

“Keep your prose active.” It’s one of the most well-known pieces of writing advice and one of the most frustrating.

Sometimes when writing, especially when you’re first starting out, you have no idea what words are making your prose non-active. You’re just writing, using the words that sound right.

It’s not until you see the difference creating an active voice makes to your story that you understand why it’s a tried-and-true recommendation. Take the following sentences, for example…

Non-Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket, trying to reach for her cell phone.
Active: Sarah’s fingers fumbled in her skirt pocket for her cell phone.

Non-Active: The fire at the entrance had reached one of the glass doors and was turning it black.
Active: The fire at the entrance reached one of the glass doors, turning it black.

Non-Active: When her gaze crossed the entrance, she couldsee someone standing in the middle…

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The Weak Word Checklist

Another great post from K.M. Allan. This is a good resource to bookmark and re-use whenever you are editing a piece.

K.M. Allan

Not all words are created equal, and as a writer, you can devote many hours to finding the best perfect one.

While playing with word choice and re-writing sentences until you get them just right can help capture what you’re trying to invoke, a weak word can do the opposite.

But how do you know which exact words will pull the strength from your sentences? That’s a skill you’ll learn to develop as you grow as a writer. In the meantime, the following checklist is a good place to start.

The Rules

Use your Find/Search function to scour your MS for the following words.

  • If your sentence makes sense without the weak word – Delete it
  • If the weak word adds clarity – Keep it
  • If deleting the weak word makes the sentence better but confusing – Delete the word and rewrite the sentence

The Weak Word Checklist

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