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:
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.