How I Write Short Stories
Whenever anyone tells me they’ve been married longer than 10 years, I tell them they are qualified to write a book on “how-to-stay-married.” There’s a similar idea for anyone who’s written over 200 short stories. Now, I’m nowhere near ready to tell anyone how they should write their stories, I do feel equipped to tell you how I write mine.
Step 1: Come up with a basic idea for the story.
There are numerous ways I can stimulate my creative energies and create a basic idea for a story. Primarily, I rely upon three sources for my idea: dreams, writing prompts, and my sense of wonder.
Whenever I remember to, which is seldom than I’d like, before I pop out of bed in the morning, I like to reflect upon any dreams that might still be lingering in my subconscious. Frequently the stuff I find there is gold. Is it genius? No, hardly ever, but the important point is it coheres. It has in its core some archetypal purity born from the brain’s ability to make bizarre, unthinkable connections between disparate elements.
Two such stories that originated as dreams are Red or Black and SIRIRI (See It, Re-remember It, Reclaim It).
I cannot overstate how valuable I find writing prompts. Having a good idea is sometimes half the battle. With writing prompts, you are at least afforded a catalog of “possibilities.”
Here are eight stories I probably would have never written without the aid of prompts.
Rooftop Ballet — “Ballet, rooftop, flashback.” Such a simple suggestion, just three disparate elements strewn together.
White Snow, Red Kimono — “He lay back in the snow.” Another powerful prompt, merely an image to let your imagination run where it will.
Retest — “A plague, a piece of chalk, viridian.” Another list of ingredients to toss together and see what pops out.
The Elders; A Creation Myth of String & Feathers — “Invent a creation myth involving string and feathers.” Another creation myth story.
Cuando el Sol y Luna Eran Amantes — “Whenever a heart breaks, so does a piece of the world. This is where cracks, fissures, and valley’s come from. Write about the story behind the grand canyon.” I’ve discovered I love creation myths. I can see how a person could write enough stories to fill a book (or thirty) just from these wonderful tales.
Amina — “Everyone is born knowing the day they are going to die. Write about a character whose day of death already passed, but they are not dead.”
Grandma’s Basement — “A young brother and sister find an old door in their basement that wasn’t there before.”
Mrs. Henderson — “The teacher is a monster, but no one will believe you.”
I talk more about writing prompts in this post: On Writing-Part 4, In Praise of Prompts.
Cultivating a sense of wonder.
By asking yourself “what if” questions, you can recharge your childlike sense of wonder in the world. I feel we move in a word of cynicism where wonder is less and less common. I don’t have everything figured out, so I ask myself questions, imagine, daydream, fantasize.
Here are four tales that came from asking myself silly questions.
Around the Fold (trilogy) — I asked myself, what if I could see into the fourth dimension? I liked the resulting story so much I went on to write a prequel and a sequel. (And I get the sense I’m not done with the vein.)
Finding the Glasses
Around the Fold
On the Lam
Calling In — A Terryn and Shawn Story — I was thinking about the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. What if the big bug wasn’t a human, but just a big bug blocking my only exit from my apartment?
Step 2: Write a rough draft.
I’ve ritualized this starting point in my writing. I have an empty template called “empty.doc,” I copy it, rename the file to a date I plan on publishing the story, and a short tentative title in the filename.
Do this without hesitation or hurry.
Don’t expect perfection from the draft. Just aim to see the big pieces and get them down on paper. Whoever said “Good writing is good re-writing,” was telling the truth.
Generally, I like to finish my initial draft in 1–2 hours if possible. (With flash, it generally is possible.) If I finish sooner than that, I might take a little time to flesh out the story a little more fully.
Once the major story elements are down, and you have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end, reread your draft, then put it down. Go for a walk, have a cup of coffee, or do something else, but put the story down. It needs to steep in your unconscious. (And yes, I am aware of how silly that sounds.)
The best advice I can give for this step is from NIKE. Just do it.
Step 3: Revise your draft.
Reread your story, taking notes with what you feel is problematic or might be improved.
Revise your story per your list of notes.
Step 4: Grammar and Spelling mistakes.
Reread your story, then run it through whatever grammar checker you use. (I prefer Grammarly.)
If I’m writing to some arbitrary word count, this is the point where I will begin paring words down to reach that number. (IMO — it’s far easier to cut words away to reach a target than add words to reach your goal.)
Put it away again. Let it be for a few minutes, hours, or days.
Step 5: Read it aloud.
If you’re self-conscious about doing this, have someone read your story out loud to you.
The more you (or they) can make this a performance piece, the better. I cannot overstate how valuable this step is. Reading your piece out loud will shine an undeniable light on problem areas, sticky words, phrases, as well as pacing issues.
This part is an iterative step. Continue reading, revising, until it flows. If it flows out loud, it will, I believe, flow better in your readers’ minds.
Trust your instincts here. If something with some paragraph seems off to you, then there probably is a problem with it and should be revised until it pops when read out loud.
Now, you know what’s coming, put it down again, walk away, do something else.
Step 6: Look at your blocks.
Most of what I write is flash fiction, and I’m a big fan of “in media res,” jumping into the action as soon as possible. I don’t believe I’m capable of writing a story with zero exposition (though that is a goal I suppose). But action will hook me more than exposition. You want to hook your readers from the start, and never let go.
To that end, this step is asking myself if I can move sections of the story around. Would this paragraph be better somewhere else in the story? Maybe I can delete this entirely? Oftentimes I will be too ambitious with what I want to shove into a tale, so I’ll lay the groundwork and then forget about the hook I created to start that sideline. Come back and chop those weeds.
Step 7: First and last sentences.
I believe your first and last sentences are the most critical in short stories. Especially in flash or mini fictions.
They need to be polished to as high a degree as possible.
The first sentence needs to ask (implicitly or explicitly) a question.
The last sentence needs to reference that question (implicitly or explicitly) and provide some resolution. If you’re writing resolution in your story. I feel strongly that a novel SHOULD have a resolution, but the more flash I read, the more I feel that is not as critical in shorter works. First and foremost, flash fiction is about creating a mood, a moment, a tone. Create that in your readers’ minds then end it!
That’s how (for now at least) I write my short stories. I welcome all feedback. Thanks for reading my post.
I always enjoy reading about other writers’ creative processes, so this was a fun read. I too benefit from writing prompts, and have written an entire novel from one, lol. Anyway, thanks for this post!
Thanks, Stuart. What was the prompt and the name of your novel?