How I Write A Short Story

So, I’m writing a short story that I’m very excited about. Also TERRIFIED BY. Why? I can’t tell you. Why? it’s for a top secret secret something. What top secret secret something? Stop asking or I’ll pinch you. *pinchpinchpinch*

Anyway, this is only the third short story I’ve ever written, not including the amazingly bad story I wrote for my one high school Creative Writing elective, which I later recycled for my one college level Creative Writing elective. I’m telling you this because you might want to take my advice on writing a short story with roughly 1,000,000 grains of salt (or one whole salt shaker).

For better or for worse, however, I’ma tell you how I write my short stories, so that you can either use my method OR throw it into the dustbin of history. Whichever seems wisest.

Step 1: Study the Prompt, for the Love of God.

Yeah, it’s just what I tell my students. Study the prompt! If you’re writing for an anthology, you probably have requirements in terms of page length, genre, et cetera. And, just as I tell my students, let me tell you this: you are not special. You, of all the mortals wanting to write for this magazine, or anthology, or contest, do not have SO MUCH TALENT that you get to write in a slightly different genre, or add just a few wee pages, or whatever. STICK TO THE PROMPT, people. Or you, too, will get the slow head shake of disapproval from Dr. Peeler.

Step 2: Block out Your Project

This is my first step of organization, and it’s sort of a pre-outlining stage. Basically, it’s really me trying to get a handle on the project’s size. Writing a novel requires such blocking, too, but it’s a lot looser and bigger, obviously. A short story has to be TOIGHT (or German for tight), so you want to spend a fair amount of time figuring out how much space you actually have. So I think in terms of page numbers and how many pages you think should be in a scene. I decided for my current five to eight thousand word project that I’ve got space, maybe, for two short scenes and two long.

Step 3: Brainstorm

Start brainstorming, bitches! Who are your characters? Where is your story set? What’s gonna happen, roughly? In this stage, for a short story, part of your challenge is not to over-egg the pudding. Again, a short story is TOIGHT, so don’t have five characters where three will suffice. Be ruthless. Also, figure out shortcuts where you can, such as combining two gatekeeper characters into one, or using a preexisting city or technology instead of creating your own that you have to explain (unless you’re writing SF/F).

Step 4: Plan

For me, that means outlining. For the rest of you, do something. I don’t care how much you cling to your pantster identity–plan, god damn you! You have ALMOST NO SPACE to tell A WHOLE STORY. You can try pulling that out of your bunghole, but I wouldn’t advise it. Cuz we all know what comes out of your bunghole.

And it ain’t unicorns covered in Laffy Taffy, now is it?

Step 5: Write

Duh! Eventually you will have to write the sucker. And the nice thing about short stories is…they’re short! Awesome! Except not awesome. They’re SO SHORT. And they have to be TOIGHT! And where should I start? And what if it’s too long? And what if I suck? And what if….GAH!

That’s a mock trajectory of my usual spiral into despairing neurosis, followed by retreat into episodes of 30 Rock and shoveling cookies into my face. But no matter how intimidating writing a tiny, hopefully perfect little nugget of a short story is, remember that you’re ONLY WRITING A ROUGH DRAFT. It’s a baby! It has a soft skull, that you can rearrange. That’s what you do with babies, right?

Step 6: Rearrange Those Tiny Brains (or revise)

Your rough draft of your short story will suck. Just accept that now. But you can improve it by revisions. The nice thing about short stories is you can reverse outline them easily. This is a technique for academic writing, but it works beautifully for fiction. So take a day or two away from the project when you finish, then come back with fresh eyes. Reverse outline it, then stare at the outline and think of the big picture issues. What do you need? What can you cut? Where should it start? Where should it end? Answer these and rewrite!

Step 7: Get Feedback

Send it to betas. Get feedback. Revise again. Repeat as needed.

Step 8: Stop Editing and Hit Send

Eventually, you have to hit send. It’s not about the story being perfect, it’s about making it the best you can make it. Hopefully, it’ll be good enough that the editor sees the potential. No matter what, that editor will have things they want you to fix or change. It’s up to you whether you make those changes, although the piece being accepted may be contingent on those changes being made. But no matter what, they will have their fingers in your pie, so don’t feel you have to overcook it.

That’s a terrible metaphor for me telling you not to get so caught up in perfection your story never sees the light of day. Stories are for reading. Send it out.

So that’s how I write a short story. Any questions?

Posted by Nicole Peeler

Author, Professor, Lover, Fighter

9 thoughts on “How I Write A Short Story”

  1. Yeah, we follow pretty much the same procedure. Have fun with it — I'm writing one right now that scares me, too, and requires more world-building than I expected, but it will be worth it in the long run.

    Let's enjoy (and then toast each other with fun cocktails when we're done).

  2. Y u think 2 much before making sweet word love, Dr. Peeler? Pantsters por vida, baby.

    It's always interesting to see another author's methods. It's kind of like looking in their panty drawer.

  3. Very funny and helpful at the same time! I think it definitely helps to do some planning before putting the proverbial pen to paper.

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