Lessons from ten-ish years of short story writing

I’ve been writing a while now and studied courses and read a few ‘how to’ books. They’re all helpful in their way. My advice is take advice and don’t take advice. Not everything I’ve been told works for me and I’m ok with that. So if some of this is too obvious you can ignore it, and if none of this works for you, I’m ok with that too, ok?

  • Write. 
  • Read short stories. Read different genres and from authors and places and times you’ve never heard of. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, John Holton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carmel Bird, Ambrose Bierce, Tim Winton, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor among a gazillion others.
  • The shorter the worker the keener the focus is on how it is written. So like never before spelling, grammar and punctuation matter. There could have as little as 10 words or as many as 4000 to grab onto and hold someone’s attention, and mistakes are distracting.
  • Make the story fit the size. Don’t have a cast of thousands, or a story that crosses continents or many time periods when there are only 500 words to do it in, it’s too difficult and rarely convincing. A short story is a moment, a special slice of something, or an episode in the life of, or an event, yet always complete in itself.
  • Anecdotes are not stories. Real life rarely makes it as story material, because life is just one damned thing after another. A story should have some kind of start, end and finish, with a nice arc or revelation to give it meaning or value, or  spark.
  • Work on the ending. The ‘it was all a dream’ ending should be banished to the sixth circle of Dante’s inferno, unless you make it freaking A M A Z I N G.
  • Almost always use said or says rather than stuff like he ‘exclaimed proudly’ or she ‘enunciated snidely’ – we should understand tone and attitude from the context and the actual words said, because there should be no wasted words in a short story.
  • Thusly, my next bit of advice: give spoken words context:

‘You’re always so right,’ said Evie, before slamming the door in his face. Brian heard her turn the key in the lock and something inside him turned. He pounded the door. ‘No lock’ll stop me, Evie.’

Not my best effort but the attitude and emotions of Evie and Brian are conveyed by their actions rather than me interpreting how their words are said.

  • Write how people talk. But not too much if there are accents to convey. Provide a taste of the accent, don’t overwhelm.
  • Structure is everything. It affects tone, pacing, how the piece looks on the page and how people will read it.
  • Look at sentence construction. Look at the start of each paragraph and if the first word is the same for each change some.
  • Look at point of view and be prepared to change it. Is it first person or third? Should it be from Brian or Evie’s perspective?
  • Break up long sentences if you have a heap of them, or insert a long sentence in if your writing is always punchy.
  • If a phrase or word is repeated make it meaningful. People see meaning in repetitions because they are like word symbols to them and people are always clueing for looks, as Dr Watson once said. If they’re not meaningful, cut them the hell out, as they will distract from what you intend to convey.
Sherlock Holmes: clue-ing for looks like all attentive readers do.

Sherlock Holmes: clueing for looks like all attentive readers do.

  • Be prepared to break rules.
  • Be prepared to defend your artistic decisions to editors; however, recognise when they are right. Editors are not killing your baby but saving it. For your story to thrive, you must let it go. Really, step away and let people read it and have opinions about it.
  • Don’t trust the opinions of the people who are obliged to love everything you do.
  • Nothing is original except you. Work on your voice, rather than your ideas. If you don’t know what voice is in writing then you’re probably still developing yours. And that’s ok.
  • Expect that not everyone will love what you write . Expect that you won’t either if  you go back to something written a while ago. The writing hasn’t changed, you have.
  • Contests are all well and good, but are difficult to win and sometimes costly to enter. Try sending a story to a journal and getting a response from an editor.
  • Rejections are not about you. Sometimes they are not about your work. If they are about your work, edit it. Or send it elsewhere. Maybe the publication was wrong for your story or maybe your story isn’t done yet.
  • Write, finish and walk away. Come back to your story in a week or two, or a month. Read it with fresh eyes. Then edit.
  • I don’t do one or two drafts. As I write I’m in continual draft mode because stories, plots, characters and themes are all fluid until it is published. That is when drafting stops…and sometimes not even then:)
  • Keep a database of titles, submissions, acceptances, costs, dates, etc. I use Sonar 3, a free program.
  • Most publications will not take submissions that  have been self published. Beware vanity publishers.
  • Do have a website, or a social media presence. Don’t make it all about selling or promoting your stories. Social media is great for conversations, while you constantly touting stuff is, basically, boring.
  • Do celebrate your publications or milestones. Don’t be shy. 
  • Enjoy writing short stories as an end in themselves. They don’t have to be mini training wheels for potential novels. Nobody is forcing you to be a novelist. Especially what with the return of the novella and digital media looking for short form stuff to fill online whatsits.
  • Finally, if you’re novelist, that’s cool. For the longest time I was intimidated by long form story telling. I’m having a bit of a crack now, but good on you. But don’t think just cos you can pump out 100,000 words that a short story is a cake walk. Short stories are concentrated and need a deft yet delicate touch to contain their potential for power and also unwieldiness.

Here endeth the lesson.

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