Great Advice for Writers of Short Stories

By Rebecca Dempsey

After more than a decade of writing short stories, here is what I have learned. 

  • Write. 
  • Read short stories. Read across genres, authors, places and times. I recommend Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carmel Bird, Ambrose Bierce, Etgar Keret, Tim Winton, DH Lawrence and Flannery O’Connor etc.
  • The shorter the work the keener the focus is on how it is written. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation matter. There could be as little as 10 words to grab and hold someone’s attention so errors are distracting.
  • Don’t have a cast of thousands, or a story crossing continents or 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 slice of something, or an episode, or an event, yet always complete in itself.
  • Anecdotes are not stories. Real life is rarely story material, because life is just one thing after another. A story should have some kind of start, end and finish, with an arc or revelation to give it meaning or value.

  • 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 he ‘exclaimed proudly’ or she ‘enunciated snidely’ – we should understand tone and attitude from the context and the words said because there should be no wasted words in a short story.
  • Give speech 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 providing a taste of an accent will do. Don’t overwhelm.
  • Stories can take minutes or years to finish. They can be five words or 7,000 plus long. Time to produce does not equal length.
  • 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. Should it be from Brian or Evie’s perspective?
  • Break up long sentences if you have many, or insert a long sentence in if your writing is always punchy.
  • Make repeated phrases or words meaningful. People see meaning in repetitions because they are word symbols and readers are always looking for clues. If repetitions are accidental, cut them out, as they are a distraction.
  • Be prepared to break rules.
  • Be prepared to defend your artistic decisions to editors; however, recognize 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 those 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 your story. Expect that you won’t either if you go back to something written a while ago. The writing hasn’t changed, you have.
  • Contests can be difficult to win and 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.
  • Write, finish and walk away. Come back to your story later. Read it with fresh eyes. Then edit.
  • Draft. Draft. Draft. Send. Draft. Draft. Send. Repeat.
  • Keep a database of titles, submissions, acceptances, costs, dates, earnings etc.
  • Most publications will not take submissions that have been self-published. Beware vanity publishers.
  • Celebrate your publications or milestones.
  • Short stories don’t have to be training wheels for potential novels. Nobody is forcing you to be a novelist. Especially with the return of the novella and digital media looking for short form stuff.
  • For novelists, just because you can pump out 100,000 words does mean a short story is a cake walk. Short stories need a deft yet delicate touch to contain their potential for power.

Rebecca Dempsey has been writing short stories since 2003, with works in print and online from New South Wales to Nevada. She holds a Masters in Writing and Literature from Deakin University, and a Bachelor of Arts, Honours in Humanities. Rebecca has written for newspapers and journals and keeps a blog at writingbec.wordpress.com.

About Katharine Grubb

Katharine Grubb has mastered the art of freewriting because she wrote her first novel in 10 minute increments. There are probably easier ways to write a book, but with homeschooling her five children, she’ll take what she can get. Her latest book, Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day was just released and is available on Amazon.com She lives in Massachusetts and blogs at www.10minutenovelists.com.

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