As a writer, you know there’s something magical about the written word. You’ve spent many hours with a book between your hands, exploring new worlds. Whether you prefer to find yourself in a fantastic, strange world like in Game of Thrones, or the dark, realistic fiction of a writer like Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver, there’s nothing as amazing as living in that world away from ours. And that’s what you love about writing, too. On a good day, you can feel the characters coming alive on the page, and the scenes go smoothly, and it’s almost like you’ve drawn it out right in front of you. You love writing, especially short stories.
But sometimes, you have harder days. Sometimes, you aren’t sure if the structure you’re using works or if your sentences run on too long for the average reader. And sometimes, you can’t even write at all! But like with every kind of art, there are some great strategies you can use to write great short stories--and here’s how.
1 Revisit the classics--and then the new
Sometimes, it can be challenging to know where to start with short stories. There’s something mysterious about them; because of their length, there’s a variety of ways to write them. They don’t have to conform to a straight narrative, they can be experimental and strange, and they can be all dialogue or have no dialogue at all. And having so many options can freeze you up. Especially if it’s been a while since you’ve written, you might not know where to begin.
That’s why it’s so important to revisit classic writers. Writers like Hemingway are masters of dialogue heavy with meaning; John Cheever is powerful with language; Sylvia Plath makes the first person an actual state of being for anyone reading The Bell Jar. Additionally, read contemporary writers to see what they’re doing. Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” a story that made a big splash and earned her a novel deal of $1.2 million, is a great example of someone who knows how to use classic story structure in our contemporary world. And don’t forget to read the most important kind of stories of all, the fairytale.
2 Create a writing ritual
If you’re having trouble getting started with writing, what you need is a writing ritual. All successful writers have one because they understand that inspiration is only going to get a small part of the work done. It’s the discipline that makes the difference. Jane Austen, for example, had a morning ritual she completed every day: “Austen rose early, before the other women were up, and played the piano. At 9:00 she organised the family breakfast, her one major piece of household work. Then she settled down to write in the sitting room, often with her mother and sister sewing quietly nearby. If visitors showed up, she would hide her papers and join in the sewing.”
Considering that you aren’t a woman in a society that has to hide her writing from visitors, you can have a writing ritual anywhere. Whether that’s after going for a run and sitting down in the park, or picking the same seat every day at your favorite cafe, it’s up to you. Try out a few things and see what works. It’s worth the efforts: according to a January 2018 report from Amazon, hardcover and paperback purchases in the last three quarters totaled to $3.1 billion.
3 Get critiques
Once you’ve studied the best short story masters, and started writing regularly, the next thing you’ll want to do is get an opinion of your work. In the same way that getting an internship in the wedding industry is important for someone who wants to become a wedding dress designer, learning from other writers is essential to improving your craft. Join a local writing group or partner up with another friend who’s a writer. There are also many literary organizations that offer classes in evenings too, which means that people working full-time can still have their work examined.
There are also online courses available, such as the Gotham Writers Workshop. And, of course, you can always enroll in an MFA program. UVA’s program, one of the best in the program, isn’t even that expensive. They’re fully funded, which means that if you get in, you’ll get a tuition waiver in addition to $10,000-$20,000 a year.
Writing a great short story is all about working hard--and exposing yourself to the right influences.
Who are your favorite short story writers? Why?