How I write short stories

Why might you read this?   Because you want to write short stories and would like some advice?  A bit unlikely given that most people don’t write short stories, or even long ones come to that.  Or maybe you’re just curious, amazed that anyone would write short stories.  Or perhaps you read everything I write, hoping that one day you’ll find something interesting/useful.

Ah well, here goes.

Step 1  Starting (If you don’t start, you don’t start)

I usually start by thinking of a character (loosely based on someone I know) and by writing the first sentence.  I never fret over the first sentence because I know I’ll rewrite it later, once the story develops.  Sometimes, not often, I have a story in mind before I start but usually I just start and see where the character takes me. 

Occasionally, I start with a place, not a person.  For example, I can see the town library from my window so I wrote a story about a young woman who worked as a library assistant and killed her boss (she hit him on the head with an encyclopaedia).   When I started this story, I had no idea she was going to kill her boss (and get away with it), only that she was a novice and worked in a library.

Even when I start with a preconceived idea, I find it changes as the story develops.  I feel slightly guilty about this lackadaisical approach because at school I remember it being drummed into me that I should plan a beginning, middle and end before writing an essay.  However, the advantage of the ‘just start’ formula is that it avoids being daunted by the infamously daunting blank page.  Once you’ve written the first sentence, the page is no longer blank. 

Step 2  Carrying on

Once I have thought of a character, or place, and written the first sentence, I simply carry on writing more sentences.  This may sound banal, but it is an accurate description of what I do.  I keep writing without worrying too much about where it will lead me.  It’s like going for a walk without a map and making it up as you go along.  I put flesh on the bones of the character I’ve thought of.  For example, the young woman in the library now wears spectacles and is meek and mild.  She’d  been bullied at school, and by her brothers, and now finds herself working for a boss who is also a bully.

Step 3  Coming to a grinding halt

My story usually gets stuck.  It’s as if, on my meandering walk with no map to guide me, I have turned into a cul-de-sac.  I have learnt to accept this as the price I must pay for not planning the story in advance so I put the story aside for a few days.  I imagine it sitting comfortably on a bench contemplating the view (the cul-de-sac has a view!).  I busy myself with other things (perhaps starting another story) and occasionally wonder what might happen next.  What could my meek and mild young woman working as a library assistant do about her predicament?   She could hand in her notice.  She could have a breakdown.  She could finally snap and confront her bullying boss.  She could set fire to the library.  Lots of possibilities.  It dawns on me, usually suddenly, that the most unlikely thing is for her to kill her boss and, in a library full of books, how might she do that?  Of course, hit him on the head with a heavy book  (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, volume 8).

Step 4  Thinking of a twist

I don’t like short stories that simply fizzle out.  It seems a copout.  I’m very keen to have some sort of twist at the end, even if it is a twist with a small t.  Thinking of an ending with a twist should be the most challenging part of short story writing but, oddly enough, once I’ve escaped from the cul-de-sac, a twist usually occurs to me surprisingly effortlessly.  Having killed her boss, the young woman in the library inherits a new boss who is kind and considerate.  One day, walking past the reference section in the library, he happens to remark that encyclopaedias are a waste of space now that everything is on the internet.  The final sentence practically writes itself: ‘I didn’t like to tell him how volume eight had transformed my life.’    

Step 5  Getting facts right

Sometimes I have to do some research.  For example, I wrote a story about a guide who took groups around Trafalgar Square and I had to swat up on the history of the various monuments.  Fascinating.  Another story, about an artist sketching in the National Gallery, meant that I had to look up Joseph Wright of Derby and the author Terry Pratchett.  I don’t bother with any researching until this stage because for me creative writing and researching don’t mix.  They are different skills.   I prefer to press on with writing and put XXXs in the text where I know I need to look something up. 

Step 6  Tweaking

I find this the most irksome part of writing short stories.  Once I’ve ‘finished’ a story, I always have to go back and rewrite the beginning.  This is why I don’t worry about the first sentence.  I only write it to get me going (engineers would call it overcoming stiction).  In addition to having a beginning that fits the ending (rather than the other way around), there are numerous adjustments to be made.  For example, perhaps I need to say more about why the young woman in the library is meek and mild.  More about how she gets away with killing her boss.  Perhaps some paragraphs need to be switched around or broken up into shorter paragraphs.  Certainly some sentences need to be rewritten to make them more succinct.  Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.  In elapsed time this stage takes days – longer than it takes me to write the first draft of the story.

 Step 7  Submitting the story to scrutiny

This step is essential.  I’m fortunate enough to belong to a creative writing group and they always spot typos and grammatical errors.  But, more importantly, they challenge waffle and alert me to when they became confused or when something doesn’t make sense.  Often too, they suggest a better twist for the end of the story.   It is not unknown for them to tell me to scrap the whole thing  and start again!   I always welcome this feedback (well, I might sometimes get a bit defensive!) and it always results in an improved story.   

PS  In case you’re puzzled, I’ve written two collections of short stories, Twenty-five Short Stories and Twenty-five More Short Stories.   You’ll find them on Amazon, but if you order them direct from me, the proceeds will go to Cancer Research UK and, if you wish, I could sign them for you.  I like doing that – it makes me feel like a real author!   If you wish to place and order, please email me:  peterhoney1@btinternet.com

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