How to Write a (popular fiction) Short Story

The short, short version

I am not a literary writer, but I’ve written a few published pop fic short stories (in my case, fantasy). So I’ma tell you how I write my short stories. 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.

Yes, this is what I tell my students. Study the prompt! If you’re writing for an anthology, they’ll have requirements in terms of page length, genre, et cetera. And, also like I tell my students, please remember: none of us are 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 hundred words, 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 Dutch for tight), so you want to spend a fair amount of time figuring out how much space you actually have. I think in terms of page numbers and how many pages you think should be in a scene. For example, when I was asked to write a Sookieverse story for the anthology Dead But Not Forgotten, I knew I had to get ‘er in at under eight thousand words. So I thought about that number and decided that I had space for around two short scenes and two long. Once I knew how much space I had, I could think about how to fill it.

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 two will suffice. In terms of conflict, you’ll have one plot, and you’ll stick to it like glue. Be ruthless.

NB: If you’re worldbuilding, remember that have very little space to explain a technology or a magic system. So you want any germs of an idea to stay that way: small like a germ. For example, the brilliant fantasy short story “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves” is exactly what it says in the title. It’s about girls raised by wolves. Of course, it’s about a lot of other things, but in terms of the worldbuilding, it establishes quickly and simply that this is a world where werewolves exist, they have children, and those children have been sent away to “civilize” them. There’s not a ton of backstory on why werewolves exist, and just a quick paragraph explaining how the girls got to the school. We don’t need it because the story establishes immediately (in this case, in the title) what we need to know going in: that this is about a school for girls raised by wolves. My expectations are set immediately and I’m ready to engage with this world. Malinda Lo does something similar in this story, “One True Love.” That first paragraph lets us know exactly what we’re about to read, and sets the tone (fairy tale with a dash of snark). Read a bunch of spec fic short stories to see how the writers effectively (or ineffectively) establish their worlds quickly and confidently.

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 spouting Shakespeare, now is it?

Srsly though: even if you just “see” a few scenes that you know you want in your story, write them down on cards and tape them to your wall and move them around till they inspire you to write.

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 Insecure 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 That Soft Skull and 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! Your final stages of revision should always include what I like to think of as at least one Serial Killer pass. If murdering your darlings is good advice for writing in general, for short stories you want to be an actual serial killer. Slash EVERYTHING that you can. If you’ve written something short and sweet, chances are it’ll be even sweeter (and more marketable) shorter. People have no attention spans nowadays and brevity is king. So be brief.

Step 7: Get Feedback

Send it to critique partners. 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?