In January of this year, after several years of struggling in the query trenches with several novels, I decided that 2022 would be the year that I learned how to write short stories. I didn’t even want to master them; I just wanted to learn how to write them. Hopefully, the publishing industry would be back on its feet by the time that I did so, giving my novels a better chance in the trenches. That was my logic. Give myself a breather from the trenches by entering another, slightly different, trench (I’m sure that’s logical, somehow, if you squint really hard).
At that point—back in January, I mean—the last short story that I wrote was probably in high school. I’m 31 years old, for reference. And it was probably in Danish, not in English.
As of this date, six months after I first began, I’ve written 17 short stories.
So far, four of them have been accepted into literary magazines/anthologies, three of them have made it to penultimate rounds, and over half of the places I have submitted to have requested that I send them more stories in the future.
I didn’t expect this response—at all—after my absolute failure in the query trenches for so many years with so many books. More to the point, this response has been an absolute life-saver this year, reminding me with tangible evidence that my writing is worth publication, reinforcing my belief that I’ve chosen the right career path (even if the industry still needs to get on board with that).
So, how did I approach this short story stint that basically saved my ass this year?
First, I had to realize that it was never really a question of my craft.
Not on the storytelling side, and not on the writing side.
It was a question of my brain’s creative habits.
It was a question of how I’ve conditioned my brain and its creative process for years on end. Ten years, to be exact. For ten years, I’ve roughly written one novel a year. To write short fiction, I had to deconstruct the way my brain had worked with narratives for a decade. I had to stop thinking about beginnings, middles, and ends. I had to stop thinking about character developmental arcs. I had to stop thinking about subplots. About side-characters. Instead, I had to use entry points to my stories that felt unnatural. Unnatural, because they were foreign to me as entry points.
Here are the biggest revelations I’ve had while deconstructing my brain’s creative habits:
- “Ditch your primary genre and try a new one”
I can’t write a good fantasy short story to save my life. The second that I try, I instantly begin to worldbuild, and to character develop, and to create side-characters, and it just doesn’t work for me. My brain is too used to write fantasy novels. Instead, I’ve taken to writing horror, sci-fi, and historical short fiction. In fact, these are the genres I’ve had acceptances in. My few attempts in fantasy have been rejected from left to right.
- “Identify the theme/concept”
I focused solely on themed submission calls in the beginning, unable to easily think of themes and concepts on my own, and feeling roadblocked by my own ineptitude and frustration over this. Theme/concepts are things that I normally dig out from a first draft of a novel, after all, so you can see why I might’ve struggled with this here.
And, no, it’s not cheating. You’re not a poorer writer for relying on themed submissions (yes, I had to explicitly tell myself this, over and over again).
Theme is a bastard to pin down in general. You can somewhat get away with not doing it for novels, but you absolutely can’t get away with not doing it for short fiction. That’s been my experience, at least. And if you’re looking for a good book on how to develop theme in fiction, then I recommend K. M. Weiland’s “Writing Your Story’s Theme.”
- “It’s an emotional SHIFT, not an emotional JOURNEY” (alternately: The Twist)
This was a big one for me. I’m an extremely character-driven writer, meaning I have my character arcs down pat before I even have my plot. Always. Without fail. Without even trying, honestly. The thing is, though, there isn’t really room for an emotional arc in a short story, with ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and some more ups and downs, and—you get my drift.
There is, however, room for emotional shifts. In particular, there is room for one big emotional shift that is the center of the story.
In “Write Your Novel from the Middle”, James Scott Bell talks about Mirror Moments. These are moments when the characters stop to look at themselves in the mirror, considers what have happened so far, and then decides what to do now based on that. Bell talks about these mirror moments as the middle of books, but I’ve also found that it works well as a framework for my short fiction. If I place the emotional center of my short fiction on these mirror moments, then I stop myself from writing a character arc that relies on the plot of an entire novel. I focus on an emotional shift, and not an emotional journey.
I also sometimes think of this as The Twist.
Not A Twist, but The Twist.
- “Aim to provoke one emotion from the reader, not ten.”
This runs in the same vein as what I mentioned above, but I’ve found it extremely helpful to decide on the emotional tone of my story before I start writing it. On the emotion that I want my reader to experience from my story, that is. This counts for your characters just as much as your readers, really. There’s just not time/room to go on emotional journeys, and so it’s better to focus on a concentrated emotional shift within that journey. Like a snapshot.
Neil Gaiman once said that the only advice that worked for him was to write a short story as if it was the ending of a novel. This reminds me a little bit of that, but without the conclusive element/nature that I find strangely restrictive myself.
- “There’s no room to pants this, sorry.”
I’ve found that I spend longer on brainstorming a short story than I do on writing it—and I’ve found that my success rate of finishing the story is much higher if I do this. My best guess is that more brainstorming stops me from pantsing and going off on tangents that lead to overwriting (or, in this case, writing novellas/novels rather than short fiction). Paradoxically, you’d think the opposite would happen (i.e. that more brainstorming leads to more writing), but if I center my focus on the emotional shift that I mentioned above here, then somehow it doesn’t lead to more writing. Not for me, anyway.
And that’s it (for now, anyway)!
Lastly, I’m not a master of short fiction. Far from it. I’m a rookie who’s only starting to learn the ropes, and this is me accounting for how I have approached this learning so far. I’ve had moderate success, leading me to believe that my approach might be helpful to others.
To you, perhaps.