Top 7 Tips for Short Fiction Writers
Writing short fiction is very different than writing long fiction. With short stories, you have a lot less space to make your reader feel connected to your characters and fall into your world. Short fiction can be tough for a lot of writers because of this. If you’re new to writing short fiction or you want to improve your work, follow these top 7 tips from published short fiction writers.
If you’re always going over word count, or if you feel like your story isn’t flowing, stop writing it, and start telling it. Imagine sharing this story with someone you just met on a stalled train, or in your favourite pub when it’s near-empty, someone who is bored and just wants to go home. If it helps, record yourself telling the story; once you’ve transcribed the story to paper, you’ll know how long it’ll take to tell the core story (i.e. word count). You can then either trim the unnecessary details, or add in details where you need them—and where you can afford them.
Pat Flewwelling: author and editor of ID Press anthologies; owner and operator of Myth Hawker travelling bookstore; short fiction author in Sirens, Pulp Literature, and Equus (August 2017); long fiction author of the Helix series.
Parentheses can be your best friend. If you’re stuck on a word, a sentence, or even a sequence of events, throwing parentheses around the problem and moving on can keep a work from stalling, while still giving you a way to find it later. The general idea being, if you’re stuck on a word or scene don’t sit there being stuck, move on to something else and come back to it later so you don’t lose flow.
Don’t push too hard. What I mean by that is that there is a tendency to try and be too verbose, too wordy. To try and copy dialect too precisely, or make the characters too big or too quirky. Just tell the story. You only have so many words and a lot to do with those words. Don’t try so hard to be something else. Be natural. Choose your words wisely.
Make sure to include all five senses regularly in your writing especially in setting the scene at the beginning. Most beginning writers forget to use especially the senses of hearing, smell, and taste. Often an evocative smell will also provide a taste. Think of the smell of coffee or of fresh baked bread for instance. These things instantly anchor the reader.
Before you submit, wait a couple of weeks and read it again—even though at this point you’ve already made considerable revisions. So, why wait? To become a reader. The author’s experience with the work is immersive; the reader comes to it cold. Those couple of weeks are the final step that allows you to move away from the role of the writer—and the lingering enthusiasm of being in love with what you’ve made—and make the final revisions that occur from the perspective of a reader. A writer who can be an objective reader of her or his work has come a long way towards making successful connections in the outside world.
Writing dialogue is one of writing’s real challenges because, well, it’s hard to make it sound real. Dialogue is a keystone for revealing plot points and conveying character, especially in a short story, but there’s also a risk of exposition and for chatting characters to sound unnatural. My greatest advice would be to give yourself permission to listen in on a conversation or two while on the bus or in the park. I’m not wildly advocating for spying, but just practice mindfulness and pay attention to how we use our words to communicate so you can translate that to the page, such as breaking off conversation mid through or not answer a question when asked one. These little idiosyncrasies can bring realism to your piece and provide tons of chances for your character to showcase their background, their education, and even dialect. Reading your written conversations aloud helps to see if any of the chatter falls flat or sounds false.
Writing directly from memory is a powerful tool in short fiction, but make sure you still take the time to explain the necessary details when doing so. Just because something ‘really happened’ to you (or someone you know) in the past, that doesn’t mean the same thing will automatically make sense in your fiction. Forget the word count for a while and explain these details fully—your readers will thank you for it!
Ellen is a freelance fiction editor, book reviewer, research assistant for Simon Fraser University, marketing coordinator for WCSFA, and member volunteer for Editors’ Association of Canada. As of September 2017, she will also be a master’s student of publishing at SFU. You can contact her via ellenmichelle.com for any editing queries and at email@example.com for book review queries.