Short stories aren’t only a genre and craft unto themselves, but they are also a fantastic means to practice new story elements.
For example, if you know that your novel needs to have a bit of suspense in it, you can practice writing suspense in short stories. If your novel will take a dark turn, you can practice writing something dark in a short story.
There are a few ways you can go about getting the most out of your short stories.
Set yourself a word count limit.
Somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 words and you need to get the entire story down in that number of words. For me, 2-3,000 is enough words to get in a decent story and practice the element.
This does a couple things for you. It limits how much you can say and forces you to pick the best words and phrases to advance your story. You don’t have tons of space to develop your characters, setting, or plot, so you have to take every single word and make sure it’s doing something to advance one of those three things.
When going back through, ask yourself of every detail ‘is this necessary?’ and if you can’t justify its necessity, hack it. I’ve definitely kept in elements of a short story that I probably should have just hacked out because I liked it. However, I’m not entirely sure it really added anything to the story. It was like a subplot in a short story and those are unnecessary.
Remember, your short story needs to be nearly complete all on its own. Sometimes my stories read like a proposal for a novel. I get to the last words and think about everything the ending left open. Your short story should be complete unto itself. If it’s not, then it’s not a true short story.
Find people to critique your short story.
This is scary, to be certain, because you are asking people to tell you everything that’s wrong with it. Not the easiest advice to take, but your writing will grow because you are forced to face your weak spots.
I’m not saying that you need to have every single short story critiqued, but pick one every so often and ask a few writers around you to critique it. Tell them to be brutal if you need. They really need to be able to point out all the weak spots.
Then rework it. Incorporate their suggestions and improve the work. Set aside two or three weeks to work on this one story. If your critique people can get back to you in a timely manner, that should be all the time you need to work it and really polish it. Then set the first draft and the final draft side by side and admire the change and growth.
Read it out loud and self-edit.
This requires you to be analytical with your own work. The nice thing about short stories is that you can take one or two days away from it and come back fresh, so within the span of a week, you could theoretically edit it twice.
If you’re unable to think critically or analytically about your own work, you will struggle to improve. I have taken to listening to a podcast about writing and nearly every week, I find them talking about something I do that I shouldn’t or that I’m not doing that I should. To date, one of the most helpful episodes was about point of view, and now I really look at point of view in my writing to see if I’m sticking true to one POV or if I’m cheating and including others.
Another talked about dialogue and how the filler around the dialogue can completely change the meaning and feeling of the words. Sometimes I can be weak in my dialogue in favor of just summarizing what happened, but the truth is, our readers want to experience it. They are looking to escape within our book and every time we summarize and jump, we yank them out of the story.
Without this knowledge I’ve sought out and the ability to look at my own work more objectively, I would be a far weaker writer. Critiquing other people’s work also helps to develop that critical eye of your own work.
Be mindful of what you’re wanting to work on in your story.
Simply sitting down and writing the first thing that comes to your mind isn’t the best way to take full advantage of this tool. Decide which element or two you’re going to focus on. In my last short story, I focused on the darker content and description.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Even deciding ‘I want to focus on writing really good description’ can be enough for a short story. You can incorporate that into ANY short story.
Writing prompts are a great way to force yourself to write in different areas. I wasn’t always a fan of them because I wasn’t always able to write “what I wanted to write” but that’s kind of the point. These prompts force you to try other things.
You can get lists of writing prompts anywhere on the internet, or you can support fellow writers by buying the Author’s Tale first short story anthology, which includes writing prompts. In it, you can practice your own critique skills by critiquing the stories contained inside. You’ll have enough writing prompts to keep you writing a new short story a week for TWO YEARS.
Don’t write distracted.
When you sit down to write, close out everything. Silence your phone. Get off the internet. Go somewhere quiet if you can. Pop in your earbuds but DON’T connect them to anything. Research shows that it can take up to 25 minutes to refocus after any interruption that requires a change of focus. Checking your email, social media, text messages, or even another in-person interruption takes your focus away and you come back less prepared to write while your brain tries to get itself back in the game. If you don’t believe me, do some research on attention residue.
I’ve heard a lot about this recently from a variety of sources and they all say the same thing. Every time you mentally step away from the task at hand (in my case, writing this blog post), you interrupt the flow of thoughts you had. You also train your brain to NEED interruptions because every check of social media or email gives your brain a hit of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, and you become addicted to the checking.
You know those people who can’t seem to go five minutes without clicking open their phone, “just checking”? They probably don’t know it, but it’s possible that they’re physically addicted to the action of checking. It’s why it’s so hard to stop when you’re used to checking a lot. I’ve had the urge to “just check” four times in the rewrite of just number 5, adding additional information. I’m not immune to it, but now that I know, I work THAT MUCH HARDER to ignore the urge and keep working on the task at hand. I want my brain to be able to sustain its attention on one task, but I have to retrain it.
Be honest. Did you read this whole list in succession? Or was it too long and you needed to “just check” between a couple numbers? Did you feel the urge?
This urge to check out hits most intensely when we hit a rough spot or are trying to accomplish something hard. When I’m editing my novel, the desire to “just check” when I’ve hit a spot I don’t know what to do with is VERY strong. I really have to decide to not give in and just muscle through the hard spot even though I’d like to take a mental break. I know that my editing work following that break will suffer.
If you need to work with instrumental music on (I really do my best work listening to inspirational soundtrack mixes on youtube), go for it. Silence distracts me too much. But keep the extra tabs to a minimum and close out ALL social media before you sit down to work. If you write off-line, all the better because you can literally just stay off the internet. Distracted working is the worst kind of working, so do your best to eliminate it as much as possible.
Okay, that was a lot in that list, wasn’t it?
Part of the reason I like to share my short stories here is that it forces me to actually write them and as long as I’m writing, I can be thinking of what I want to be practicing. As you might know, I’m in the middle of editing a novel and I have a lot of work to do to get it to publication quality. The short story work is helping me to get there.
I was going to submit a story to a contest not too long ago and so I asked some people to critique a short story for me and boy, did they! The final story was completely unlike the initial story and it was better for it. I don’t write suspense, but I tried. I had to research suspense so I could better understand the genre and the elements necessary to qualify as suspense.
I now feel more equipped to insert suspense into my novel. A side effect of that process was that I became aware of other weak spots in my writing. If you can, from time to time, seek out people to critique a short story of yours, jump on that!
The bottom line here is that with a relatively slim amount of work and effort, you can hone and practice individual and intentional skills with short stories. It won’t take you months to churn out a first draft and it’s not as unwieldy as a novel. Just a few pages and you can watch your writing skills improve week after week.
Don’t believe me? Go back to read the earliest short stories I shared on the blog and then read the latest one. Do you see an improvement?
My point exactly.
Now, go forth, write, and improve.