How NOT to write a short story

For the one or two of you who read this blog, you may remember that I’ve written a few posts on dealing with rejection. The general tone of those posts has all been about the mental attitude necessary to pull yourself up after being slapped in the face by rejection and keep plodding on. I still wholeheartedly agree with those posts and ideas, but…

What if the story is actually bad?

What do you do then? The first thing that I must admit is that I am a novel writer. When I get stories in my mind they are huge, sprawling stories that can span generations or at the very least, multiple books in a series. This brings me to rule #1 for writing a bad short story:

Rule #1 : Make it Epic.

If you want to absolutely, positively ruin your chances of having your short story published, then go right ahead and make it epic. Without a doubt, this is the rule that I violate most. I violate it before I even sit down to type. The short story in my mind is a scene or a chapter from some epic confrontation or vast story with hundreds of tendrils of plot and intrigue. I’m not ashamed to admit this – this is how I think as a novel writer. The problem with thinking like a novel writer is you’re going to come up with crappy short story ideas. My solution to this is to take the epic topic I’m thinking about and run it through the following filter: “What would Edgar Allan Poe do with this?” If the answer is chuck it, then heed that advice.

Rule #2 : Don’t Have A Point

This one is also particularly nasty for any budding, hopeful short story writer. If you want your story to fall flat (and there’s a reason I use the word flat), then make sure it doesn’t have a point. Leave your reader saying, “Great narrative, but, what’s the point? Why did I just read that?” The thing that drives a truly tight, crisp, powerful short story is a clear sense of purpose. Even if you don’t want you reader to know your purpose, you must have one. Your purpose can be as simple as “I want them to get to the last page and gasp when they see my surprise ending!” or as complex as wanting them to feel compelled to do something to save the environment once they’ve finished your story. Bottom line is that any editor, whether they can express this to you or not, will reject a short story that is not driven by singular purpose. Oh yeah, I’m guilty of this one.

Try out this little self-help test: If your short story started out with you saying (aloud or to your mind) to yourself, “Wow, this would make for a fantastic scene!” Then you could be in trouble. Short stories are not scenes and should never be thought of as such. Yes, I’m guilty of that as well.

Rule #3: Don’t Care About Exposition

This one is actually really important and can often take the most time and effort to get right for a given story. If you don’t particularly care about exposition or spend any effort thinking about the pacing, order, and amount of exposition in your story, then feel free to wallow in the rejection letters. (This may be getting tiresome, but yes, I’m guilty of this as well).

If you front-load your story with exposition and spend the first two pages with narrative explanation about what’s going on and identifying your non-epic purpose, you may have satisfied rules 1 and 2, but you’ve ignored rule 3. People who pick up a novel typically have a pre-conceived notion that it could take them as long as 50 to 100 pages (depending on the length of the novel) to become truly engrossed. With a short story you do not have that luxury. The reader will only give you a few paragraphs to hook their attention, not pages.

Likewise, if you spend no time at all on exposition and leave the reader absolutely clueless until the very end, they will have no concept of your purpose. They won’t know why you brought them along on this journey through your story and will be left feeling very unsatisfied… no matter what the ending, it will be anti-climactic because a confused reader is incapable of experiencing suspenseful build-up to a conclusion.

The hard part, of course, is to make sure you put just enough exposition to let the reader know enough about what’s going on to give them context so that as more information is revealed and action occurs, they’re following you on your trip through the story, eager to reach the end… rather than being pulled along clueless on a leash just to get to the end.

Rule #4: Don’t Revise

In your quest to build the world’s worst short story, you have decided to follow rule #4 and skip the revision process altogether. Sure, you might have edited a few paragraphs here and there, possibly cleaned up some awkward wording, but otherwise once you’d spewed your first draft, you were just polishing the edges.

This is one of the worst things you can do. The information that comes out of your head on the first draft is raw, unrefined, stream of consciousness. In this form, you haven’t considered that characters are talking about things they might not yet have encountered, you haven’t made sure that each character has a unique, appropriate voice, and you certainly haven’t made sure that the pacing of the story speeds up when it should and slows down when it should.

To do this kind of revision, I will gather feedback on the stream of consciousness draft (to which I often refer as “plot vomit”) from others and myself. I will get all the notes on all the issues people have had with it and print this draft out. Then, I will read this over so that I can remember most, if not all, of the editorial comments. Then, and this is important, I delete the first draft. Every word. Gone. I then start typing it over from scratch. I keep in mind all the comments I had, but at the same time, I’m keeping a thought toward refining the stuff I originally spewed.

After this new revision, I’ll repeat the process until I really like the way the story feels and flows. Then I will go back and line-by-line, word-by-word, edit the craft of the story – revise sentence structure, change word usage, find synonyms, remove cliches, etc.

So, if you take these four rules and apply them to your own short story writing, you might produce great narratives, but you will not produce great short stories. I’d been going along producing halfway decent narratives that often made the short list, but after having a good friend of mine take a critical eye to my most recent story, I have a new appreciation for the amount of effort that goes into writing a truly good story. Not only that, but the story with which I am nearly finished is easily one of the best I’ve ever written precisely because I avoided the pitfalls outlined in this post.

Certainly there are thousands of other pieces of advice that writers can give about making better short stories, but avoiding the pitfalls in this post helped me write some of my best short stories ever.

  • SittieCates

    I enjoy reading your posts – even though, as you say, they are just few in number (actually, the same is true, too, for my blog). Your points have always been refreshing and thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing this.

  • kevin

    Thanks for leaving a comment here on the blog, I appreciate the visits :)