A writer I'm friends with asked me this week how I write my short stories. As I started to work on a reply, I realized the way I write has actually changed a lot this year. For the better, I think, although that's mostly based on my own goals. Still, it seemed like a good chance to get it all down on paper, and to think about my own process. By the time I was done, I realized what I'd written was really a blog post, hitting on a lot of what I talk about here. Plus, I just saw Tim Waggoner do something similar, and he seems like a good guy to imitate.
So today's post is an answer to a specific question: How do I write a short story? I'm going to try not to self-deprecate too much, even though I still feel very much like an amateur and like the last person you should be listening to. All I will do is describe how I got to my current process, and if there's anything here that sparks anything for a reader then that will be a happy byproduct.
There are three books that shaped my current process. You've probably already read them, so I'm not going to go into great depth on each one. But I will explain what the "big lesson" was, and why it's helped me a long.
Saves the Cat! Writes a Novel - Jessica Brody
This book gave me a new appreciation for structure, on a deep, molecular level. The way Brody breaks down story has been hugely helpful to me as a road map when I start to get lost. All stories share the same milestones, but sometimes when you're in the midst of your writing it can still be hard to see where you are. Having this book as a guide has helped in every stage of a draft.
Art and Fear - Ted Orland and David Bayles
I've written about this book many times on this blog, and now here we are again. The heart of this book, and the lesson for me, was the story about the clay pots. The authors write about two pottery classes with two very different rubrics. In one, students are told they'll get an A as long as they make 50 pounds of pots. They can be the shittiest pots on the planet, but 50 pounds will get them an A. In the other class students are told they only have to make a single clay pot, but it has to be a masterpiece.
As you can imagine, the class that produced pots relentlessly also ended up with better work than the class required to create just one masterpiece. This story, and the book as a whole, helped me internalize the idea that I need to finish my stories, no matter what. No more abandoning the ones I think might be bad! Even if it's garbage, that's now okay. I just need to keep making more pots.
The Way of the Writer - Charles Johnson
There are so many excellent craft essays in this book, and I can't recommend it enough. But the one I have in mind is where Johnson describes writers as needing “three good ideas.” The first is your premise, and this one you'll have pretty solid in mind when you sit down and start.
But the second good idea is not one you can usually plan. That can feel scary, but this idea will come if you've stayed true to the original premise while closely observing your characters. It will come as if from the blue, but it will also feel right for the story.
Finally, the third good idea is the ending, and this one should feel inevitable. After the first two have clicked, you're on a trajectory; now you're just bringing it home.
Putting This All Into Practice
These "big ideas" are great, but for the nitty-gritty of writing itself I also have a more functional process, and this is just a system I've basically borrowed from work. It goes something like this:
The pre-draft. I don't always do this, but if a premise still feels messy to me or if I just need to get something on paper, I start here. Sometimes this will be a way to test an idea and see if it has any legs. Usually, though, this becomes a V1, because the primary goal is still to finish a draft.
The first draft. Here I'm just getting the story on paper. The goal is to finish, while being mindful of the overall arc of the story, as well as the “three good ideas.” But if the arc isn't working or the ideas don't seem to come, finishing is still the priority.
The second draft. This is probably my favorite. I print out the story and then retype it into a new document. This is where I fix all the big stuff. I look at the structure, figure out which scenes need to be replaced, moved, deleted, etc. Rewrite where necessary. Here I'm really focused on the plot, as well as tightening up those observational details. By the end of this draft, the story should feel like it's pretty locked in.
The third draft. This is by far the most tedious. I go through the V2 and read it out loud, listening for where the language is awkward or doesn't feel natural. Sometimes I also catch new plot problems. I'm not sure why reading drafts aloud will reveal plot issues, but, at least for me, it can. As I work through each page I'll highlight it in yellow to mark it complete, but it's a slow process of reading aloud, editing, reading aloud again. I don't highlight a page until I can read through the whole thing and not want to change it.
After the V3 is complete, I change the file name to something like “Fiction Submission – Story Title” and move it to a submission folder. I'll also note the word count in my submission spreadsheet so that I don't have to constantly open the file to check.
At any stage in the process, sometimes you just need a break, which is why I try to keep multiple stories going at once. When I hit that wall in a V3 where I think, “I am so sick of the sound of my own fucking voice,” it's good to be able to switch to some other piece, whether it's a first draft or a blog or just logging into Submittable and sending out work. It helps keep things fresh, and I've noticed I keep my ass in the seat a lot longer if I can change things up once in a while.
But all of this is always evolving, and I'm sure it will continue to change. Hopefully if you do try any of the above, you'll find ways to adapt it that work best for you. I certainly can't be too prescriptive. I'm still figuring out new things every day.