The (Tough) Art of Creating a Short Story

For some reason, I expect writing good short stories to be relatively easy. I don’t know why, at 41, I still think that since I’ve struggled with the short story form since I began cranking them out in my early teens. As I’ve said before, the entire process of poetry–the imagining, workshopping, revision–has been simple compared to writing short stories. Ideas pop into my head all the time, and those ideas usually find their way into my poems. Sometimes, though, characters and their voices show up, and I know to do them justice, I need to write prose.

Aside from my tendency to abandon stories after ten or so pages, I also acknowledge that my strength isn’t in description. I’m also not particularly good at pacing, either. I excel at dialogue, and I’ve heard as much from editors back when I was submitting stories for publication. I received personal rejection slips telling me that dialogue was spot on, but the rest of my writing was flabby. I took that as an encouraging sign, and I still do, despite the number of years that have passed between those rejection slips and now.

For help, I decided to buy the Gotham City Writer’s Workshop book on writing fiction. I like it so far, and while the first section seems geared more toward beginning writers, I still find it helpful. The exercises in the book have been useful thus far, too.

I’ve also returned to using Scrivener writing software, but not for a novel writing (though I’m also tempted to use Scrivener in conjunction with the beautiful word processing program Novlr), but for short stories. Scrivener helps me plan a story, much like I used it to plan my last novel. I realized over the weekend that I can’t continue treating short stories like poems. I need more time with stories, and some stories (like the one I’m currently working on) require research. Scrivener has a wonderful built-in feature to store research, and it allows you to visually plan scenes for a novel, story, or screenplay. Novlr is gorgeous and gets my fingers itchy to fill a blank page.

I can knock out at least one quality poem a day during my writing time, but the first draft of a story takes me at least a week if I tackle it every day. I have the time, and though it can be grueling, I’m willing to show up at the page and take the project on, even if I feel discouraged. Discouragment is just a feeling attached to a useless thought; it has nothing to do with my dedication to the craft or my ability as a writer. I think setting writing goals for myself is a good idea, too. One of many things that quitting drinking has taught me is that I’m a hell of a lot stronger and focused than I sometimes give myself credit for.

I’m also going to re-read Stephen King’s masterful On WritingIf you’re a writer and haven’t read it, I highly recommend you check it out. It transformed the way I wrote, and I’m sure I’ll glean more wisdom and encouragement this read-through.

For the curious, the story I’m working on came from a prompt in the Gotham City book. To paraphrase, it was something like: “Sam knew either it was a lucky sign or a sign of disaster when….” After some freewriting, that prompt led to a strange and touching story about a man who works with chimps, teaching them to sign, and in particular his relationship with a troubled chimp named Roscoe. I like where the story’s going…I just have to remind myself (several times a day) not to abandon it because the words aren’t lining up like obedient little children. They rarely do, anyway, and just because the writing is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Whew, this was a longer post than I intended. Thanks for taking time to read.

6 thoughts on “The (Tough) Art of Creating a Short Story

  1. I love reading short stories, but not sure I could write one. And yet I still want to try (haven’t since I was a preteen!). I’ll check out King’s book. Great post, thanks for the info and good luck with the chimp story (which I would totally read).

    1. Thanks for the encouragement…I really needed some this morning. Feeling good in other areas of my life (like sobriety) but sorta crummy on the creative front. : /

      1. From my experience, creative energy ebbs and flows, particularly in the early days. Feeling good about sobriety is fantastic, a true gift. With sobriety, all other things become possible.

      2. You’re right…it does ebb and flow. The old me (actively drinking) would go crazy about this time and declare myself an absolute failure, and I’d drink myself silly my the middle of the day, whether I was working or not. Sober me recognizes the feeling of disappointment, but it’s okay. The feeling will pass. Besides, I’ve got a good idea for a poem cookin’.

    1. No, they aren’t easy. I’m pretty good at character sketches and dialogue, but I can’t seem to finish a story (at least, not in a satisfying way). I’ll stick to poetry as my main format.

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