Writing Short Stories – There’s No Need To Be Scared! – Guest Post by Nik Perring

To celebrate the halfway-mark of the Strictly Writing Award (see over there on the right for full Rules and Regs), we asked successful short story writer, Nik Perring what his advice would be to any aspiring writers out there who were thinking of turning one in to us, and here's what he had to say:

I’ve been writing short stories for a few years now, with reasonable success. I’ve also, over those few years, talked to a lot of people about short stories and it seems to me that a lot of those people are, somehow, scared of them. A bit like poetry. It’s as though there’s a secret you need to get them and an even bigger, magical, one you need to be able to write them. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Anybody can write and read short stories, and if they want to, they should. Or at least give them a try.

There’s no magic formula I can share with you that’ll make you write great short stories. I wish there was. If there was one it’d save me an awful lot of time. What I can tell you, though, are a few things that work for me.

Writing short stories, really, is no different to writing novels – the same principles apply. The only difference is that short stories are, well, simply shorter. And I think that can be daunting to some people – it really needn’t be.

Here are some thoughts and suggestions that, I hope, will help.

So. Where to begin? If you’d have asked the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut (whose short stories are brilliant), he’d have said ‘As close to the end as possible’. And I’d agree with that because it means we’ll be starting the story at a point where things are getting interesting.

Most importantly, you need to find something or someone interesting to write about. I often find that asking myself ‘What if?’ questions help: What if someone suffered from an illness that meant they couldn’t actually stop moving?; What if someone chose to decorate their walls with Post-it notes? What if the only way a woman could shut up her husband was by taking off her clothes? That kind of thing works for me and allows me to write the story to find out the answer. It could work for you too...

One of the most common worries I’ve found people have when they’re thinking about writing short stories (or not writing them!) is that of word count. ‘But how long is a short story?’ they’ll say. ‘How long should one be?’

And my answer to them. One: Stop Worrying! And two: It’ll be as long as it is.

I honestly never worry about word count. The important thing with any story (and I’d include novels here as they’re stories too) is that, as writers, we should allow them to become what they should be. We tell the story as best we can without giving a second thought to length. The moment we start to pad things out, or cut things, for the sake of the length is the moment when the story will stop working, where it’ll get bent out of shape. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. Don’t forget that once you’ve written a first draft, the parts that need more explanation or that need to go will become apparent and can be fixed – but that should only be for the story’s sake and not so it fits in with any imposed word count.

But, if you want some guide as to what sort of shape (or length) a short story should be, I’d point you in the direction of a collection of fairy tales.

What I also find really useful, and this probably a very obvious one, is reading good contemporary shorts to see what people are doing are how they’re doing it. (I’d recommend reading people like Aimee Bender (I interviewed her about this sort of thing here (http://nikperring.blogspot.com/2010/07/aimee-bender-interview.html) ), Etgar Keret, Sarah Salway, Michael Czyzniejewski, Mary Miller, and Amy Hempel.)

Likewise, read the greats: Carver, Hemingway, Checkhov, Kafka, Vonnegut, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, and so on. See why they’re greats.

And ENJOY it! Writing’s supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to enjoy it! Sure, edits and making something interesting into something great can be an awful lot of hard work – but that hard work’s much more enjoyable if it’s being done on something we enjoy and find interesting.

Which kinda leads me to my next point, and that’s one about content. A lot of people think that short stories are super-literary and/or overly worthy. Sure, some are. Some are boring. No different to novels. So it’s important that, as with novels, you write the story you want to write. A story doesn’t have to be anything other than good.

So, go on. Try writing one. Enjoy yourselves. You might find you actually quite like it!

Nik Perring is a writer, and occasional teacher of writing, from the north west. His short stories have been published widely in places including SmokeLong Quarterly, 3 :AM and Word Riot. They’ve also been read at events and on radio, printed on fliers and used as part of a high school distance learning course in the US.

Nik’s debut collection of short stories, NOT SO PERFECT is published by Roast Books and is out now. Nik blogs here (http://nikperring.blogspot.com) and his website’s here (www.nperring.com). He also offers short story help here (http://thestorycorrective.com/).


Anonymous said...

Great and useful post, Nik.

Even though i'd been writing novels for 4 years, i was unable to write a short story until i'd blogged for a year, so i'd definitely suggest blogging to anyone who was having trouble getting their head around the short form.

As a ('n aspiring) novelist, i also have to admit my attitude to shorts was a bit lazy at the beginning (uninspiring first lines, cliches slipping in) and i now realize they need just as much effort as for the long form.

Sam x

Anonymous said...

I write fantastic short stories! Er wait, no I don't. Because I can never seem to write endings. I get an awesome story in my head, I write it up and then leave it, because I don't know how to end it. Please, can someone tell me how to end a short story without making it seem to abrupt?

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick, excellent post. I am one of those who has worried about the 'constraints' and ended up by being a bit of a short story refusenik. I completely agree a story is the length that it is and can't be artificially cut or expanded. Also discovering that not all of them are of the over-literary (boring?)variety. Off to follow some of your links!
(Tch tch, blogger and Wordpress not talking this week)

Nik Perring said...

Hiya Sam - thanks. You know, I'd not thought about that blogging thing, but it does make sense - similar shapes and all that.

Nik Perring said...

Suz - Often, if the ending doesn't feel right it's because it probably isn't. If I were you, I'd ask myself if I was ending it (or even starting it!) in the right place. Really, a story should come to its own natural conclusion. So I'd guess that you might need to write more of it until it naturally comes to the end.

Or... practice endings. It can take a lot of courage to say: Right, that's it, it's over - especially if you've been used to writing longer things.

Keep at it!


Nik Perring said...

Hi Ali - and thanks! Looks like we agree!

And gawd no, stories don't need to be overly literary at all. They just need to be good - interesting, affecting, moving.

This is one of my all time favourites from my all time favourite author, which you might enjoy:


dan powell said...

Great advice, Nik. I find the 'what if?' question to be the spark of much of what I write.

Nik Perring said...

That's good to hear, Dan! I think What if? is core to what Story is, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of it all.

Ellie Garratt said...

A great post. A huge thank you to Nik.

I talked about how I write short stories on my blog last week. Nik, you are absolutely right about a stories length. If you are submitting a story to a competition or anthology you do need to be aware of the minimum/maximum given, but don't write the story to a given length. It won't work. Write the story - you can always lower or raise the word count later.

Caroline Green said...

Really interesting post. I think I might be a bit scared of them. This is all really useful in curing my of my phobia!

Debs Riccio said...

Thanks so much for guesting, Nik, it's been such a pleasure to have you so present all day with everyone's comments, and, like Caroline, I think I might be a little less scared of short stories now - I may even have to resign from Strictly Towers and enter the competition myself after this!

Nik Perring said...

Hi Ellie - lovely to meet you! Yes, I agree - you talk sense!

It's an interesting thing re competition word limits though, and raising them: I don't think you need to, mostly, because it'll change the shape of the story, usually, for the worse. The winner of the Bristol Short Story prize, announced a couple of weeks ago, was two pages long - the word limit (from memory) was 3000... Just goes to show!

Nik Perring said...

Debs, thanks so much for having me - it's been great! And I'm thrilled that at least two people are less scared of them now! They don't bite, after all!

Happy writing, one and all!


Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks for a great post, Nik. So much fear around writing, whatever the length...and thanks for reminding us that it should be fun!

Nik Perring said...

Thanks Susie! And they SHOULD be fun. To start with...! :)

Suzie Grogan said...

As someone who has written short stories and found it a great discipline as well as enjoyable I really liked this post. My problem was that I completely divided the people that read them. I don't to this day (and it put me off a little)know whether it was because they were genuinely no good or whether some readers are just less comfortable with the length. Getting back into it now but knocked my confidence a bit!

Fionnuala said...

SS is a genre I'm terrified of - wierd isn't it? I think nothing of starting a novel but ask me to write a concise tight 1000 words and I reach for Facebook, Twitter. Any procrastination tool will do. Great post Nik.

Nik Perring said...

Caroline - I hope so!

Nik Perring said...

Suzie - I do know that a lot of readers do have some sort of strange prejudice against shorts - I've heard, far too often, people saying 'They're just not my thing'or 'I like something I can get my teeth into' - so I'd take that into account. The truth is, they're probably not reading the right stories for them.

Also, dividing people isn't a bad thing, I reckon, and I'd guess that has more to do with subject matter than quality of writing - there are some short story writers whose work I don't get on with but who others love.

I'd say: stick at it and try to not let it dent your confidence.


Nik Perring said...

Fionnuala - hello! Lordy, I know that feeling!

Bet you could do it though. In fact, I dare you!


JennM said...

Good advice, Nik. You don't appear to have sold any stories to markets that pay good rates. Is this a deliberate policy, and if so, would you mind saying a bit more about it? On the other hand, if you have tried them, what would your advice be on how I can improve so that I can sell my stories to professional markets that pay well?

Nik Perring said...

Hi Jenn. That's a good question. I think my answer would depend on the type of stories you write/want to sell as there's quite a difference between people who publish, say, women's fic and those who publish, say, literary magic realism; if you write women's fiction you've a better chance of being paid for it!

So, as far as my work goes...

My goal has always been having enough good stories to be able to have a good collection published (which I hope I have in Not So Perfect!), and for me it was more important to have pieces published in good quality literary magazines - that always came before money - than it was to be paid for them. That way I was writing what I wanted to write (which is hugely important to me) and I was being placed in places that are of a very high standard (someone like SmokeLong only accept under 3% of what they're sent). So, while I wasn't always being paid (in some cases I have been) I was proving (to agents, editors, publishers and myself) that my work was good enough to get into Good Places, and that's been worth it in the end because I do have a collection out. Does that make sense?

There are, of course, other ways to make money - competitions being the obvious one (I have almost no experience of these so can't offer any advice on them) - and if you go here (http://www.duotrope.com/) you'll get access to a comprehensive list of mags, paying and non.

I hope that answers your question. If it doesn't feel free to ask again!


JennM said...

Nik, thanks for replying so fully and so quickly! I've only recently been writing short stories, so am trying to get as much information as possible before launching them at various markets.

Yes, it does make sense to aim for magazines that will look good on one's CV. And I know the odds of getting accepted in the good ones are horendous, so well done for getting into SmokeLong. I guess my stuff could be seen as literary-ish Fantasy. So my ideal would be to sell to a magazine like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which is regarded as high quality but also pays professional rates.

Do you have any tips on how I can improve the quality of my writing, to bring it up to the standard it would need to get bought by a magazine like Beneath Ceaseless Skies?

Nik Perring said...

No problem at all, Jenn. Glad I was of help.

I think your ambitions are good ones. What I would say though is that while that could be your first port of call, there are others you should be trying too - it can end up being an all your eggs in one basket situation if you're not careful. Plus, while it's important to be published in the elite, it's also an important thing to be published (reasonably) often (only your good stuff) so you develop a following.

How can you improve? By writing lots, mostly, and by reading lots too. There's no substitute for those two things - they're absolutely necessary and they do work.

Outside of that, if you want to spend money, you could go on courses, on residentials - I've no experience of either but I know people who've benefited from them (the course/residential would have to be the right one for you, of course, and they're not cheap so you'd have to choose widely). You could join a writing group - I was a member of this online one (http://www.writewords.org.uk/) for years - and they seemed to have a healthy fantasy/short story set up.

Outside of that there are literary consultancies. I run one only for short stories (http://thestorycorrective.com/).

Really, you have to decide what's right for you because what works for one may not for another.

Hope that helps!


JennM said...

Thanks again, Nik. I'll check out writewords. I'd love to do a course. The Clarion workshop would be my ideal but it's six weeks long and the other side of the Atlantic!

Nik Perring said...

No problemo!

There are others - there's arvon http://www.arvonfoundation.org/p1.html

and I think it's always a good thing to go see authors giving talks. Plus there are often workshops by good writers at festivals.

LOTS to choose from!

Stories Inc. said...

Thanks for the post! I'll give that "What if?" business a try somtime. I do feel a bit more intimidating about blogging short stories now though, I use my blog as a way of exercising and write more quickly and smoother, rather than take as long as a novel crafting each piece. I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff before I write it down though, hope that counts as a compensation... Maybe it's time to deal with them more seriously, but then again, I have fun writing them this way, making full use of my free time writing in spare hours. What do you think should be a priority?

Anonymous said...

I've started writing stories, and people say I'm good at it to, and I've been thinking about getting them published but I'm to scared to try. Can you hep?