Writing a short story can be a difficult process. Unlike a novel, there is little room to stop and admire the view - every word must count. I find the form elusive.
As a short story publisher and prize administrator of Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, I often read many 'nearly there' short stories. Those, which with a little tweaking could have made the longlist. They are competently written, beautiful even, but something is amiss. It's hard to pinpoint what that is.
Now in its fifth year, the Leicester Writes Short Story prize champions surprising and delightful short fiction. Here, I've asked last year's winner of the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize to share his thoughts on writing a successful short story. I hope it is useful to anyone thinking of entering this year's competition.
It's Okay Not to Know By Dan Powell
Writing short fiction is an exercise in not knowing. When I begin any story, I know very little about what will emerge onto the page. I don’t know where my story will go, what it is about, or where it will end. I discover these things while writing the story. When writing a short story, I trust to the writing process itself to take both myself and story to where they need to be by its end.
I believe that the short story writer must be okay with the idea of not knowing, and I am not alone in this belief. Short story writer Ron Carlson stresses that the ‘single largest advantage the veteran writer has over the beginner is [their] tolerance for not knowing’. The writer of short fiction needs to embrace the unknowable nature of the form and make it part of their writing process. This embracing of the unknown can be a daunting realisation for any writer beginning to write short stories.
When I begin to write my own short stories, I know next to nothing about what I am about to write. I do not know where my own first draft will take me. I just have to trust that, by the time I reach the end, I will have gotten where I need to go. I deal with my own anxieties around not knowing by breaking the writing of a short story down into four key processes. I share these here, in the hope they might be of help beginning to write their own short stories.
1. Getting an idea
For me, this typically involves smashing together two things that, at first glance, don’t really go together. My short story ‘The Ideal Husband Exhibition’ was born while I was listening to Father John Misty’s ‘The Ideal Husband’ and my thinking of the title collided with a thought about the Ideal Home Exhibition. All I had at this stage was a title, but it was a point from which to start. I am not the only short story writer who works this way. Ron Carlson describes his stories as emerging from his becoming aware of ‘something out of context’. Adam Marek writes about his own ideas resulting from his ‘combining two or more unrelated/incongruous things’.
2. Getting started
New writers often ask how much do you need to know about your story before you begin? The answer differs from writer to writer, but I find it best to know very little. On the rare occasions that I have planned out a story in advance of writing, those stories have been dull to write and duller to read. For me, planning the story kills its energy. I prefer to let the story unfold in the writing of the first draft. I start by simply describing a single image or moment in a sentence. At the start, I know little more about my story than that single image or moment. I certainly don’t know the ending of my story before I begin. It’s more exciting not to know. The writing then becomes a voyage of discovery.
3. Getting Through
Momentum is vital to any act of writing. You need to keep pushing forward to the end. The best way to do this, at every stage of the story, is to simply write the next thing that happens. At this first draft stage, the sentences you are writing don’t need to be the best sentences, or even sentences that will definitely survive in the final story. You only have to write the next thing that happens. Then the next. Grow your story, sentence by sentence. As Ron Carlson says, ‘You find out where you are going by going there.’
4. Getting To An Ending
There are two things that the short story does better than any other form: brevity and endings. The late, great Kurt Vonnegut advises the short story writer to ‘start as close to the end as possible’ for a reason. In the short story, you need to be brief and you need to know when to end. For me, the end is where you feel it. There is always a moment in the writing of a first draft when I feel a sentence fall onto the page with a weight of closure. I feel it land and see it blinking back at me on my laptop screen and I know. Finally I know.
Because only once you have a first draft can you know anything real about the story you are writing. And it is only once you have a completed first draft that the real writing begins. By writing the first draft of your story, you have moved from not knowing to knowing. Now you know your story. Now you know your story well enough to begin turning it into the best version of itself it can be. Redrafting a story is all about making sure it builds most appropriately and most efficiently its ending, right from its first word to its last. But by this time, that’s easy, because writing the first draft has shown you where you are trying to go with your story. Now all you have to do is go there.
Dan Powell is a prize-winning author of short fiction and a First Story writer-in-residence. His stories have appeared in The London Magazine, Carve and Best British Short Stories and his debut collection, Looking Out of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Prize. He is currently working on his PhD as an AHRC/Midlands4Cities-funded Doctoral Researcher in Creative Writing at University of Leicester. His thesis explores preclosure and closural staging in short fiction. Dan can be found online at danpowellfiction.com and as @danpowfiction.