Susmita Bhattacharya offers 10 tips to help you write a successful short story...
I’ve always thought of writing a short story as some sort of an adventure. There are clues that I need to follow, go on the journey and always have been surprised at the end of the process. Sometimes, I get inspiration from a particular incident, or from the senses like smell, or taste. Many times, it’s from what is happening around me and in the world. The process is different every time. If, for one story, I follow the narrative of a character, then for another it could be a mood, focusing more on the sense of place or inner thoughts. It’s important to keep reading short stories and engaging with other writers. The conversation about the process has to keep going. As well as the appreciation of a well told story. These are some of the tips I’ve collated. I use them myself and include them in my workshops. But always remember, if you’ve stopped enjoying the process because of following too many how-tos and how-not-tos just step away and do your thing. A door will open and you will find your way into the story. Then, in the rewrites and edits, you can put on your critical hat, and hone the story until it sings. And don’t get dejected about rejection letters. It means you are writing, the stories are going out there into the world, and you are involved in the process.
- Don’t get bogged down by definitions of what is a short story. If you have an idea, try a free-writing exercise to see where it takes you. If you don’t have an idea, try a free writing exercise and see where it takes you.
- Listen to the radio. Follow the news. Read the gossip magazines at the dentist. Eavesdrop on conversations at the bus-stop. You’re a writer – you’re allowed to! Inspiration and themes come from simple everyday actions or news. Keep yourself open to receive these ideas.
- Write an autobiographical story. It’s there, readymade for you. Then re-write it from another character’s perspective. Or from the point of view of that armchair or that swing you fell from as a child. Chop, change, add, subtract. It’s not autobiographical anymore.
- Experiment with form and structure. Does a story have to have a beginning, middle and an end? Maybe. But if you’re confident you can get away with it, or just want to play – you don’t need that structure.
- Writing the story from the very beginning? Sometimes that can be very daunting to stare at that blank page or screen. You could start at the end, or at the climax and then work your way to the beginning.
- Do not compare a short story to a novel. It is not a building block to writing novels. It is a living, breathing form in its own right. Enjoy writing it for its own sake.
- Learn from the best. My personal favourites are Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Murzban Shroff, D.H. Lawrence, Chimamanda Adichi Ngozi, Angela Readman, John Updike, Raymond Carver. But also: read emerging writers, online journals and anthologies. There is something to learn from everyone. Support these journals by reading them, submitting to them.
- Don’t be afraid to receive constructive criticism. If you can join a writing group, and it works for you – great. The Twitter writing community is very supportive. Just don’t spend all your time on it, you need to write too!
- Go on a date with your protagonist. Or have a serious chat with them. Give them a telling off. Discuss politics. Share recipes. Find out who their favourite teacher was. Or who they shared their first kiss with. It may not appear in the story, but small details will help to flesh out a well-rounded and believable character. Plus, it’s great to play make-believe as a grown up, no?
- Use your senses. No, really. Use the senses to take the reader to that place, or moment and leave them there. If your character is baking in the kitchen, bake a cake yourself. Immerse yourself in the process – the smells, the touch, the taste. (Plus, you get to eat cake!) If your character has just killed somebody – maybe don’t do that.
And finally, enjoy writing.
Susmita Bhattacharya will be running a short story masterclass at The Asian Writer Festival on Saturday 20th October 2018. To book your place visit the festival box office.
Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai. Her short fiction has been widely published, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her novel, The Normal State of Mind, (Parthian Books, 2015/ Bee Books India, 2016) was long listed for the Words to Screen Prize by the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) in 2018. She teaches contemporary fiction at Winchester University. She also facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops, a SO:Write project based in Southampton. Her short story collection, Table Manners, is published by Dahlia Publishing.