Our resident online creative writing tutor Eliza Robertson shares five top tips for writing a short story and techniques for developing your writing skills.
1. Be the Magpie
Gather shiny things. Shiny things for a writer include: your own memories. Interactions you have witnessed. Snippets of “found” dialogue or conversations you’ve overheard. Children can be a rich resource. So is eavesdropping. When observing an interaction, watch the space between the two: the tension or ease. Listen to what’s unsaid. Collect images: maybe the excess of flamingos plugged into a neighbour’s lawn, or a man walking his kitten. Comb the news for kooky, probably local, headlines. I wrote a story this way, after a missing tiger and two camels were found in an abandoned trailer.
2. Keep a journal
You’ll need somewhere to house your findings. Keep a writer’s notebook. A real notebook, with real paper, is preferable to your phone’s Notes app (though the latter will do in a pinch.) Gather your observations here. Include dreams. Include sentences you’ve read, or lines of poetry. When you go to write your story, some of these details will bind together through Mystical Notebook Alchemy. They’ll start to colour the same landscape or story seed.
3. Know your scope
Focus on a moment or inciting incident: why is this story beginning now? Your plot may unfold over one continuous moment or several days, but often short stories aren’t the venue for whole lifespans. Save those for your novel or feature film.
To recognize the pulse of a short story (its movement, momentum, texture, beat, pacing, scope), read them. If you want to write a short story, but you only read novels, think again. Would you try to pilot a plane because you have a driver’s license? I recommend buying a story collection from your local independent bookseller, but there are many resources online as well (such as The New Yorker website, which offers four free articles a month, at time of writing.)
5. Show Up
After you’ve read and gathered and dreamed with your ideas, there’s nothing to do but show up at your desk. If you have a penchant for ritual: make your space pleasing. Light a candle or incense. Prepare your beverage of choice (if so desired). Clear your schedule. Close your door—especially if you live with others. You may have to employ a loving Keep Out sign. If you crave external deadlines: write contest dates into your calendar. Join a writer’s group or course. Identify the hours you can pragmatically return to your desk and schedule them in as you would any appointment. Know that writing time is important and you have the right to take it seriously.