Sunday, 1 August 2010

Writing A Short Story

Last week, someone asked me where I get my ideas from and how I go about writing a short story. Like most writers, I think, I’m always fascinated to read how other writers find ideas and how they write. So, even though the person who asked me was not a writer, I spoke briefly about the creative processes I use. In an effort to give back, as most well known writers have in magazine articles, or during talks, I thought I’d talk about the processes I use.

Where do I get ideas?

This is probably the most common question non-writers ask me. I tell them anywhere and everywhere. I get ideas from newspapers, magazine articles, letter pages, photographs, television programmes, snippets of conversation, the deep recesses of my mind, and numerous other places – anything that triggers a what-if question. What if Zombies shopped in supermarkets? What if a woman decides to buy vampire insurance to claim the £1 million payout?

Occasionally, an idea will come to me and I’ll write the story with no target market in mind. However, most of the time I’m writing for a particular publication, and will have been ‘looking’ for a story idea for a few days, or even weeks. For example, I spent a couple of weeks looking for an idea for Pill Hill Press’s Fem-Fangs anthology. I’d never written a vampire story before, and wanted to avoid the girl-meets-boy-vampire love story. It wasn’t until I was reading a national newspaper’s ‘ten things you never knew about vampires’, that I came across this fact: In 1999 in the US, 907 people took out insurance against turning into vampires or werewolves. Bingo. There was the seed for a story. Although the final story turned out to be so much more than a woman trying to commit fraud, the ‘seed’ was what started the creative process.

How do I write a short story?

From the original spark of an idea to the finished manuscript, I go through several stages:

1. I let the idea gestate in my mind, until I’ve worked out which viewpoint the story will use, how many characters there will be, and most of the plot. I like to have a beginning and most of the middle. Sometimes I might know the ending, but often that changes by the time the first draft is completed. I’m never concerned if I don’t have all the middle and an ending.

2. After I’ve played the idea in my head a few times, like a movie, I write a partial draft by hand. There is something about writing by hand that stops me from constantly stopping and re-writing, thus speeding up the story writing process. I always write on every other line, so that I can correct or alter words and sentences after it is written. Again, I do not need to have the whole story.

On a separate note, I’m often asked where I find characters names. I’m not sure how it happens, but for most stories the characters name themselves. I know that probably sounds crazy, but it’s true. I’ve just started writing a story, and I knew immediately the characters would be called Angus, Giles, and Cookie. However, if I’m writing a more unusual story, I do turn to the web for inspiration. For my vampire story, I browsed several gothic name generators!

3. Once the partial draft is written, I type it up on Word. How long it then takes me to finish a complete first draft varies from story to story. It could take a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. Generally, it takes me two or three days. I then print off the first draft and put it away for a while. Ideally, this should be at least a week.

4. After a few days have passed, I take out manuscript and re-read it with fresh eyes. I make notes and corrections in red pen. Because I stood back from the story for a while, it is at this stage I can tell what is or is not working, and what the story is lacking. Does the beginning start at the moment of crisis? Is there enough description? Are all the senses employed? Does the dialogue move the story forward? Does it make sense? Is the crisis resolved? Is the ending satisfying? It is as this stage that I cut out what isn’t working, and sometimes radically re-plot the story. I make all the corrections and alterations on Word.

5. After I’m happy with the second draft, I read it through aloud. This helps with the dialogue, and awkward sentences. Again, I make corrections where necessary.

6. I re-print the manuscript and go through it like a primary school teacher, looking for any spelling or grammatical errors. I tend to read it like a young reader might, word by word.

7. Finally, once I am one hundred percent happy with it, I will submit the story and pray the editor likes it.

There is one other stage that is worth mentioning, which happens after a story is accepted. Once I’ve received the proof to check over, or the published book, I always make a note of any editorial changes. Despite several re-reads and edits, it is still possible to miss mistakes, or to even be making a grammatical error you were not aware of. This stage is also especially helpful if you are writing for a foreign market, for example America, where different spellings are used.

So, that is how I write a short story. I hope you found it interesting, and maybe helpful!


  1. Wow - that seems to take forever. As a former journalist I'm used to writing quickly and get very fed up if I have to go over the same text too many times. Maybe this is why I've still never had any fiction published!

  2. Gosh! I am in awe at how organised you are!! Well good for you!! I'm glad it works for you and I'm very very impressed by your focused discipline!

    Good luck with all your fab stories. I also love how you pluck unusual facts and use them as inspiration - brilliant!

    take care

  3. I know that writers of fiction are often meticulous in their preparation and drafting. It's what most authors need to practice, if they want to end up with a MS that their happy with. More importantly, one that a publisher/editor will be happy with.

    Thanks for offering an insight, Ellie. It probably surprises many people to discover the time and effort that goes into good stories. My style, like MorningAJ's, leans more to the journalistic but, I hope to rectify that quite soon. Your method might just help me in my efforts.

  4. Thanks for sharing! I think I'm going to try the handwritten rough draft to bypass that pesky internal editor. Constantly rewinding and correcting is my worst habit.

  5. sounds about right
    very nice knowing how you put it all together
    I really agree with putting it away
    ...looking at it with fresh eyes

  6. Hi Ellie! Great post. I'm like Janel, with the constant self-editing going on. I think it's also because I'm like Morning AJ and Martin H. Most of my writing is and always has been non-fiction, personal essay, journalistic type. I'm used to getting it written, making sure it's grammatically correct, etc. and sending it in! Good for you on your successes!! I'm sure there will be many more, too!

  7. AJ - I envy your ability to write quickly and to a deadline. I think those skills would help when it comes to writing a novel!

    Old Kitty - I wasn't always organised and disciplined. It has taken a lot of practice. LOL.

    Martin - thank you!

    Janel - a handwritten draft really helps my writing. If you try it, let me know how you got on.

    Suz - the fresh eyes part is one of the most important, I think. I'm always surprised by what I find during that re-read.

    Becky - thank you!


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