Those of you who are regular readers of this blog (hello, four people) will know I'm not generally in the business of going around telling other people what to do. I don't consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and also generally think people should find their own way to do things. But recently, having had a bit of success having my own short fiction published, I've had a few writers approach me for help. So I decided to do a little blog post about my own approach to writing short fiction. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. You can take what you take and leave what you leave. It's not intended to be definitive....
I have these all the time. They come from all sorts of places. Maybe I overhear a funny argument in the supermarket, or see somebody nearly fall off their bike. Maybe I have an idea during the day while I'm at work. Often these ideas need a bit of time to fully form into something that could be a story. Either way, I write my ideas down in a notebook small enough to carry around everywhere. That way I've always got something to work from.
I often find that the best short story ideas come when my brain is partly occupied in something else, like washing up. This is pretty common. It's when your conscious brain is occupied that your unconscious can have a little bit of a skip about and come up with something good. So my advice here is, pay attention to your daydreams.
Write every day, or as close to it as you can manage. Set aside writing time and don't let anybody or anything interrupt it. Get used to having to say no to things. People might assume that you can write any time, and try to intrude upon your writing time. “You can write any day!” they'll tell you. NOT TRUE. Discipline yourself to write when you say you're going to write. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll do it later. For reference, my excuse to say no to things is always, “I'm working that day.” Nobody will try to persuade you to skive off work to go out drinking, or whatever. As excuses go, it's solid gold.
Write your story
Do whatever it takes to get it done. There's that piece of advice from Neil Gaiman that says, “Whatever it takes to finish it, finish it.” It's such good advice. Finish everything you start, even if you start to think it's total bollocks halfway through. Finish it anyway. It's good practise, and you'll never be a writer if you don't. No excuses.
Rewriting & editing
Another piece of advice from a great: this time, the graphic novelist Chris Ware. “Work hard. And then when you think you can't work any harder – work a little bit more.” So true. Look at the standard of published work in the best places. It's so high. Sure, if you don't want to aim for good publications, there are always ways to get your work out there. You can get them in a local free paper, or put them out yourself. And if you want to do things that way, you should. But the danger is that doing things that way doesn't force you to work hard. If you want good publication, you have to really put yourself through the mill. More so than may even seem possible.
For some people, this is where the real wailing and gnashing of teeth begins. For me, certified nerd, this is my favourite part of the process. I usually spend at least twice as much time rewriting and editing as I did writing the first draft – and sometimes longer. I often think that more than half the battle to be a good writer is in learning to be really ruthless. Don't let yourself get away with anything. Look for sloppy sentence structure, parts of the story that don't contribute to the whole. Tear anything out that doesn't work. Does it hurt? Yes, good. It ought to.
If it helps, write a one-sentence summary of what the story is about. For example, for my story Top Dog, the sentence would probably be: “A story about finding value in simple pleasures; in finding the worth in something others discard.” As I go through the story, I look for resonances to this central theme in everything, and bin things that don't contribute to it. Sometimes it hurts to take things out. Usually I paste the cut sections into a separate document. I tell myself, “I can put this back in later if it turns out the story needs it.” It's a bit of a psychological crutch. Most usually, it turns out the story doesn't need what I'm throwing away. But it's there just in case. Ha! I fooled myself! Way to go, me!
Learning to bin things you like is hard at first, but it's worth doing. It totally serves your writing in the end. You might be writing about sentimental things, but you don't have to be sentimental in how you go about it.
With short fiction, I always think it's worth going away and coming back, going away and coming back. Work on something else between finishing the draft and the first edit, and between the first edit and the second. You will always see things much more clearly this way. It places a bit of distance between you and it, and lets you be a bit more objective. Really good short fiction is a bit deceptive. The simplest-seeming stories, those that seem effortless, are the ones that take the most labour to write. So go away and come back. But! NEVER use going away as an excuse to never come back. You must ALWAYS finish things. Even if you still think it's bollocks at the end. It's all a process. You have to go through it over and over again, before you get to the point where you'll do anything you're happy with. The lesson: you'll never get anywhere if you don't finish.
Practise, practise, practise
The more you do it, the easier it gets. Sure, writing short stories is never easy (where would be the fun in that?) - but the more you write short fiction, the more confidence you'll have about doing it. Your early attempts may well be a bit derivative. Don't beat yourself up about that. All the best writers go through that. Nobody ever wrote a story as good as “I could see the smallest things” first time out of the gate. Just keep going.
Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden