Seasalt Words: How to Write a Short Story

Jess Collins from Cornwall-based content agency Feral Writer gives us some top tips on how to weave a wonderful tale

From painting to pottery, singing to sewing, we all need a creative outlet. If yours is writing but you’ve never quite taken the leap and made it a regular practise, we hope this series of blog posts, created with writing pro Jess, will help you find your voice and write your story.

Jess says, “So many people tell me they dream of writing a story but they don’t ever give it a go. If you don’t try, you’ll never know though. It’s always good to start with a short story, so you can practice getting into a writing rhythm and following a short story process, without becoming overwhelmed or burning out after chapter four. A short story can be anything from 1,000 -10,000 words but generally they fall around 3,000-7,000 words.”

I’ve put together some tips for you to consider when writing a short story:

1. Create an Outline

Make sure you know what’s happening in your story. Quite often people sit down and start to write and see where it’ll take them. It’s always best to have a plan, to know what is happening in your story and when. An outline doesn’t have to be restrictive (after all, it’s for your eyes only). Some of the things you should be addressing is what’s your premise (a simple statement explaining the concept of the story), what happens when and why does this take place? Begin with the end in mind.

2. Start Strong

Your opening line is probably the most important line of your entire story. And your opening paragraph is your most important paragraph, and your opening page is your most important page. Your reader has to read that first line and want to read the next one, they have to finish that first page and turn the page – you need to keep their interest. What can you start with that is compelling and creates intrigue for your reader? How can you approach it differently and make your opening bold and enticing?

3. Get to Know Your Characters

Your characters have to be believable. You need to know them inside out. What are their names, where were they born, age, star sign, any pets, do they have a garden, are they in a relationship, what do they look like, what do they enjoy, what are their insecurities? What complex do they have and why? You need to know them as if they were your specialist subject on Mastermind. If you don’t believe them, your reader won’t believe them either. Make them human, make them flawed. Do not be tempted to have good people and bad people, the shades of grey are what make for authenticity.

4. Commit to Writing Every Day

You need to show up to your writing every day. It’s up to you how you do this. Some writers set themselves word limits but personally, I don’t work this way. I worry that you can make yourself write 1,000 words but it doesn’t mean it will be any good, you’ll be writing for the sake of increasing word count whereas quality isn’t quantity. Personally I find just writing for a set time is really helpful. It can be easy to procrastinate and daydream or doodle the time away and then convince yourself you’ve written for an hour. So I use a technique called Pomodoro which I’m actually using right now writing this blog post. Basically you set your timer for 25 minutes and you write solidly (without checking your timer to see how long is left).

Because of this you are super productive, as you understand that 25 minutes goes fast. What usually happens is that by the time my timer goes off, I’m in full flow and don’t want to stop. However, I then stop and break for 5 minutes (away from my screen). I stretch my legs, play with the dogs, go in the garden, grab a cup of tea. I don’t go on my phone or computer. Then I start again with another 25-minute timer until I’m happy with my progress. This is how I get the best results. Show up every single day, even if just for one Pomodoro session – everyone can find 25 minutes a day.

5. Read Your Genre

It is so important to read your genre and be interested in it. I often come across aspiring authors who purposefully don’t do this “in case they become subconsciously influenced” and end up imitating it. That is extremely unlikely to happen. Not reading competitor’s stories because you might be influenced or because you’re competitive and find it difficult to look at them means not looking at the bigger picture. You will learn so much from reading these stories (not to mention that this is most likely a genre you really enjoy if you’ve chosen it). If anything, reading these stories will help you see new angles that you hadn’t thought of and ways that other writers may have missed that you can approach. You’ll notice patterns in the way certain things are written and question why this is done. You will know so much more for reading your genre regularly and seeing what works and what can be done differently.

6. Know Your Difference

Which leads me to this point – it’s important to know your difference. Sometimes you watch these TV talent shows like The Voice or The X Factor or whatever and you’ll see someone come on stage and sing just like Robbie Williams. And they sound great. But it’s an identical version of the same song. If those two CDs are on the shelf next to each other, I’m going to choose real Robbie Williams over sound-the-same Robbie. It’s the same with stories. I don’t want to read a sound-the-same Agatha Christie or Roald Dahl. I would like to read someone doing it differently. So perhaps you write a similar style to Agatha Christie but with a twist. What gives you that flavour that will make yours a page-turner?

7. Don’t Let The Ending Let You Down

Just as the beginning has drawn me in, the ending needs to leave me on a high. How many stories have you read where the ending feels rushed and leaves you with more questions than you started with? The best way to develop a readership is to have a good ending. The ending needs just as much drama as the beginning, it needs to tie everything together for the reader and leave them feeling wowed and sometimes surprised. Take The Notebook as an example, when it all comes together, you realise that the main character has dementia and doesn’t recognise her husband any longer. When they die together at the end, it’s the most bittersweet ending and one the reader doesn’t necessarily see coming but it makes so much sense. We can empathise and engage emotionally with these characters and their experiences. An ending doesn’t have to be happy but it needs to be memorable.

8. Write Through Fear

It’s so important to write through fear. The most common fear is fear of failure – what if it’s not good enough? What if nobody wants to read it? What if it doesn’t get published? What if I just can’t do it? My suggestion is not to second guess yourself and don’t put pressure on yourself thinking or worrying about the potential of being published or anything like that – just write. It is better to fear failure than never to try. Just write, you don’t even need to tell anyone about it, just see where your story takes you.

The second type of fear is fear of writing a scene that feels scary to you. This might be a murder scene or a sex scene – something entirely out of your comfort zone. But that’s OK, just do your best. You will get better at tricky scenes the more that you practice them (and like I said previously, reading will help massively here – if you need to write a murder scene read murder scenes, if you need to write a sex scene, read sex scenes). It’s all about getting comfortable with the concept and practise, practise, practise.

9. Accept that your first draft will be rubbish

My final tip is this – your first draft is going to be bad. Everyone’s is. Nobody writes a masterpiece in their first sitting. 80% of the work is in the editing stage – cutting, pasting, editing, changing… in the book industry they call this the “shitty first draft”. Get comfortable with that so that when you read it back it’s not a massive shock to you. This is the point where you become a writer or not. You have the choice to say “that’s a pile of rubbish” and walk away or continue to show up day after day to edit and improve your work, paragraph by paragraph, painstakingly, turning up every single day, pulling it apart and polishing and perfecting it until it’s a masterpiece. That’s what makes a writer – it’s the graft as much as the craft.

I would love to see what you create. Why not send me your first paragraph? You can find me on Instagram at @theferalwriter.