5 Steps to Writing a Great Short Story

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New writers often think crafting a short story is the ticket to literary success.
And it can be. 
Take, for example, the runaway New Yorker hit, "Cat Person." Clocking in at about 7,200 words, the short story catapulted the author, Kristen Roupenian to viral fame and a book deal. 
She's the most recent example, but plenty of successful writers started with short story writing.
However, just because the word "short" is in the genre type, doesn't mean the process of writing one isn't long, arduous, and even technical at times. 
But, that word of warning shouldn't deter you if you're determined to try your hand at one. Follow the five steps below and you'll be headed in the right direction.

What is a short story?

A short story is generally fiction, meaning it's not an essay, journalism, or memoir (all examples of non-fiction). Most short stories are 10,000 words or less. Literary magazines, which publish short fiction, have their own word count requirements.
For example:
  • The Virginia Quarterly Review asks for stories between 2,000 and 8,000 words.
  • Tin House requires pieces to be 10,000 words or less.
  • The Paris Review looks at stories 1,000 to 7,500 words in length.
The writing process is subjective, and you'll find no shortage of advice on what to include. Ultimately, it's up to you and your writing preferences (and genre!), so take these steps with a grain of salt. They'll help you get started and complete a story, but if you feel like another approach will serve you better go with that one.

Step 1

Write the logline of your short story.
Hollywood uses loglines to sum up entire scripts to one sentence. Sure, you're not writing a screenplay, but every screenplay tells a story, and a short story still needs to have an arc, just as a larger work does.
So, craft your logline by including the main tension in the piece. Without this guiding sentence, you'll find yourself including random bits and pieces in your story and run the risk of not keeping your reader's attention. You need to captivate your reader whether it's the submission manager at a literary journal or someone who found your blog online. 
Example loglines, courtesy of filmdaily.tv:
  • A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers. (The Matrix)
  • Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead. (Pirates of the Caribbean)

Step 2

A story needs a beginning, middle, and end, otherwise it's not a story — it's a long-form poem, scene, piece of rambling, or a journal entry. A shortcut to outlining your entire piece to ensure you have some sort of story structure is to decide on your ending first.
"But I want to write and see where the words take me," you might think to yourself. 
Stop there, and realize that most writers don't work that way. Once the going gets tough, you'll want an ending or an outline to guide you and remind you that all hope is not lost. You might be in the woods for now, but you have a map with you. 
So, write the ending to your piece. You could do a paragraph or two, the full ending scene, or simply some bullets that outline your thoughts on how the piece will conclude. Once you have those, you can start building the rest of your story.

Step 3

Do more prep work or get started writing. If you like planning and structure, write character sketches and the major plot points you want to hit. Even if your story isn't plot-driven, you should have shifts in tone, mood, or emotion. Map out where those should be.
If you're the type of writer who hated the logline and ending writing exercise, skip this step and just start writing. See where it takes you. If you get stuck, come back to this step and give yourself some structure to hang your story on. 

Step 4

Write! Write some more, and then rewrite.
Get your story out of your head and into the world. 
After your done with your initial draft, decide whether you want to read it through on your computer or if you want to see the words you wrote in the physical world. 
If you're better with tactile editing and writing, print out your pages. With your work in front of you, see what needs to be trimmed, what areas need more work, and whether the story reads as clearly as you wish it to (reading out loud can help!). 

Step 5

Time to edit.
Take a few days after you finish writing to clear the proverbial palate. Let the piece sit and take up something else, perhaps a book you put aside to write your story. You'll want to let your mind move on to something else so that when you come back to the piece you have fresh eyes.
Once you look through your draft and edit, decide whether you want to send the second draft to a friend or acquaintance for a second set of eyes, or if you're ready to publish or submit. And if the whole process was just for you, that's fine too. 
Congrats! You did a hard thing, and now it's time to start your next one. 

Where can you publish a short story?

Literary journals and magazines publish short stories. Historically, newspapers and regular magazines would publish pieces of stories each week, in a process called serializing. Unfortunately for writers, that practice isn't found at any of the major newspapers in this day and age. The New Yorker still publishes fiction, but it's usually one story per magazine issue, or a handful in the once a year fiction edition.
Most writers who write contemporary "literary" fiction submit to literary publications, such as Granta, The Iowa Review, and Ploughshares which have a printed component as well as websites. Genre writers, which can mean sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, can submit to websites dedicated to the particular genre. Many writers self-publish, either on sites such as Medium, or on a blog, or as e-books.
It's totally up to you. If you go the journal route, be prepared to wait months, often up to six or more, to find out whether your story is accepted. Pay is usually very low, if there is any at all. Genre writes and self-publishers will see their work out in the world much faster, but will only earn as much as they can get their audience to pay. 

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