October 8, 2018

How to write a short story when you’re short on time


I’m writing this during lunch, which I take at my desk, while alternating between checking my inbox and designing marketing materials for an upcoming Melville House title.

Photo via NeONBRAND/Unsplash

It’ll take me perhaps 20 minutes to a half hour to get my ideas down, some sort of shell of a list, and still, there’ll need editing from our own Digital Marketing Manager Stephanie Valente. But the words end up on the page. Somehow. Though I can’t help with actually sitting down and focusing on the story, I do have a few tips and techniques that have helped me during times of stress, when shortened moments of creativity were all I could manage; taking these in advisement have led to the progress, despite a heavy workload, the inner-writer hopes and dreams of.

1. Just get words on the page. Take notes? Go one step further and let the ideas flow like word-vomit. Stencil in as much as you can, but don’t be afraid that what’s being written is pristine, or if it even makes complete sense. That’s what editing is for. Let it be a mess. It’s that part of the writing process when messes are mainstays.

2. Small increments. It’s scary and feels impossible when you think of it as an entire short story with a beginning, middle, and end. What’s worked for me during times of stress was to focus on a line, maybe two. Just think–one sentence. That’s all I need, one sentence, during this writing session. Often times you’ll end up with a paragraph, even a page, before you need to move on.

3. Shut up, brain. It’s doubt, plain and simple. That voice that tells you what isn’t working, which builds pressure, and then suddenly you’re staring at the cursor, blinking, without a single thought. Easier said than done but combat that doubt, that inclination, by having, on-hand, a book, a story, something that you can turn to that isn’t a screen, isn’t something that has the ability of sending you down a social media hole, and read a little. Not much, just a line or two. Use it as a palate cleanser. It just might shut out doubt.

4. Every scene counts (advance action). With short stories in particular, there’s no room for standing around, providing exposition that doesn’t at the same time double as advancement of the narrative. It’s best to look at every element of the scene as something that stacks in relation to the story, and your character’s motivations. It’s like designing a room, or picking out the right outfit: each element must fit with the rest or else you’re just tossing in random furniture, wearing too many layers. And man, that looks tacky.

5. Remember there’s an exit. Meaning, every minute counts. Even if you aren’t actually writing down much, the focus on the story is part of the writing process and therefore is writing. It can also help to acknowledge the limited time. Strange, I know, but it’s true. If you know you have only a half-hour, and a goal of writing a sentence, your mind and body will battle to focus in on that one task. The sentence, you better believe it’ll end up on the page.

6. It’s called “short story” for a reason. Akin to the second tip I gave, but more in line with a broad focus, it’s very easy to get caught up in the act of writing, forgetting the aim. It’s so damn easy to forget that your story doesn’t need fifteen different subplots just because the ideas seemed so good during the brainstorm. While taking that moment to stop, let the worry wash over you, always remember that the short story must, paragraph by paragraph, evolve and progress the plot. Just the one plot. For example: Character X is freaking out about an impending deadline and will not be ready in time. Steer the story to its conclusion; don’t fixate and linger on the character’s lunch, the character’s plans for the evening. It’s all about the deadline, the work, why it won’t be done, and the repercussions of missing that deadline.

Yeah, I know that example wouldn’t make for much of a story, but hey, they can’t all be winners. Okay, I’m out of time. Lunch is over and I need to get back to work.

Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.