How to Write A Short Story – And Why You Really Should Learn To (a 10 part series)


In the old days, short stories were expected parts of a writer arsenal.  In times long before I broke in, the way into writing science fiction was to start writing and sending out as many short stories as humanly possible.

This is when the pulps market was healthy and people could make a living from 3 to 5c a word, of course.

By the time I broke in, twenty years ago, those days were long past. At one point, almost ten years later, in a drunken evening at a convention, several of us sat around the table and compared the slots for professional short stories, and professional novels and realized you had almost double the chance of publishing a novel as of publishing a short story in any given year.

Of course, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything about writing except that I wanted to do it for a living.

So I went to the library and got all the books on how to break into writing.  Most of which were ridiculously out of date or aimed at non-fiction writers.

I gleaned the impression that I had to learn to write short stories because one broke in through short stories first.

This was somewhat upsetting, because the first story I penned (literally) in fourth grade, in a composition book ran to thirty thousand words.

But if what I needed to do to break in was to write short stories, by gum, I’d write short stories.  And I’m so stubborn that I managed – against all odds – not only to break in through short stories but to go all the way up the ladder from 1/4c a word to 10c a word over about 3 years.  Then I sold a novel.

“But Sarah,” you’ll say, “you’re saying it already wasn’t useful in your time.  And traditional publishing is all out of steam anyway, why should I learn to write a short story? My comfortable length is a hundred thousand words.”

And yet, because traditional publishing is headed down the tubes, you should learn to write short stories.

Here are some uses I’ve seen people make of short stories in their indie career:

  • Since the biggest problem of indie is discoverability, writing a short story in an anthology with a lot of other indie writers gets you a shot at their fandom.
  • Because indie has an insane schedule if you want to be really successful, and you can’t always write over 50k every other month, you can fill the gaps in your collection and keep your readers expectant with a short story of 6k or so words on your off months.
  • You can put a short story perma-free on Amazon as permanent bait to readers.
  • You can try out a character, a way of writing or even a genre in a short story, and when you’re done what you have isn’t unsaleable scrap. It might just be something you collect in a collection later (single author multiple-short-story books are collections.  If you have multiple authors it’s an anthology.) But you can still sell it in some form.


So, to begin with, let’s get what a short story IS out of the way.

A short story is a complete work of fiction no less than two thousand words and no more than 10,000 words.  If you have more than 10,000 words, it’s a novella or a novelette.  Yes, I know there’s a difference, but I’m not going to look up what it is.  After all, the public doesn’t know either term.  If you fall in the uncomfortable place between 10,000 and 40,000 words call it a long short story.  If above 40,000 and less than 70,000 for most genres call it a short novel.  (Or a novel if you’re writing other genres.)

But stories aren’t lengths.  I had this problem with one of my ex-fledelings (note ex) who was convinced short stories or novels were lengths.  She’d cram 80,000 random words, of characters having breakfast and cleaning house, together and call it a novel.  It wasn’t.  It was a disjointed collection of random scenes. Short stories suffer from this more than novels.  If I had a penny for each of my colleagues who think he can yank a chapter out of his novel and call it a short story, I wouldn’t need to write for a living.

So, what is a short story?  Surely before you write one you need to know that.

A story is a satisfying unit of action, character development and emotional resolution (ideally all tree, practically at least one of those.)  A short story is all of that but in under 10,000 words.

No, it’s not actually easy to write, but fortunately for you I made every possible mistake learning how to, and therefore developed cheat sheets, plot schematics and all sorts of crazy ways to write competent short stories, (to date, I’ve sold more than a hundred, at professional rates.  I used to write a short story every Saturday, regardless of what else I was writing.)

Over the next ten posts, I’ll impart what I learned to you.

Next post, we’ll examine types of short stories (remember where I told you that you should achieve all three: action, character development, and emotional resolution?  Even in stories that achieve all, they usually concentrate on one) and there will be a reading list.  You don’t actually need to read the list, of course.  You’re too far away for me to wrap your knuckles with a ruler.  But reading them will help you follow what I’m saying.

Till next time.