Learning how to write short stories
November 7, 2019 7:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in writing short stories (genre fiction more so than literary or non-fiction). Share with me the best resources for learning how to do this well.

Me: I've been doing morning pages for a month and I'm feeling the benefits, but would like to direct my attention toward actual creative works as opposed to just purging my thoughts onto the page. I don't have any knowledge of how to plot, write characters or dialogue, set scenes, et cetera, though I have sort of screwed around with this while doing morning pages. I just have all these premises for stories and I'd like to turn them into something more, get some practice for writing a novel someday.

I'm mainly interested in books (especially ones that are available for Kindle) but I suppose YouTube videos and lectures could be cool, and I'd be open to anything helpful. In particular I'm interested in:

1) Books about the craft of writing short stories (something similar to John Gardner's The Art of Fiction). If you know of any that are good for specific genres, especially sci-fi, horror, or noir (but more like James Ellroy than Raymond Chandler), I'd love to see those too.
2) Collections of short stories which are really well-curated.

Final (perhaps unrelated) note: I've heard of NaNoWriMo, not doing it this year for a few different reasons.
posted by miltthetank to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I've read some books by James Scott Bell, who writes on creating characters, plots, etc. He writes about crafting novels, but generally the same ideas apply. Also maybe take a class in writing, fiction writing, or short stories. Community colleges, libraries, etc. sometimes offer these as community classes, not for credit, and are relatively inexpensive. Also look into any community groups that are about writing, like what you may find on Meetup.com. For who to read, anyone famous for short stories really. A few names are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories of Sherlock Holmes, Flannery O'Connor, H.G. Wells, and Joyce Carol Oates. There are tons of them. Maybe pick up an anthology of short stories, one of those Best Short Stories kind of books and learn from reading what others have done.
posted by Meldanthral at 7:34 PM on November 7, 2019

Personally, I think a good way is to read and analyze a lot of short stories of various calibers, and perhaps in multiple genres in case something novel could be applied to the ones you're interested in.

Keep notes. Go back and re-read. Modify notes. Recompile after you've started accumulating a steadily more unmanageable pile.

Also, short stories from multiple eras, to see how they evolve in structure/ dialogue/ scene setting. Maybe even follow the works of a particular writer you like to see how they improved (or not) over time.

You don't specify the specific genre, but I used to read a lot of science fiction - short stories included. 'The Year's Best in Science Fiction' is an annual collection going back to 1984. There are also lots of collections of golden age, silver age, etc. 'Isaac Asimov Presents...' (I think there are a bunch) is a good collection of older scifi. I've a few more, but the titles don't come to mind and they're packed in boxes moving residences tomorrow.

Otherwise, a lot of older stuff is available on Gutenburg.

I also felt that there were interesting differences in the same era between USA, Soviet (translated), Polish (translated), and non-USA English styles - even moreso than just stylistic differences between authors from the same context.

For less lofty scifi, there are trade journals like 'Analogue' that publishes new works. Some stinkers every issue to learn what not to do.


Maybe as an exercise, pick a particular story that you like for a particular aspect. For example, the structure. Take one of your overarching ideas (that's what short stories are, neh?) and try to tell it in a similar structure. Or dialogue, some stories have no audible dialogue, others have only internal dialogue, others have both, etc. and try to adapt an idea to that format.

For dialogue, maybe play around with Standard English, test your hand at fake-words/ "accents" (this usually goes terribly wrong), if your linguistics are dope you can try to mash another language in that makes sense to people who know both/ either.


Do you have an academic background in literature/ writing? If not, community college courses could be an excellent way to start working on your basics in a structured fashion to form a solid backbone to support your writing talents.
posted by porpoise at 7:38 PM on November 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might like to browse Reedsy Learning; they offer 'courses' split up into ten emails each, and they're great introductions to things like plotting and dialogue. How To Write A Killer Short Story is actually available online, which makes it even easier to see if you'd like them.

I'm not all that much on short stories, but I really enjoyed Seanan McGuire's Sparrow Hill Road, which opened my eyes to how a writer could experiment with a central character and a rich world, creating something fun and tantalizing without committing to a whole novel.
posted by shirobara at 7:42 PM on November 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Stephen King’s On Writing is an amazing book about the art and craft and inspiration of writing. So much so that I’m surprised that his published books don’t always stick to his own guidelines. Like, in On Writing he’ll write valuably about the virtue of parsimony but then his novels will be 500 pages too long.
posted by ejs at 8:03 PM on November 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Dittoing the rec of James Scott Bell--he's novel-oriented but most of his notes on, say, characterization or plot apply to short stories.

Kit Reed's Mastering Fiction Writing is oriented toward beginners; I don't see a Kindle version available but used hardcopies are available pretty affordably.

I found Matt Bird's The Secrets of Story extremely useful (and sometimes counterintuitive in fun ways).

For a slightly oblique take, Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller has notes from having taught at Clarion. I personally find it one of the rare books that's useful to writing instructors, which probably doesn't concern you yet; but there's a lot in there that will help a novice writer. And it's generally oriented toward story writers.

Possibly for when you're feeling more comfortable with your craft, John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. (He takes writing much more seriously than I do, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.)

Also a more advanced book, Donald Maass's The Emotional Craft of Fiction. His other books can be useful, but there's a fair amount of overlap between them.

I'm a full-time sf/f writer with two decades of short story publications; note that in making these book recs, I'm assuming your eventual goal is publication.

Also, I want to note that there are certain elements of writing novels, craft-wise, that short stories will not teach you. (If you're already aware of this, please disregard this paragraph.) The advantage of short stories is that they allow you to iterate much more quickly and hone basics such as prose. But if your eventual goal is novels, the best way to learn to do that is to start writing novels. For example, the kinds of extended character arcs that most novels use can't be approached in a 5,000-word short story, and of course the big one is novel structure vs. short story structure. It will probably take more than one try, statistically speaking, to grapple with the skills involved; but that's half the fun.

(I would also urge you to find a critique group that's compatible with your personality and goals--a good critique group or workshop will help you level up that much more quickly, and these days it's much easier to find folks online.)

Best wishes and happy writing!
posted by yhlee at 8:23 PM on November 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

To piggyback on porpoise's suggestion of analyzing stories (I recommend reading widely as well--you want excellent stories to give you something to aspire to, and terribad stories so you can analyze what went wrong), you don't even have to spend money if you're interested in sf/f. There are a lot of sf/f magazines that make their works available for free online, and you could potentially learn a lot not just about craft but the editors' tastes, which is possibly useful if you're going to submit to those zines.

An incomplete list of some higher-tier sf/f zines (I don't have expertise in horror so can't advise you there, sorry):


Lightspeed Magazine

Clarkesworld Magazine

Uncanny Magazine

(Strange Horizons is down for maintenance, but also worth checking out.)

If you're willing to hit up print zines, Asimov's, Analog, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction are worth looking into. Any of the various "year's best" anthologies for fantasy, science fiction, dark fantasy, and horror can probably be found at your library if you're in the USA; that's also another useful way to track editorial tastes.
posted by yhlee at 8:32 PM on November 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

First of all, you just got advice from yhlee on writing short fiction, so ... wow.

2) Collections of [genre fiction] short stories which are really well-curated.

You might take a look at Weird Tales from the 20th Century, right here on Metafilter. I think the stories by Margaret Atwood, Carson McCullers, Edith Nesbit, Edith Wharton, Eleanor Scott, Elizabeth Bowen, Margaret St. Clair, Lincoln Michel, K.M. Ferebee, and Julia Armfield would be worth studying carefully, because they're gems of realist prose, but there's huge variety there--all great, IMO, given their aims.

You might also look at places like Daily SF, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and so on--venues that have great stories sometimes but also stories that you might be inspired by in some contrasting way to make this seem achievable.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:34 PM on November 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

Janet Burroway & Ned Stuckey-French's Writing Fiction is used in a lot of CW classes and will give you the basics (and is a great read). Students who enjoy genre fiction also tend to get something out of Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook. You don't actually need a genre-specific textbook to learn to write short stories; all short stories that work draw from the same skills and knowledge.

Mostly: read. Don't just read within your genre. Read everything. If you want to write short fiction you might want to start with Chekhov, and read the greats within your genre, as well (eg. Bradbury, Asimov, LeGuin, Butler, etc etc, work your way forward to journals publishing work now, like Clarkesworld).
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:38 PM on November 7, 2019

My favorite book about writing short fiction is Rust Hills's Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.

It's focused on the classic modernist "literary" short story (and might in fact specifically proscribe genre fiction in places, it's been a while since I read the front matter) but I think it does a great job of explaining where the "action" of a short story comes from, in gleaming little chapters that are themselves really satisfying to read. I think writers in any genre would benefit from his very particular way of looking at the mechanics of creating an effect for a reader.
posted by Polycarp at 8:58 PM on November 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have a degree in creative writing, from long ago, from a good school. No one taught me how to write. They taught me from the outside: Thematic unity, symbolism, character details. But they never taught the practice — we had to just figure it out on our own, and I think most of us did so badly.

In particular, I never learned about how to create a plot. (It was out of fashion in literary circles.)

Here is what I wish I’d learned:

Plot is people wanting things, getting blocked, changing each others’ minds. It is not things, no matter how eventful, happening in a row. There must be cause and effect: someone wants something, but something else prevents it. This person decides X, therefore Y follows. And so forth.

Get your plot done first. Sweat through it; it’s hard. Dialogue and description are easy. That’s why it’s tempting to write a mile of dialogue and description and hope a story emerges by miracle. Just assume it won’t.

Know at any given point what your characters want, why they can’t just have it, what they’re trying to do, and why we, as the readers, would be wrapped up in their condition. Check and re-check; that’s how you get the tension into your story so it starts to play its song.

Even if you write stories that are subtle and character-based, plotting well is at the heart of writing stories. You can experiment with elliptical plots later.

Commit to learning by doing, and doing, and doing. You’ll probably write 50 stories before you write one that you feel is really yours. Just commit to writing those stories. Write one a week. Give them all your heart and care, then don’t care if they turn out badly.

Just writing doesn’t help much. One idea that you put to work is worth 100 that just sit in your notebook. Value finishing, then enjoy the rewrite.

Outlast your own trepidations. Outlast the initial gap between your taste and your talent.

Finally, have a routine and don’t break it for anything. Here are the routines of 12 writers. The heart of the routine is time in and finishing the work, not the special pencil or the seaside window.
posted by argybarg at 10:15 PM on November 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

Nthing reading lots of stories. Ask yourself why the story did or didn't work. Why and how it did or didn't deliver on its promise. What more you needed as a reader for the story to make more sense or be more satisfying. What could and should have been left out as useless.

I also highly recommend Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction.
posted by bryon at 10:48 PM on November 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm a huge fan of 3am epiphany which is a book of short writing assignments.

There are 200 prompts, each with a word count goal from 200-800, and the prompts come both with the What (phone conversation! use the royal we! people who are so in tune they can almost read each others minds!) and the Why (juggling characters; playing with perspective; deep-diving into emotion; experimenting with time)

The prompts are divided into 20 sections that tackle various parts of the craft, both in content and technique.
posted by itesser at 11:18 PM on November 7, 2019

Stephen Wilbers' Mastering the Craft of Writing and Keys to Great Writing are the best books on writing that I know of.
posted by dobbs at 5:55 AM on November 8, 2019

Well, since you said "anything", here are some non-book suggestions.

Mary Robinette Kowal's Short Story Intensive workshop/class is highly regarded. I'm having difficulty finding out if she still offers it, and if so when, but you can try digging around on your own. Or sign up for her mailing list (bottom right area of the page), where she generally makes class announcements.

Cat Rambo offers live and on-demand classes that are generally pretty good.

Conventions often have writing tracks, too, and if nothing else you'll meet other local writers. If you're in LA, the writing-but-not-screenwriting scene there seems to be kind of lacking compared to Seattle or San Francisco, but Loscon is coming up and might be worth checking out. The 2020 Nebula Awards Weekend will be in Woodland Hills; it's aimed more at pros and emerging pros than beginners, but you can still learn some things and meet people. (Check out the 2019 programming schedule here.) And the Nebs won't be back in the LA area for years, so it's a good opportunity if that's where you're based.
posted by wintersweet at 8:30 AM on November 8, 2019

Lots of good stuff mentioned above. To add:

Jeff VanderMeer's Wonderbook (and its accompanying website) is a phenomenally useful book for spec fic writing. It's also gorgeous to page through.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America posts writing tips on its blog.

Odyssey—one of the major SFF workshops alongside Clarion—has a bunch of writerly resources on the sidebar of its main page.

Writing the Other, which was a talk that became a book that became a website (I may have the order wrong), is a great resource for helping writers consider issues of diversity.

Writing Excuses includes award winners Mary Robinette Kowal and Brandon Sanderson among its hosts. The archive is vast, and the episodes are under thirty minutes.
posted by xenization at 9:12 AM on November 8, 2019

Oh, as for anthologies, many magazines publish best-of collections. Lady Chuchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Tor.com, Electric Velocipede, Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, Apex, Interzone, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction have all published one (or more) curated collections of stories.

There's also the various year's best anthologies of sci-fi or horror edited by Dozois, Datlow/Windling/Link/Grant, Guran, Strahan, Horton, Hartwell & Cramer, and Clarke. There's also the yearly Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy with John Joseph Adams as series editor.

Occasionally you'll see anthologies from award organizations like the Tiptree Award and the Locus Awards as well.
posted by xenization at 9:29 AM on November 8, 2019

I highly recommend Holly Lisle's free flash fiction course

Flash fiction is very, very short short stories, but the basic principles of the course are highly relevant to short stories of any short length. Some of the stuff is also useful to all writing in general.

Writing Excuses has specific episodes about short stories. I haven't listened to all of them but I have definitely found the ones I have listened to helpful (one major principle they discuss is MICE, and how a full length book can have all 4 elements but a short story can really only do one full element and maybe another half element)
posted by Cozybee at 3:32 AM on November 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

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