Discover Yourself Through Writing Short Stories

Way back in the bad old days of the late 2000s, I was an idiot college student trying to get an English degree with no idea that the economy was going to collapse a few months before I graduated. I mean, I also had no idea what I wanted to do with an English degree besides write, and guess what? That’s not a good enough career trajectory to keep food on the table.


Pro-Tip: If you’re getting an English degree, fucking figure out what job you want after you graduate before you graduate.

Everyone always asks if you plan on teaching when you’re getting an English degree, and my answer was always the same: Gross. I’m not good with kids, I hated high school and barely tolerated college, why the fuck would I want to spend the rest of my life with smaller humans getting through the worst years of their life? Tweens are objectively the shittiest human beings we have on the planet, I didn’t like being near them when I was a tween and I’m sure as shit not doing it now.

It’s sort of the same with nursing, actually. Everybody always assumes you really want to go into pediatrics. Like…no. Fuck no. Now, instead of hanging out with a bunch of kids I don’t like, you expect me to hang out with a bunch of sick kids I don’t like, and their hovering, angry parents, and they might die? Yeah, no. Hard no. Like, 80% of my nursing cohort were all fighting over those pediatric placements and the other six of us were like, we’d rather hang out with the geezers. They have better stories and when they cry when you stick them with a needle you can tell them to harden the fuck up.

Wow, it’s almost like when you’re a woman, there’s this societal idea that you want to spend your life with kids. Weird.

What was I here for again?

Oh, yeah. So, I got this English degree. Specifically with a creative writing track. If you haven’t gotten an English degree from a major college or university, don’t worry about it too much. All the stuff they teach you is stuff you can figure out on your own, you’re basically paying just to get there faster. Mostly the classes are writing workshops. Twenty to thirty students all take turns writing short stories. You write your story and print off a bunch of copies down at the college print center where, even though you’re already giving them thousands of dollars a semester it still costs ten cents to print a page, and then you hand them out to your classmates, and they all go home and read them and write all over them in red pen, and then the next time you go everybody just sits there and slaps you around for a bit. Verbally, of course.

The difference between a 101 course and a senior level class is fucking hilarious, by the way.

101 Fiction Writing Student: Well, see, this part here was a little…unclear? I guess? I don’t want to tell you what to do you, but I wasn’t sure what was happening until I read a little further, so maybe…I mean, if I was writing it, I would take this bit and put it earlier. But that’s just me! Maybe it’s a me problem, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you, please just kill me now.

302 Advanced Fiction Writing Student: I almost set this page on fire it was so bad. What the hell were you doing with all these adverbs? And these characters are flatter than your ass. You need to work on this story down at the gym.

I fell off writing short stories after college, but I got back into it for this website and I’m angry at myself for stopping in the first place. Just in case you, also, have come up with a variety of reasons and excuses why you’re not writing short stories, here’s some reasons why you should (if you’re not a writer, check out my reasons why you should be reading short stories here).

Build a Portfolio and Find Out What You Really Want to Write

I mentioned this in another article a few months back. Writing lots of short stories for this website has

  1. Given me lots of content to show off and grow from, and
  2. Shown me what I want to write better than any sort of writing exercise could

If you have been reading my website for a while, first off, thanks! Secondly, you may have noticed patterns in my writing. Things I like to write about. Fantasy, obviously. I knew that going in. But some stuff that, looking back, honestly surprised me. Strong female protagonists are usually a must, I’m way more political in my writing than I thought I’d be, and I fucking love writing about the end of the world. All things that I possibly knew before, in my subconscious, but looking back on a year’s worth of writing it all becomes super obvious.

This can happen for you, too. You don’t even have to spend an entire year writing short stories before you begin to get a better sense of the kinds of things you want to write. And while you’re on your journey of self-discovery, you’re also building up a portfolio of work. Pieces that you can show off to potential employers or get published, or pieces that might give you ideas for bigger works in the future.

Test Runs

This is something a lot of authors do, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident.

How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin features what she calls ‘proof of concept’ stories for both her Broken Earth Trilogy and Dreamblood Duology. By this, I take it to mean that she was interested in writing something longer in these worlds but wanted to make sure they would hold up. Short stories can be a great way to test out some of the concepts you have kicking around in your head. You can play around with the world, the tone, and the characters until you get them working and feel ready to expand. Or, realize that the idea would never hold up for an entire novel. That’s okay, too, because now you know and hey, you got a story out of it.

Other times, you might write something and realize after that you’ve discovered a world you want to spend more time in. Long before The Stand was published in 1978, Stephen King wrote a short little story called “Night Surf.” About teens going to the beach after the world is wiped out by a flu called Captain Trips, the details are different enough that it doesn’t work as a prequel. Because it wasn’t. It was just a short story King wrote, and a few years later went back to it to create a huge, sprawling world.

And that’s totally allowed! There’s no rule anywhere that says once you’ve spent an idea on a short story you can’t go back to it. Expand on it, play with it, twist it around until you like it more. Even if that short story gets published somewhere, I’ve got proof here for you that it doesn’t really matter.

Freedom to be Experimental

I don’t know about you guys, but I have found some absolutely buck-wild short stories out there, and I mean it in every sense. Concepts that even the fringiest tin-foil-hat-wearing, AM-radio-listening, ancient-aliens-believing motherfucker would raise an eyebrow at. Structures that are so unhinged I have to keep rereading sections to understand where the fuck we’re going. Wild tonal shifts. Mixing languages. Shifting timelines without a safety net. Shit I would never sit still for if it lasted an entire novel. But 5,000 words? 10,000 words? Sign me the fuck up.

Any bizarre idea you’ve ever had can be put into a short story, because it’s not just me. I think most people are willing to put up with some crazy-ass shit if they know it’s going to be over in fifteen minutes. If you’ve ever had an idea that really intrigued you, but you were afraid it would never fit inside a full-length novel, try it with a short story. And then edit it to be even more fucked up, because why not?

Fun With Restrictions

Sometimes a good idea just fucking runs up on you and suplexes you into the ground and even as there is metaphorical blood running out of your ears and eyes you stumble over to a computer or a notebook and the whole story just pours out of you like you’re less a writer and more an interdimensional portal to some fucked up world where a werewolf is president and the inauguration is occurring on a full moon.

Other times you stare at a blinking cursor for hours, cursing the gods and wishing for death.

It’s all in a day.

In those times when you’re struggling to get something started, it might help to start narrowing what you can do with the story. There might be too many options, too many directions the story could go, too many characters. Giving yourself restrictions can help you choose where to start and even create a more interesting story than if you let yourself do whatever you want. Here’s some restrictions you can impose on your story to see what you get:

  • Use a story prompt or a beginning sentence
  • Pick a specific genre, a time period, or a specific location
  • Pick an overarching theme, like ‘love,’ or ‘revenge’ or ‘Florida Man’
  • Pick something that will be a recurring motif, like focusing on a color, a mood, or phrase
  • Constrict your word count
  • Try to start and end the story with the same sentence

There’s plenty more of these you can find in books and online. Sometimes telling yourself you can only write about clowns living on a pig farm in Alberta really brings the creativity out of a person.

Backstories

Short stories like these might be written for your eyes only, but who knows? Maybe you’ll find a place for them either published separately or woven into your larger work.

Basically, you’ve got this kickass concept, a fully realized world, and a plot that’s sending your characters on all sorts of interesting adventures. The problem is your characters. They feel flat. Shallow. Uninteresting. Maybe they’re not working together, or their actions feel forced. Somehow, your characters feel like they’re fighting you tooth and nail to ruin the story and you don’t know how to force them to behave the way they’re supposed to.

Before giving up on the characters – or the project – entirely, why not try a deep dive into your characters backgrounds? Obviously not a novel’s worth of information, because if there’s enough interesting stuff going on in your character’s background for an entire novel, and the current story you’re working on isn’t, you know, working, then maybe the background is the novel.

No, just pick a few defining moments of your character’s life and flesh them out. What happened? Who was there? How do they feel about it? Write it with as much detail and mental insight as you can. Do a few of these for every character that feels janky for whatever reason and see if you can get them to live more comfortably in their skin. If not, it might be time for a major rework or even the cutting floor.


A lot of people have this idea that taking the time to write short stories is not only pointless, but detrimental. After all, isn’t the time spent writing these short stories taking away from the time you could be spending on the multi-book passion project you’ve been dreaming about since high school? And I get it, because I also have a multi-book passion project I’ve been dreaming about since high school. And, yes, writing for this website is slowing me down on finishing the first book.

But writing for this website, I feel, has also improved my writing. The chapters I’ve written for my first book before I began this website were very long and sometimes meandering. I’ve completely rewritten some for editing purposes, and they are shorter, tighter, and stronger, and in part it’s because I’ve been writing these flash fiction pieces where I have to get to the point in one thousand words.

To make a long story short (too late), writing short stories will improve your writing, and any time spent improving your writing is not wasted.


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