10 Tips to Write Better Short Fiction
Updated: Mar 12
I'm sure there are zero-to-novel writers out there, but I suspect most first dabble in drabbles, twabbles and flash these days. I was such a neophyte when starting out that I only knew about short stories, novellas and novels. Flash Fiction? That couldn't be a real thing!
After writing a short story and the first draft of my novel, I, like so many other emerging writers, was hungry for validation. My wife and editor and beta readers enjoyed my stories, but I needed external props! So, I entered the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction Contest.
I was fortunate in my first fictional foray. My first-ever flash piece, "The Green Wizard", took second place in round one. Luckily for me, the random genre and prompts perfectly fit the world of my novel-in-progress. My round two story, "Rural Dead", was tougher. I hadn't written horror, let alone a ghost story; but I managed to squeak into seventh place and a spot in the semi-finals!
Sweet, sweet validation.
I'll gloss over my subsequent round three experimentation that cost me a spot in the finals <Ahem>
I learned so much by taking part in flash and micro fiction competitions, talking with fellow participants and receiving judges' feedback. So, what the heck did they teach me, you ask? Well . . .
1. Have Fun
Seriously. The judges want to be entertained. They want to laugh or feel something or be surprised. That won't happen unless you let yourself have fun with the prompts and enjoy your story.
Relax: Be spontaneous, crazy, inappropriate--trust your feelings and let the words flow through you. Picture Yoda and/or Obi Wan saying that if you need to.
2. Read the Rules
Having fun and knowing the rules are not mutually exclusive. There's nothing more un-fun than having a story rejected because you missed a prompt, submitted two minutes late or attached a DOCX file when they only accept DOC (yes, there's a difference!). Some competitions have many explicit rules. Even if there are three rules, read them. Read them again. Then one more time before you submit.
And one more time after that.
3. Get Out of Your Head
Don't get caught up in the genre or prompts or what you think the judges want or writing in
the style of a particular author or the fact you aren't good enough or that you should just pack it in or that the words aren't flowing or aren't coming out right. Breathe. Write, even if it's garbage. Especially if it's garbage. Just get it out and bang it into shape later. Write what's on the tip of your brain. Time is a factor in competitions and the more time you have to relax, re-read and edit your piece, the better.
4. Be Concise
Vomit words onto the page; get it all out. Then, when you start editing, be merciless. As Strunk (or was it White?) commands: "Omit needless words."
5. Start in Media Res
Novels give you enough real estate for a slow build. Not so with short fiction. Your first sentence and paragraph must carry the weight of a novel's first chapter. Start strong. Every story begins with the inciting incident: The point when the main character's life changes forever. In short fiction, the inciting incident is also the climax. Hold onto that innuendo.
In one paragraph the reader needs to know the genre, context and subject of the story. After that, who we're reading about and why we should care. Suddenly we're hurtling through the conflict (five-hundred words already!). The conflict resolves and, before we know what's happening, we're tapering off into that pleasant relaxation that comes with . . . a satisfying conclusion.
6. Use Your Senses
Short fiction needs to spit and sizzle like bacon crisping in the pan; must fill the reader's mind with an aroma so tantalizing that it would test a vegan's resolve. Engage all your reader's senses and they'll follow you like a certain cartoon spokes-toucan.
7. Make Your Characters People
Never neglect your characters. Even in five hundred words they must be people, not names, costumes and occupations. As Jessica Page Morrell puts it: If the reader doesn't care about the protagonist why should they care at all? Good question. I wish I had read her book before submitting the round three story we aren't talking about.
8. Push the Boundaries
Of genre, that is. Remember how judges and editors want something fresh and interesting? Genre-bending is a quick and easy way to do that. You pulled horror? Make it sci-fi horror. Mystery? Put it in a fantasy setting. I've seen a lot of winning stories mix genres, and for good reason: It immediately subverts judges' expectations.
When they open the fantasy genre DOCX (or was it DOC?) file titled "The Dragon's Claw", only to read that The Dragon's Claw is a warp-surfing clockwork starship filled with steampunk gnomes trying to solve a murder. Well now, interest piqued!
9. Find a Good Beta Reader
A good beta reader isn't someone who will say you're amazing. A good beta reader knows you can do better. They'll read your story, point out the spelling and grammar errors, then tell you it's good but that you're being lazy and the story doesn't end properly.
Ouch. But necessary. Back to the editing board (desk, table?).
10. Push Yourself
Every time you write a new story, try to write a bit more cleanly, more vividly with stronger characters and higher stakes, bigger emotional impacts and better dialogue. Don't let yourself fall into a rut. Force yourself to try something new or blow up your story by killing a character or taking away something a main character needs. Fiction is conflict and writers are torturers (it has been said).
Make your characters suffer and your readers will thank you for it.
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