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Below are some writing tips and advice which, in my humble opinion, can help you write better short stories and give you a much better chance of being published. They are based on my own experiences of writing and publishing stories, so I’m not just spouting nonsense (I hope).
Some of the points might seem like I’m stating the bleeding obvious, but sometimes common sense needs to be kept abreast of what’s common and sensible. Plus, it can be reassuring to know that other people have already found success by practicing tactics you intend to employ - I’ve certainly found this encouraging and helpful in the past.
I hope the advice is useful.
If you have any tips you’d like to share, please get in touch.
For writing competitions and other short story publishing opportunities, see the links below:
I find being hands on is the best way to learn. You need to read a wide variety of books and short stories. Then you need to write a lot to hone your writing skills and style. It’s like anything - practice does make perfect.
For example, I had a drum teacher called Terry O’Brien. He came from a military background. When he taught me a new rhythm, first I’d listen to him play it and then he’d make me play it 100 times while pacing around the room encouraging me, albeit in a Full Metal Jacket style while puffing on cigarettes. After 100 repetitions, I’d be able to play the rhythm.
Exactly the same principle applies to writing. The more you read and write, the better you become. The main difference with the drumming analogy is that it’s probably best not to have an angry sergeant shouting at you the whole time - it doesn’t do much to aid concentration.
Get your eyeballs roving through loads of books. What do you like? Why? Read more. What don’t you like? Why? Read more.
There are many magazines (I recommend Scribble and Writers’ Forum) and websites which can give you access to inventive and inspiring stories. But also consider reading short story collections by authors like Roald Dahl, Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and other renowned short story writers. Why are their stories so successful? What makes them good? You can learn a lot from reading the work of quality authors – they have a large readership for good reason.
Get your fingers on the keyboard and write. Then try and look at your work with the same critical, unbiased eye you use when reading someone else’s work. What do you like? Why? Write more. What don’t you like? Why? Edit accordingly.
You’ve read. You’ve practiced. What do you do next?
This is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer. I know, all writing resources say the same thing, but that’s because it’s true.
If you’re starting out in short story writing and want a chance to win a competition, the best way to begin is by reading the previous winning stories so you can see what style the judges seem to prefer. If there are any comments about the stories the judges have chosen, read them and learn from them. Then write a story with what you’ve learned in mind.
It’s the same with approaching magazines. Buy a back issue. Read it. Learn what style the editor seems to favour. Would your style fit? What edits can you make to give yourself a better chance?
OK, now it’s time to start writing for real. Below are some tricks I use which often work.
Don’t crowd a story with too many characters. Loads of different names confuse readers.
Yes, I’m a drummer and have the attention span of a tiny fish, so I favour simplicity. But having only 1,000 to 5,000 words (ish – most short story competitions have word count limits between these figures) doesn’t give a lot of room for character development, especially if you’re introducing a reader to an entire football team. One, two or three central characters seem to work best to me.
Don't confuse readers by using names which sound too similar. If you write a story about Ken, Len and Ben, it's going to be hard to keep track of which character is which. Carter, Bronson and McGregor will be much easier for a reader to identify.
If you’re writing a novel, use the book’s characters in your short stories. You’ll be so familiar with them, they should be easy to write and add believability to your short tale. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to test them out. Do they work? Do readers identify with them? Did they help you win a competition or get noticed by a magazine editor? If so, that bodes well for your novel. If not, you can catch problems early and fix them.
You can also use simplified sections of your novel’s plot for a short story, again, testing them out. Most novels have sub plots which will often make excellent short stories.
Give your story title the attention it deserves – if you don’t take the time to come up with an interesting title for your story, why should anyone take the time to read it? Make them enticing and entertaining.
If you need inspiration, buy a magazine like Scribble (which has lots of short stories in each issue) and see which titles stand out. Which stories do you feel drawn to, just by reading the title?
Try and make the first few paragraphs of your story gripping. Use hooks to grab the reader’s attention from the off. A good way of doing this is by providing a question the reader will want answered early on. For example:
I’m tied to a tree, living a nightmare set amongst a panorama of beauty. Over the past week I’ve been dragged up a mountain by my captor, his cruel eyes betraying a desire to which he’s unable to succumb. He needs me as he believes me to be – untouched.
This is taken from my story, The Treasure No Thief Can Steal which was published in Scribble. This opening paragraph sets the scene and places questions in the reader’s mind: Why has the narrator been dragged up a mountain? Why must she be untouched? What will her captor do when he finds out she isn’t virginal? My aim is to engage with the reader from the off, (hopefully) making them want to read more.
Dialogue can develop character and drive the plot forward. Use it to do both. For example:
‘I’m sorry to interrupt at such an ungodly hour,’ he says, his voice as deep as hell’s gong. ‘Put the gun away. It is useless to you.’
I do as he commands, not because I want to, but because I am unable to disobey. There’s a mesmerising quality to his voice which I realise I will have to fight if I want to act of my own free will.
‘You are Sergeant Joshua Purvis?’ he says.
I’m aware that I’m gawping. I try and say, ‘Yes,’ but all that emanates from my mouth is a kind of slurping mumble. I decide to forget talking for a moment and just nod.
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Satan?’ I guess, pleased that I manage not to drool as I force the word from my mouth.
He snorts laughter, smoke spiralling from the holes in his face which I assume must be nostrils. ‘No,’ he says. ‘My name is Colin.’
I hear myself snigger.
‘I’ve taken a human name to seem less threatening,’ Colin continues, in a tone that suggests he is only imparting this information so he won’t find it necessary to tear my head off. ‘Names aside, you must concur, my master has excelled with the physical manifestation conjured for my eternal servitude?’
This is taken from another one of my stories, Devil’s Crush, which was published in Writers’ Forum. Joshua, a legless war veteran, has just discovered Colin, a demon, in his kitchen. I’m trying to allow the reader to learn about Colin through his speech, interspersed with the visual hints necessary to maintain the image of a demon in the reader’s mind. At the same time, I’m attempting to push the story forwards, by imparting information in the verbal exchange which builds character and plot. This is an important technique with short stories as, with strict limitations on word count, you have to make every word count. And throughout, I’ve also tried to use humour, keeping the style consistent. Have I succeeded? You tell me.
Ensure dialogue sounds convincing. If you’re unsure, read it aloud. Speaking the words can help you determine if the dialogue is working with you or sabotaging your plans with the deployment of excessive commas, adverbs and the use of perfect English even though no one ever says it that way out loud.
Concentrate on how the situation and the events in the story affect or change the central character.
I received this advice when I attended a ‘how to write a synopsis’ course at the Folk House in Bristol. It was run by a published writer called Billy Muir and was well worth the money. He suggested treating a synopsis like a short story - as you have so few words, use the central character to show how the events of the plot affect and change them. Interesting and sound advice – it works, and helped my short story writing greatly.
Sadly, I still can’t seem to write a decent novel synopsis, but that’s a different story…
Don’t make a character act in a certain way to suit your plot. Keep characters in character at all times. Let the character react to the situation as they would react, not as the plot dictates to be necessary. This helps believability and will make your story stronger.
Always find a new and interesting way of saying something, rather than going for hackneyed phrases which have been used a gazillion times before. The only time I intentionally make exceptions to this rule is in dialogue, if I feel the character is likely to use clichés, although this is still best used sparingly.
I’m not a fan of excessive plotting as I find it can be too restrictive on the imagination as you write. But having an end planned helps you drive the story in the right direction as you create it. Without an end goal, the plot can twist into an unsalvageable mess.
Make the end of the story satisfying for the reader. Stories which fail to answer all the questions raised or resolve the situation can be disappointing. I know, this is a matter of taste, but satisfying endings appeal to the majority of readers. No, I’m not a fan of David Lynch.
Hopeful endings seem to work well. Again, this is personal taste and not appropriate for every occasion, but I’ve found tales that offer hope deliver a satisfying conclusion for the reader and have a good success rate in competitions.
You’ve written a masterpiece. What should you consider when entering competitions and approaching editors?
When entering a competition, read and obey the rules. If you don’t, you’ll be disqualified. When approaching a magazine editor with your work, read and abide by their submission criteria. If you don’t, your work will not be considered.
See what I mean about the bleeding obvious? Well, I mention this for good reason.
I’m currently involved with running the GKBCinc short story competition and the amount of entries that don’t comply with the rules is astounding. By undertaking this simple step, you put yourself ahead of about a fifth of the competition. Yes, that’s right. One fifth. Literally.
If you have to write covering letters (more common with approaching magazine editors than short story competition judges), keep them concise, informative and professional. And give it the same attention as your stories. A covering letter filled with typos looks awful.
Personalising a letter, rather than just sending a generic ‘to whom it may concern’ type creation, can also mean your work is more likely to be read. And if you can slip in a genuine, researched compliment, the person you’re writing to is likely to appreciate it. I’m not talking about a ‘your magazine is great’ kind of comment, I mean an ‘I particularly enjoyed the story by Mavis Von-Dinkle-Burp in your last issue - I was impressed with the realistic dialogue between the spider and the fly’ kind of comment - something that shows you’ve actually read the magazine and give a shit.
If you are fortunate enough to receive feedback from short story competition judges or magazine editors, read and learn from any constructive criticism they might offer. If you become angry and write snotty, argumentative replies, you destroy relationships. Be thankful they have replied to you. In these rare instances, the criticism is coming from a professional. Read it. Learn from it. Use it in a constructive way. Thank them for it. If you think it’s appropriate, ask if they’d be interested in considering the story again once you’ve edited it.
If you think a story is worth writing, write it. Don’t listen to anyone else, including the Demon of Doubt who whistles his merry tune inside everyone’s head from time to time. Just do it.
If you don’t win the first competition you enter, don’t give up. What fails to appeal to one short story competition judge or magazine editor may still appeal to another. You will see that a lot of the stories on this website have been entered into many competitions before winning anything. If you gain any feedback from competition judges or editors, take it on board and see if you can improve your story before entering it in the next competition.
I promise you, I’m not suddenly turning into a tree hugging, druidic eccentric. I still love my motorbike, drinking beer and utilising my drumming to make ears bleed. This really is practical advice which does help creativity and productivity. Honest.
In my experience, keeping fit really helps my writing. At the end of last year, I went into an unhealthy spiral of doom. On New Year’s Day, I woke up feeling like a big fat forty year old bag of shite. While stuffing down my first full English of the year, I encountered some horrific indigestion which failed to be quelled by a vat of Gaviscon. I decided it was time to embrace a healthier lifestyle.
I find that taking regular exercise, be it walking, running, cycling, swimming - whatever suits you - helps to keep creativity and the imagination alive. It also aids concentration and focus.
healthy body = healthy mind = better writing and story telling
Don't believe me? Try it. Take daily exercise for a month. I'd be amazed if it doesn't help your writing.
It’s helped me lose weight. It’s made me feel healthier. I feel more alert, more creative, more inspired. My imagination is prolific and I’m writing a lot more. Combined with exercise, it really helps.
There are tears running down my cheeks as I write this, but even I, a man who literally delights in supping beer, wine and other alcoholic wonderment, has to admit that overindulgence seriously knackers one’s ability to write.
I’m not saying don’t drink, I’m simply saying don’t drink excessively. Yawn. Snore. How dull. But it works.
In the left menu at the top of the page, there are links to pages listing short story competitions, short story magazines and book competitions, all offering chances for you to become a published writer.
I wish you the best of luck.
If you have had any success and would like to write about it and have your comments considered for publication on my website, please get in touch.
Got any tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment.