I wanted to take a moment today to talk a little bit about the process I went through to get a short story written.  Sometimes, I get these ideas and they just flow out onto the page from start to finish, sometimes I have to push and push to get the story out.

This is about the latter.

Last year, I tried an experiment.  I wanted to write a short story a week.  I figured that when I sit down to write, I can push out at least a thousand words a day, so four thousand a week would be a breeze.

I was wrong.  Writing short stories is different from writing novels, and I’ve always written novel length fiction.

Realizing this forced me to reconsider my approach to short stories.  I’ve continued to work on the form, which is really the only way to get better at it.  This weekend, I finally finished one short story that had been on the back burner for over a year.

When I started this short story, I wanted to marry things that did not go together.  Think of it like FoodNetwork’s Chopped.  I wanted to put several different things in the basket and see what I could make from them.  Like, I open the basket and inside I find: lamb fries, ras el hanout, blood orange syrup, and hot cross buns.

The first ingredient I wanted to use was the south.  I wanted to write something that felt very southern, very Kentucky, in fact.  Next, I wanted a different kind of magic than what I’d been using in my novel, something more…I don’t want to say ‘traditional’, but that’s the word that comes to mind.  Last, I wanted to toss in that thing that’s not like the others – the lamb fries (lamb testicles); I chose Satyrs.

The first paragraph came right away and hasn’t changed much since I first wrote it:

When it came to witchcraft, everyone in Pucktow County, Kentucky, knew that Miss Zeia was the source. On a regular basis, she turned out many a poultice, charm and potion right from her front porch, greeting people who were surprised and mystified that she knew they were coming in the first place. Each one walked away with exactly what they were looking for and exactly what they needed, leaving behind a fair price in silver, dried goods or poultry – whichever they could afford.

The rest of the story really started to flow from there and I thought I had this nailed.  I was wrong.

I wrote myself into a forest and couldn’t find my way out.  I agonized over this for a few days, then I walked away to clear my head.  A few WEEKS later, I sat down and tried again.  I reread everything I’d written, then stared at the blinking cursor, completely unable to figure out what to do next or how to get the character out of the forest.

My writing process tends to be this: write a little, stall, go back, reread everything, edit as I go, get to the point where I stopped before, start writing, write until I stall, rinse and repeat.

80% of the time, I know the beginning of the story and the end, all I have to do is fill in the middle.  In the case of this particular short story, I only had the beginning.  I didn’t know where I wanted to story to go and the character wasn’t really helping me figure it out.  Plus, I added a god to the mix, and that didn’t help at all.

Once again, I set this story aside and worked on other things.  Over the next year and change, I would open up this story often, read through it, chuckle at the humor, frown at the addition of the god, which seems to kill all the momentum of the story, hem, haw, stare at the blinking cursor, then close the story and work on something else.

I finished the novel. I started another one. I keep playing with a third (the space opera).  I wrote a short story that looks like it will be accepted into an anthology.  I wrote another one for an anthology that my writer’s group wants to put out (haven’t submitted that for consideration yet).  Last week, I was on a short story high, of sorts.

Opening up the file yet again, I looked at it a little differently.  I realized that where I stopped writing wasn’t necessarily where the story went south (har har).  That happened earlier, with this:

“An’ then you tell him ah be in the forest,” she added. Pushing herself back to her feet, she headed north towards the trees.

With that little passage, I sent my character into the forest, which lead to the god showing up, and the whole thing derailing.  If I changed that one bit, it would put my character and my story on a different path.  All I had to do was change it.

“Now, take me to your momma,” she commanded.

Sometimes, I think writer’s think that things they write become set in stone.  I kept trying to figure out the next step when really, all I had to do was turn right.  Imagine it like you’re hiking in the mountains.  You have a fork before you and you choose the left path, which leads you to a cliff with a sheer, hundred foot drop.  What are you going to do?  Stand there and stare out at the drop trying to figure out how to build a ladder?  No!  You turn around, head back down to the fork and go right – see where that path takes you.

That’s what I did.  I had 3400 words.  I cut 1000.  Wrote almost 5000 new words and finished the story over the weekend.

Zeia had a pickle. Sour as it was, she enjoyed the crunch while trying to figure out what was going on, and what The Piper was up to.

Every time I finish a story like this, I get a little better and the next time, it gets a little easier.  I’m becoming more comfortable adding humor to my stories too, which is good and important, because I don’t think I could do this without my sense of humor shining through somehow.

To her mind, it weren’t any different than the rattlesnake who moved into her shed one summer. She wouldn’t bother it and get bit, if it didn’t bother her and get stung. Her memaw used to say, “Zeia? There be three kinds of men in the world who can’t be trusted worth a damn; bankers, lawyers, and husbands!”

So, another story down.  More experience gained.  I’m going to be submitting this one to my writer’s group to get some feedback (and of course, I already sent it on to TyBarBary, who gets to read everything).



  • Bud Sparhawk Posted September 22, 2011 10:27 am

    Interesting. I just gave a talk at the Naval Academy about how to go about writing a short story by breaking the story into scenes and rearranging them in an interesting plot line, which is how I go about it.

    • Patrick Hester Posted September 22, 2011 11:28 am


      I do write in scenes thanks to Scrivener, the software that I use for all my writing these days, which gives me the option to do exactly what you describe. It also allows me to write in a non-linear fashion, which is important to me. I tend to see the story in my head as a series of scenes. When I used Word, I would fall into a linear progression of writing and would often find myself stalled because I had the first, second and third scenes written, seven, eight and nine in my head, but had to push through four, five and six to get there, and they weren’t cooperating.

      Realizing that you can cut things that you have already written is a huge accomplishment, and the new/wannabe writer struggles with this idea because it’s like throwing out work and admitting that you’ve wasted time.

      For me, the novel was stalled for this very reason. It wasn’t until I started over, threw out a lot of what I’d already written, that it all flowed again and I was able to finish my vision for the story. 🙂


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