Short Stories and other High Wire Acts – introduction



A mini workshop in multiple parts.


Do you guys remember when I did “May you write interesting books?” Well, this is the same thing. I will do a mini-workshop over ten or twelve weeks (depending on how tightly I need to explain some things) maybe longer if you ask questions I have to answer.

Then I’ll collect the posts, edit them, and put them up for sale on Amazon as a book called something like the title.


So, to begin with, why write short stories at all?

Well, I – a natural novelist (my first work in English was 40k words, but only because half of it was in my head) – learned to write short stories because everyone who “knew” assured me this was the way to break in.


“But Sarah,” you say, “we’re no longer constrained to the magazines as a way to break in. If you were a beginner now, you could start putting your novels up until one sold enough to get you noticed.”


Um… yes, and no. To be fair, I was misinformed. The short stories as a means of breaking in, weren’t effective even back in the eighties. But I’m glad I learned to write them quickly and well, anyway.


First, because at several tight spots in my life, they’ve provided the money needed to pay the rent. This usually comes of someone with an anthology asking “can you write a story for me in two hours?” because they had a hole in their anthology. And I can. So I get money. The biggest instance of it was in 2003 when nothing else was selling, but I made 5k from short stories, at an average of $300 a piece.


But since even the anthology market isn’t what it was, it behooves me to tell you the greatest use I’ve found for my short stories, both those published and those in the drawer is to put them up for free on Amazon. Whenever I run a short story for free my income for the month doubles from its baseline at the time. People are more willing to invest in your novels if they know they like your writing. This is why writers used to write for magazines, so people would buy their novels, and that mechanic is the same again.


Having taken short stories apart, to learn how to put one together quickly, I have the advantage of not just over 100 short stories published, but also the ability to write short stories very quickly.


“But Sarah,” you say. (My, aren’t you the talkative one?) “Why do we need to learn to write short stories as a separate thing? Aren’t they the same thing as novels? Good writing is good writing, right?”


Yes, good writing is good writing, but if you’re not a short story writer, I often find that what you end up producing is a good first chapter onto which you tacked an ending more or less willy nilly. Some people who do this are bestselling authors, but only write novels.

You’re not a bestselling author (if you are, why are you reading my ramblings?) and particularly if you’re indie, the shorts can help you sell your novel. But for that, you need to be good at it, and you need to be fast. Both proceed from understanding the structure thoroughly.


Short stories differ from novels because you have to pack more into a much shorter length. The only way to do this is to leave a lot more under the rug. But for this not to have a feel of being just an incomplete story, you need to know how to suggest and hint details.


Which brings us to the first element of a successful short story:

You should have a strong voice for everything, if you can. But for short stories you have to have a strong voice, one authoritative enough to cover a multitude of sins.

We shall explore short story voice in the next post.



The second element is plot. Again, you should have a strong plot in everything you write, but a short story must be tightly plotted, and it must make every line count. I’ll teach you a few structures to accomplish this.


The third element is emotional punch. Again, yep, your novels should affect readers emotionally. Readers don’t read fiction for facts. They read non-fiction for that. But your short stories should pack a disproportionate emotional punch. Or at least they should if you’re going to use them as loss leaders to attract people to your blogs.


Emotional punch is tied in with the two previous elements, but it also depends on a third one: theme.


In a novel you can wander about in search of a theme, have many themes in one book, or have a theme that sneaks up on you, or a theme you didn’t even know was there.


In a plot, to perfect voice, plot and emotional punch you must have a theme in mind.


The theme CAN be something universal “Be kind to cats” or something personal “How Mary learned not to fear cats” but it must be strong and emphasized by every part of the story.


Yes, I know, your head hurts now. Next week I shall guide you on your tour of the underworld short story writing.


Meanwhile if you have doubts or questions, please comment below.



  1. Could you talk about the impact writing fast (ie not having time to think through all the second and third order effects) on plot (and character) in a larger universe/series that has (or, hopefully will have) novel length works?

    1. I think what you’re asking me is how to write advisedly without fouling your own nest.
      Yeah, I can talk about that.
      Curiously, as a side note, both older son and I are going to try an experiment where we write episodic novels as shorts (or in my case novellas) and put them up once a month or a week, then collect it all into a “novel” with some additional material. I’ll let you know how it goes.
      As an additional note, novellas or really long shorts (the definition of novella varies — but I consider anything over 10k words a novella — are better for indie, because, if they’re longish (say 15k words) you can sell them for 2.99 and get the 70% rate.

  2. This may seem obvious, but can you talk a little about target story length and does it vary by publishing platform?

    With short stories, do you start with a word count in mind and write to that?

    Will we get to see any editing examples?

    Thanks for doing this.

  3. This could be interesting, and maybe even fun. So, if no one minds, I’m going to settle down in the corner over there and listen. I seem unable to write anything under 20,000, even in my writing club where I don’t have to establish the setting or character. When I do manage to “keep it short”, I seem to miss “the point”.

  4. I have an old short story I wrote that I am going to rewrite. I was originally going to just ‘file the serial numbers off’ and put it up, but it was originally part of a triad of short stories, the ending is going to be changed, and as I started replotting it, its ending up longer and longer…

  5. Ooo. I still remember my first deliberate attempt to write a short story. I think I had 12K words of worldbuilding teetering on a tiny bit of action where I was trying _so_ hard to not hurt these characters I liked . . .

  6. OH, joy! Just the right time!
    I published ‘Ants’ on Amazon yesterday, but so far I’m not able to offer it free except through a Kindle Select promotion. That starts tomorrow and runs for a week, by the way.
    So if it’s not too much trouble, can you explain how to price the story at zero? I suspect I made a mistake when I listed the story, but I haven’t a clue what it was.

    1. You can’t price your story at 0 on Amazon except by using the KDP select program, or by listing it for perma-free elsewhere and waiting for Amazon to find that and drop your price to 0 (this takes a while, I’m waiting on them with a story I dropped to free abut 2 weeks ago). Doing a free promotion and rolling it between several stories seems to work, that is what I’ve been doing. And need to go set up one now, thanks for reminding me.

  7. I’m looking forward to this series, but frightened about the need for a point. The first short I planned to publish (for the marketing reasons you describe), appears to have the point that teenage girls are mean to their mothers. I’m sure there’s a demographic for that, but ….. hmmm. It’s also about withholding information, but, still.

  8. Short stories are useful for me because they teach me how to introduce information and detail in a compressed fashion without wasting words. Of course, then my short stories mutate into goat-gaggers, but that’s another issue alltogether. 😛

  9. One of the comments I frequently get is the “this seems like the start of a novel”… the other is a series of questions about the background and setting. I suspect that these are two ends of the same problem and at least somewhat related to writing in science fiction and fantasy and needing to include just enough, but not too much, world building.

    I’m looking forward to this series. I’ve got a bunch of stories to edit and rewrite… That also may not be the best plan. A better plan might be to just start fresh. I donno.

    1. I am hesitant to weigh in, for the “just starting out and giving advice already” reasons that Sarah mentioned. That said, I recommend starting fresh. Some of the most useful writing advice I’ve encountered is to not do much, if any, editing. Proofing, yes. Some sentence work, sure. Revision or rewriting? I get better results by writing something else, and applying what I learned from the previous work to that. On the gripping hand, that means you need to finish them before starting something new. And my virtual desk is littered with unfinished projects.

      1. When you’re starting out you can’t edit. I was told the same, and I was right. You’ll know when you can. No, seriously. You’ll look at a work you put away years ago and go “Oh, wow, if I Move that scene, remove that one, and put in a tie-in paragraph this thing will go from crap to masterpiece.”
        Mind you, you can write good stories long before you can edit. You can also, even as a pro, write novels that an editor tells you “I hate that portion, can you change it?” and you look at it and go “I see your point. No, I can’t.” Whether that’s inherent to the story I wanted to tell or to my professional stage, I don’t know. But I will. In time.

        1. I know this is true. I can copy edit all over everywhere, but edit for content? Nope. That’s been true all the way back to, what? junior high? Earlier?

          The thing looks like what I sat down and wrote, changes would be something else.

          Particularly frustrating when you’re pretty sure changes would make things better but you can’t quite get an idea.

  10. I’ve written short stories in the past to cover a one day event or something. Then this Baen Short Story came up. The story took maybe two weeks; then the real work came in. I didn’t know how much work that could be either. Real learning experience so I’ll keep up with the instructions. But, it does make me think that like Christopher stated, it is an idea for a new novel. Perhaps, when I learn that it isn’t a Baen contender, I can write a story, then put the short story up as a freebie to sell the novel. That’s what I like about this site, more help everyday.

  11. This is pretty good timing. I started writing a story for the Baen contest, but didn’t make the deadline due to life happening, but I’m looking to finish it anyway, and it will make good practice while following these.

  12. Maybe a group of us could write, or polish, a short story concurrent with this workshop and trade them around for feedback at its conclusion?

      1. As long as there are no parent-teacher conferences and I can’t get suspended for making a gun with my fingers – I’m in.

        1. And no uniforms.

          And no getting yelled at for reading ahead of the rest of the class. Or for drawing dragons in the margins.

          And we can bring our own lunch.

          1. Ugh, reading ahead of the class used to get me in so much trouble. Let’s punish the kids who like to read…sigh.

            I’m excited about short stories now. Jotting down ideas when I should be working on my novel length WIP. It’s not really procrastinating if you’re doing ground work on something else is it?

      2. o.O I graduated from college in 2007. (Considered leaving the typo of ‘20007’ in just so people would ask what calendar.) No homework for me, thanks. Especially since… writing homework, after spending at least half my day writing? no thanks.

      3. You realize that if you assign homework you have to grade the homework, right?

      4. That would be great. I have a story I don’t know how to end, and this might make my brain pretend its useful.

  13. I’m currently keeping my eyes open for ways to improve my short story process.

    Question: Suppose I figure out how to produce salable shorts, but do not figure out longer stories. Is there an indy way to make money purely off shorts?

  14. There isn’t enough time to write short! *runs*

    Okay seriously. How do you re-read your stuff? Without sitting on it for a month, then discovering it’s not enough time? Or forcing your beloved to read through it line by line explaining all the stuff to you that doesn’t make sense or you didn’t write down? (Thank God I have a beloved like that. Not sure I could write otherwise…) He insists on me telling you I didn’t have to force him, he did it quite willingly. I guess this means our respective insanities are compatible.

  15. Looking forward to it.

    I freely admit that don’t have a handle on short stories.
    Mine are either compressed novellas or flash that’s just barely long enough to have a denouement.
    (Seriously, what was going to initially be my entry into the Baen contest wound up running around 700 words. I established the setting, character, voice, hit my plot points, and hammered the theme, but it wound up being more of an intro into a bigger story than anything else. It’s probably pretty close to an object lesson in “how not to do this”.)

  16. Timely. I’m working on (too many, too many!!) shorts in a couple-three universes for craft honing purposes (it’s not procrastination…), and getting good info is a… No scrap the niceties, it sucks.

    I had a great deal of fun with the Baen contest because I was writing toward a target, not just playing with story ideas, and because I had a word cap. (D@mnable word cap!) These things forced me to tighten things up, to decide why something needed to be in the story, what purpose is it serving? None? CUT IT!! Oh, it’s essential? Chop it down, pare the edges, slice off the extra bits.

    It’s possible I sliced a bit too deep in a place or two, I may have dropped clues that readers will miss and so have gaping holes. The character arcs may feel rushed or unrealistic. I dunno.

    But I liked it when I reached the end. I felt like it punched in the right spots and pulled where it needed to. And I think I learned some things.

    ‘Course, then I started on the final edits and I hated it. Crass, obvious, hackneyed thing that it was.

    When I get it back after the contest I’m going to go over it again and see how I feel. There’s a novel that wants to be following it, but it’s not quite clear, yet. In the meantime, there’s a side-story working its way up in the same universe and I’m poking at that on screen even now.

  17. Awesome. 😡

    My current publishing plans call for me writing two short stories before working on a longer piece. Except every time I brainstorm for the short pieces, they end up immediately insisting they are, at least, short novels. It’s getting very frustrating.

  18. Oh! How about one that comes up every little bit? “I wrote a story and someone said Arthur C. Clarke wrote something about it in 1940 so it isn’t original.” I.e., when every story is one of the 3/7/20 basic plots, how can we tell new ones?

    1. IMO the short answer is that you don’t. [Smile]

      A longer answer (and Sarah likely will give a better one) is that a good/fair writer can make a good story out of an old plot by creating new ways to use the plot along with characters that the reader can enjoy.

      “Trouble With Tribbles” was very similar to an idea that Heinlein used in _The Rolling Stones_ and Heinlein “stole” the idea from another author.

      It doesn’t matter if the plot is old. What matters is what the writer does with the old plot.

      1. Sure. In fact, I’ve written, raved, and otherwise importuned to the effect that we can even re-use those tired old plots with a good rinse and lather. And then I get friends being swatted for “telling tired old stories.” I just thought perhaps Sarah would be kind enough to give her spin on why you don’t always have to make something so new that no one knows how to read it… which is the real danger with the “demand for newness” that some folks will tell you is necessary to science fiction and fantasy.

        Tribbles and flat cats… well, maybe. But part of the lesson I would take from that is that those are very different stories, even if the idea of a rapidly reproducing alien pet is reused. Heck, I don’t remember any Buster in Star Trek…

          1. Don’t remember hearing about Enid Blyton but IIRC in England stories set in non-magical schools (where the children lived full-time at the schools) were common with the children having adventures. [Smile]

  19. Great! A chance to find out what I’m doing wrong. (And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I know there are things I need to do different/ do better.)

  20. I’m looking forward to this, as it might give me advice on doing short episodic series of stories / novellas / chapter-like novellas (I was thinking of the Light Novel format and then later compiling them into novels / anthologies.

    Pondering about doing them up by chapter for free on Deviantart (due to the inclusion of illustrations… hahahaha I’m being very ambitious!) and then releasing in novella form later, then compiling in novel form. Might be interesting.

    My brain’s got several series set up on that; one an overarching epic, another is a series of short stories with a similar theme, and a few other thoughts on the line. I also kept getting told that the story I submitted to Baen’s contest feels like it should keep on going as a series…

    Quite excited and scared and nervous all at the same time…!

      1. Yeah, I’ve been drawn to the light novel format since I saw bits and pieces of the original The Slayers light novels. I’m still unhappy that Tokyopop so quickly cut the publication of that one (In fact, they did not finish translating the 15 light novels, which were re-issued with new covers!)

        *sigh* I sure hope someone picks up the license and re-releases them. (Ditto for the manga, Emma: Victorian Romance)

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