Finding the Pony — Short story workshop, 9 or 10 or 11 or something*

Finding the Pony


Okay, so you’ve gone back and read your long ago story. And you’ve decided what you wanted to say with it (I hope) and figured out if you’re staying it properly.

At this point you have three options.

First – your story is perfect. Stop laughing. Sometimes a story is. There are stories that come out all right even when you have clue zero what you’re doing. My first two sold stories were like that. And you might not have noticed it will you read it now, because sometimes being too close also dulls your perception of the good things in a story. Also, sometimes, what you intended to write was different (or longer. Or more complex) but what you have works fine.

If your story is perfect or only needs some very minor polish (which we deal with in one of the next posts) decide how you’re going to market it (which also will be dealt with in future post.)


Second – Your story is a mess. I mean. It’s just… You should have different character. Why does your character spend all his/her time shoveling horse poop in a story about spaceships? And that trick at the end? It just didn’t work.

Take a deep breath. Take the story. Put it in a drawer. Lock the drawer. Resist the need to look in it (I don’t advocate throwing it away or burning it, because even the lamest story will sometimes have a sentence that sparks SOMETHING new and wonderful.)

Now that the story is locked away, remember what you wanted to say. Give it some thought. What is the best way to tell your story? Character? Setting? Problem? Right. Now, write the story completely fresh. This is calling recasting, and it usually turns out much better.


Third… The story is good, but there are these… these things… that… well! They just don’t fit.

There are levels here.

At the first level, you have something like 11k words, that should be maybe 3k words, and it’s time to get out the shovel and start looking for the pony.

Signs that this might be the case (a non-exhaustive list): your characters spend a lot of time doing something that has nothing to do with what the story is about, like shopping, say; your characters have conversations in the middle of the story that have nothing to do with the story; there’s like three action sequences that don’t solve anything. Etc.

At the second level, you have 2k words that should be 11k and it’s time to consider that maybe you wrote the outline of a short story.

Signs this might be the case: you introduce five characters in the first three paragraphs, and we don’t know anything about them except names and maybe hair color. In fact, we’re not sure who is the main one; some of your characters don’t even have names (and we’re not talking the waitress who takes the order.); the rape scene takes exactly three lines and no one who hasn’t read your mind knows a rape happened. (Yeah, I did this. Once. I was young.)

At the third level, you have a whole story there, but the parts are either out of order or bizarrely emphasized. Say, your characters spend most of the story talking over breakfast and only two paragraphs fighting the dragon. (Mind you, this can work for a certain type of story, but if the story is about fighting dragons… it’s probably not right.)

So… it’s time to set about fixing it. This is a complicated process which will extend to next week. So bear with me.

First thing – a story is not necessarily a narrative. Not in fiction. You can tell the entire story of a novel, for instance, in a page. You know this because the story is the blurb with the end tacked on. But that’s not why we read novels. And it certainly isn’t why we read short stories.

Fiction is not a way to convey information but a way to convey experience. And much of that experience consists in sharing the emotions of the character.

Before you think I want you to write weepy, bathos-driven stories, be not afraid. Since you are a fiction writer (my love) you’re in no danger of writing fantasies of dinosaurs ripping out people in an orgy of revenge fantasy and mistake that for a story. Or at least if you are, we’ll learn you better. Ahem.

But if you think about it, even in the most action-driven story, the fear before a fight is an emotion. Triumph or defeat is an emotion. The horror of violent death is an emotion.

And the emotion, that riding-along-with is why people are reading the story. They’re reading for the experience.

So the first thing I want you to decide is what you want your characters to experience and share with the readers.

And then I want you to go in and mark everything that doesn’t belong, and everything that should be there but isn’t.

Next week: Riding Shotgun – taking your reader along for the fun. Parts that need to be expanded; parts that need to be cut; why is your character drinking coffee again; and the anatomy of a story, revisited.

* The ability to count is a tool of the patriarchy.  Stop oppressing me.


      1. Tried yes, but always true, and never found wanting.
        I’m sure you were busy seeing that Dan had a very happy birthday.

  1. Thank you so much for this piece. I am in the middle of a major revision and your suggestion to focus on what I really want to say–and taking a hatchet to the rest–is useful. Since the whole point for me is what my main character discovers about himself… well, you can see why I found your workshop helpful.

  2. Many years ago at a con I posited in a discussion group that the quickest way to break into the SF market was to write short stories in the 5-7.5k range. My reasoning was that at that time there was an active healthy market in the SF magazine world and editors were always looking for that short short to fill an annoying gap left when one of their regulars turned in a story and a half that could not be cut down in time to make print. Still had to be half way decent, and you’d never get rich at 3-5 cents a word, but it would get you in the door and change your status from wannabe to published author.
    Personally, back at that time I was making pin money writing short humor for several men’s magazines. Definitely not a path to riches, and no consideration to give up the day job, but a little something extra was nice.
    Today the majority of the SF short story market has dried up and blown away. But now we have indie. So, my question, seems to me like someone with a talent for clever and entertaining short stories would do well sticking them out there at 99 cents. Or am I mistaken?
    I do realize the goal in this scenario would be quantity, and that crap only sells as fertilizer, not entertainment, but still…

    1. When did you advise that?
      I took it as gospel, because all the books said to do this, but if I could have those years back!
      You see, I’m a natural novelist. Taking a detour through learning short stories took me 10 years just about. And it turns out that — we calculated this late one drunken night in the con suite at world fantasy — given the number of slots available and that more people write shorts than novels (we had editors and slush readers for both and that was what we discovered) it was ten times easier to break in in novels.
      Which most of my contemporaries did.

      1. This was at least 40 years ago, back when there were at least a dozen paying SF magazines of one sort or other. Long ago and far away.
        Thanks for the input on the lack of a short story market with indie. One may eventually grow, but would have to overcome the cheap means bad philosophy of the buying public.
        Guess I’m gonna have to bite the bullet and do a full length novel.
        Or I could sell blood once a month. I hear that pays well.

        1. I thought it was illegal to sell blood?

          Ok, the only real reason I made this comment was to subscribe to comments.

          1. Back in the stone age {about 45 years ago}, taking a lit class, the breakdown for short stories was up to 12k words, a novella was 30k words, and novels started at 40k. I don’t really understand the void between the novella and novel.

            In the sixties thru the early 80’s, there really was a lot of pocket books sold that the word count went from 40k to 60k.

            It was late in the 80s when word count started it’s inevitable climb. I’m also certain that the higher word counts account for some of the unreadable junk that has been published through the 90’s to the present.

      2. I wonder if the short story principles could be applied to serialized tales. There seems to be an upswing in that style coming back. Not sure if it’s coming back in the paying realms or just in the popular-to-be-read-if-it-can-be-gotten-for-free realms. *leaves salt here for unsubstantiated observations*

        1. My middle brother’s been having some success at JukePop Serials, and I’ve tried it with a couple of items. However, I’m starting to think that serialization works best with *long* novels, and a shorter work just doesn’t get a chance to build momentum before it’s over. And unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that readers from one serialized novel will necessarily carry over to another.

          1. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘related shorts run in serial’. That’s good to know about Jukepop. I’ve been rather curious about them.

      3. I kinda figured that shorts don’t sell (Although you can give them away like mad), That’s why I’m working on expanding my Baen Fantasy short into a novel.

        (Thought I’d be incommunicado, but yay free hotel wi-fi.)

      4. How about stuff in the middle, what used to be the “unpublishable void,” somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 words? I have several pieces that are around 10,000 words or that I set aside when they started determinedly heading into the 20,000-30,000 range. If there’s a decent market for them out there, I might just dust them back off and get them up.

        OTOH, it looks like shorts may well work best as loss leaders when it’s time to promote your (latest) novel. I think it was here that someone was talking about setting their short stories all to free for a few days around the release date for the novel in order to get the boost in Amazon, but I don’t remember exactly how that worked. (Having a pile of short stories and being in the process of rewriting two old novels for indie publishing, I’m trying to bone up on how best to do this indie thing).

        1. Its not just indie where the lower word counts don’t sell well. For a while, 47 North was selling novellas {under 30k words} related to the Mongoliad series once a month. As an experiment it didn’t really pan out, in fact in the reviews there were a couple of people that complained about having to spend $1.99 on something as short as they were.

      5. I like short stories. If the day job is eating my lunch and I’m producing 500 words on a good day, I am not up to the emotional commitment of a novel. But I still want some fiction.

  3. My experience too. I have a collection of shorts. People don’t buy them. The time spent writing them was wasted as far as income, and they aren’t any easier to do. No idea why.
    I spread a lot of pony poo around – I write about ordering champagne and hanging art on the walls of the orbital home and why an old shuttle looks threadbare and worn. All I can say is some people like it and don’t want me to wrap it all up in twenty pages that are all Biff – Bam and exploding space ships.

  4. So… I was getting my hair done… I think that it would be possible to publish “waiting room” fiction collections. I realize that there are magazines aplenty, but they generally aren’t fiction.

  5. Sooo good to know that about shorts not selling so much. I tried to write a short story to explain some character background to myself, and it turned into 18000+ plus words. I’m not big on reading short stories much, either, unless it promises to be a serial. Okay. Back to the 110k tome. All advice here will help in Ch 16. Which suddenly decided it needed major revision…

      1. It’s a good thing. To quote CS Lewis (iirc) “there’s no such thing as a cup of tea too large, or a book too large.”

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