Learn to Write Fiction – The New York Times


Though some people have knocked out an entire short story in a single sitting, it’s more realistic to see writing a story not as an inspiration-fueled creative binge but as a multiweek project. It’s one you’re a lot likelier to finish if, rather than waiting for the muse, you create the possibility for inspiration by planning a time and setting up the circumstances that will allow you to write regularly. It also should be fun! The act of constructing plots, developing characters and creating dialogue can be challenging, even frustrating, but I never find it boring, and it just might allow you to escape from your daily life at the same time that you access the most imaginative parts of your own brain.

Here’s a one-month plan for completing your first short story.

Step 1: Look at your calendar and decide in advance which day(s) and time(s) you’ll write. An ideal schedule might be for two hours each on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but whatever you can manage is fine.

Though your story also can be any length you want — short stories encapsulate everything from flash fiction, which can be just a few paragraphs, to Alice Munro’s epic 70-pagers — it’s useful to have a rough idea of how long it will take to write. Different writers set different daily goals for themselves, shooting for 500 words (or 250 or 1,000) or writing for a set length of time, including using something known as the Pomodoro Technique that breaks your workday into 25-minute chunks. (You can keep track of your progress in the space at right.)

Also to do in advance: Decide where you’ll write and what has to happen so that when your first writing session arrives, you’re ready. Will you sit at your kitchen table? Go to a park? Do you need to acquire a notebook, or do plot research ahead of time?

Step 2: If you haven’t already, decide what your story is about. The most important criterion is not that it sounds impressive or even interesting to someone else; it’s that you find it interesting.

This part is optional (though, of course, when it comes to fiction, it’s actually all optional) but writing an outline, even if you use almost none of it, can be incredibly helpful. For example, a one-sentence summary can correspond to one scene, or the action in a particular place and time, demarcated by space breaks on the page.

Create an outline by repeatedly asking yourself what will happen next. Thinking in terms of scenes and structure increases the likelihood that your story will be story-like — that it will be about something happening, something changing, versus being a more static slice of life.

If you have a favorite short story or two, it can be illuminating to reverse-engineer them by creating their outlines and thereby better understand how they were made. (Do this with a friend, for the same story, to see if you’re in agreement about what constitutes a scene.)

Step 3: Write! Or, during your scheduled writing times, don’t write — that’s totally acceptable, too. Just don’t do anything else. Don’t start cleaning. Don’t look at Twitter. Don’t order groceries. You can jot down errand-like obligations that occur to you, but don’t actually do them. If you’re using a computer, many writers swear by Internet-blocking apps such as Freedom. Instead of checking facts while writing, like confirming what year the song your character is listening to was released, just put a question mark or the journalistic placeholder “TK” in the manuscript and check later.

Step 4: Keep writing. And for now, don’t worry about quality and don’t think about potential readers. Your goal is not to write a great story but to finish a story. It’s normal if there’s a huge discrepancy between how good you envisioned your story being and how clumsy your actual sentences seem. In fact, it would be surprising if there were not a huge discrepancy.

Don’t start each session by rereading or revising what you’ve already written. A tip from Chris Offutt, an English professor at the University of Mississippi: When you start writing for the day, look only at the last sentence from your previous writing session. If, midway through writing a story, you decide it should be set in Milwaukee instead of St. Louis, don’t go back and change all the geographical references; move forward with the knowledge you’ll fix it later.

Also, if in doubt, just try something. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself (no one has to know). It’s difficult to assess an idea when it’s only in your head so write what you want to write.

Step 5: After you’ve finished your first draft, read your story in its entirety once. Maybe this is as far as you want to take it. If so, congratulations — you did it!

If you want to improve your story, put it away for at least a week then start revising. This is the time to worry about quality and think about potential readers, and after completing a second draft, you might be ready to seek out feedback (though be honest with yourself, and any readers, about whether you’re looking for constructive criticism or affirmation).

If the idea of continuing to smooth out the messiness of your work feels weirdly exhilarating, if multiple additional stories are burbling inside you, if completing a draft or two makes you suspect you’re at the beginning of a journey rather than the end of one, you also deserve congratulations. You just might be a writer.

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novel “Rodham” and the story collection “You Think It, I’ll Say It” and the guest editor of the 2020 “Best American Short Stories” anthology. Join Ms. Sittenfeld on Thursday, August 6 at 6 p.m. Eastern for a conversation about writing. Share successes and tips and get help overcoming roadblocks. Send your first sentence to [email protected] with the subject line “My Short Story” and it may be read live. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com for event details.

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