The Short Story According To Nik

I am not an expert on short stories. I’m not an expert on anything to be honest. But I am a short story writer, one who’s been published in some fairly spiffing places, and one who teaches writing every so often.

It occurred to me earlier that I don’t really give any advice here, so this post should change that. It’s not comprehensive. Lots will disagree with me, I’m sure. But this is what I think. I hope it helps. And if anyone’s got any of their own I’d love to see them – so do leave a comment.

Here are my tips for anyone wanting to write a good short story or piece of flash fiction.

Start where the story starts, not before. If I was telling you about a fantastic hotel room I’d stayed in I wouldn’t start by telling you about booking the tickets to get there (unless the story was about booking the tickets and ended in the room).

Take out everything, every word, every sentence, every character that isn’t absolutely necessary.

Similarly, only use the right words. Sometimes people do just ‘sit’. Or ‘run’.

Make sure your characters are believable. What they do, or the situations they find themselves in, may be unlikely and fantastical but the way they react to them has to be something that readers will believe.

Be suspicious of anything you think is clever. The story comes first, the story’s what people should notice, not the writer.

Write for you, but spare a thought for the reader too.

Don’t overdo it. Big words are fine if they’re the right ones. Same with descriptions.

Say what you want to say in the simplest, and most effective, way possible. In other words: get to the point.

Aim to be brilliant.

Don’t expect it to be easy. Or quick. Be prepared to work hard.

Don’t be afraid of rewriting. In fact, embrace it; it will make your stories better.

Don’t expect to get it right the first time. You have total control of what can be changed. (I often find also that if a story wants or needs to be changed, then it’ll let you know.)

Trust your instincts. If you suspect something’s not working then it probably isn’t.

Don’t be afraid of putting a story away for a while. Sometimes stories, and your head, need space.

Don’t be afraid of failure. Nothing’s wasted. It’s better to try something new and fail (and perhaps learn something) than to play safe all the time.

Most importantly: BE BRAVE. You have an imagination, use it. Write the story you want to write, write what you think’s good and interesting, even if that means not sticking with the norm. Different, if done well, can be brilliant.

And read the greats. See how they do things. See why they’re the greats.

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Talking of greats and of advice…

18 Comments on “The Short Story According To Nik

  1.  by  Jenn

    This is great. I especially like, 'be brave' – so often I have an idea which I reject almost immediately because I think it's just too silly or too odd. When I look over my work, it's the times when I've forced myself to find a way to make those daft ideas work (fat admirers, glow in the dark deep sea fish?) that my writing really takes off. It's a hard balance, writing for yourself but considering the reader. For me, first drafts are for myself and are always weird, wonderful and unreadable. Second, third, fourth and fifth drafts are about considering the reader. It's tricky.

  2.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks Jenn. And that kind of proves my point. What I think I think is that unusual's interesting and that's the stuff I like to read.And god, yes, considering the reader IS tricky and I don't think I ever get it anywhere close to 100% right. I'm not sure if it's something as simple as asking ourselves: are people going to understand what I've written in a way I'd like them to? Or something.Hiya Gay – always lovely to see you here. Sure, reprint it over at FFC (great site btw). Would you like a bio? Drop me an email and let me know what I need to do…Nik

  3.  by  Marisa Birns

    Well thought, well said.Thank you for your tips and for including Kurt Vonnegut's advice. I wondered what cockroaches really liked to eat.

  4.  by  Nik Perring

    Thanks Helen – and lovely to see you here. Not sure you need my advice considering your successes of late though!And thanks Marisa – lovely to see you here too. Mr Vonnegut clearly knew his cockroaches!Nik

  5.  by  Teresa Stenson

    Good advice, and it's interesting how one or two will jump out at each individual writer and strike a chord.I was intrigued by Vonnegut's last one – 'to hell with suspense' – I find that really interesting, I've never really heard anyone say that the reader should be so 'in' on what's happening that they could finish the story, but what a thought that a reader could be so involved that they could feel confident enough to do that.

  6.  by  Jenzarina

    Kurt Vonnegut, what a genius, "should cockroaches eat the last few pages.."I am currently stuck on a short short story and will go back to it with all ths in mind.Thanks!

  7.  by  Nik Perring

    Rachel – thanks! Happy to help!Thanks Michelle. I try… :)Teresa, that's a funny one for me too. What I think he means is something more along the lines of Give The Reader All The Information They Need. I think suspense can come as a result of that. Or somethingHi Jen. Did it help…?Pleasure, Susannah. And yes, Kurt's the master.Nik

  8.  by  Nicola Morgan

    Nik – I just came across this. It's great, with very personal additions to the "how to write" library. I'd like to use it as the basis for a blog post, if I may?

  9.  by  Nik Perring

    Course you can, Nicola – it'd be a pleasure.Could you let me know when it's up and link and all that jazz?I think the one thing I probably should have included (but didn't because I'd waffled about it before) would be that 'a good idea doesn't always make a good story' but, you know, I forgot. :)Nik

  10.  by  steeleweed

    Another blog for me to follow :-)"Take out everything, every word, every sentence, every character that isn't absolutely necessary.""Write for you, but spare a thought for the reader too."Sounds remarkably like my favorite novelist, John Masters, describing how he learned to write.KV's best is #4 – every sentence reveals character or advances plot.

  11.  by  Nik Perring

    Hello there Steelweed – thanks for dropping by. Glad you could take something away from this (and I shall look up Mr Masters – he sounds like he talks sense!). Ha!Thanks again. And yes, KV definitely knew his stuff.Nik

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