The Recipe for a Great Short Story
(Editor’s Note: John Floyd has written over a half dozen stories for the Strand. His stories are an editor’s dream, they are written cleanly, always have a twist, and contain so much in most of the time under 6,000 words. We’re proud that John has been nominated for an Edgar Award for “200 Feet” which was first published in the Strand Magazine’s winter issue (Feb-May 2014). In this blog, John shares his tips on how to write a gripping and cleanly written short story.)
All writers have certain ways of doing things. Some of us outline, others are free-wheelers; some edit as we go, others wait till the end; some of us assign ourselves page or word “quotas,” or listen to music, or write at specific times of the day or in a favorite place. Whatever our practices and our quirks, we usually know—or we learn, eventually—what we have to do to produce the best result.I once heard that bad instructors say, “This is what you do,” while good instructors say, “This is what I do” and then let the student decide. I like the second approach.The following is “what I do” when I create a short story.Step 1: Pre-writingI always think a lot about the story before the writing begins. In fact, I make a mental map of the entire storyline, scene by scene, start to finish. I confess that that plan might later change direction after I start writing, but that doesn’t matter; I have to have an outline in my head before I ever put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard. This planning/plotting phase is one of the things about writing that I enjoy the most.
Friends have said this need for a “structured” approach is due to my engineering background, but I don’t think so. I think all of us are wired differently, just as some of us are always early to appointments and others are always late. Some writers need to outline either mentally or on paper, and others need to fly by the seat of their pants with no clear direction in mind at the time, improvising as they go. Neither way is right or wrong.
Opponents of outlining say that if they knew beforehand what would happen, that knowledge would stifle their creativity and make the writing process boring. Not true, in my case. Foreknowledge gives me a road map and a destination and saves time. I think it was Tony Hillerman who said that fiction writers don’t need to outline . . . if they know they’re going to live a really long life.
Bottom line is, everyone’s different. Whatever works, works. I outline because I can’t seem to produce successful stories any other way.
Step 2: Writing
The actual writing of the story doesn’t take me long. I’m one of those who believe that rough drafts should be rough. I like to get the whole story down on paper or on my hard drive without worrying much about details or the quality of the writing. For me, the editing comes later.
This is another area where I differ from some of my fellow writers. I know one woman who edits each page as she goes, so that when she’s finished, she’s finished. That apparently works for her—but I can’t even imagine writing a story that way. I would wind up (again) wasting a lot of time because when I go back and do my editing, I edit everything: the beginning, the middle, every scene, every paragraph. Early changes would then necessitate later changes.
When my mental outline is done, I like to sit down and key the first draft of my story into the computer. It might be three pages long and it might be thirty—but I type it all in, right down to the words The End. I might not even have named my characters at that point. The protagonist might be P, the cop might be C, the villain might be V. At least for now.
Step 3: Re-writing
This is the part of story creation that many writers say they especially hate. I don’t. I think the editing and polishing of first and subsequent drafts is fun. The house has already been built, even though it’s unpainted; now I just need to make it look good. This is where I adjust the pacing, tighten up the dialogue, name and rename the characters, pare down the description and exposition, add some snap to the action scenes, delete a boatload of adjectives and adverbs and clichés, and try to catch and repair the grammar errors. Of all these corrections, the streamlining of the dialogue is what I enjoy most.
One of the hardest things about rewriting is knowing when to stop. Somewhere along the way, after x number of drafts, I reach the point where more changes would be counterproductive. When I get there and I feel satisfied that everything’s been said as compactly and clearly as possible, I hit Save one last time, find a possible market for the story, and send it on its way.
That’s my process. I’m not saying this is the best approach or the smartest. It’s just the way I do it.
Whatever works . . .
Current bio: John Floyd’s short stories and features have appeared in more than 200 different publications, including The Strand, AHMM, EQMM, and The Saturday Evening Post. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, he won a Derringer Award in 2007 and is the author of five collections of short mystery fiction. He and his wife Carolyn live in Mississippi. John’s website is www.johnmfloyd.com